Following a bout with an illness over the past few days, Byron Buxton was feeling well enough to take the field in the fifth inning against the Tigers at Comerica Park on Tuesday. It’s safe to say he looked no worse for the wear.
On Opening Day, Buxton hit the longest home run of his career. On Tuesday, he hit the ball harder than ever before. In his first plate appearance back on the field, the Twins’ center fielder continued his early power surge with a game-tying solo blast that soared an estimated 451 feet into the left-field bleachers. Minnesota couldn’t finish the job in extra innings, stranding a runner at third in the 10th before the Tigers took a 4-3 victory on Akil Baddoo’s walk-off single.
“Watching [Buxton] just completely change ballgames single-handedly is just something that never gets old,” Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli said.
That no-doubt homer off Tigers right-hander José Cisnero left Buxton’s bat at 114.1 mph, and the ball fell only five feet shy of the career-long mark he set on Thursday with a 456-foot blast in Milwaukee. It was still good for another record, as it marked the highest exit velocity of any batted ball in Buxton’s career, besting a 113.6 mph double he hit on July 5, 2019.
All that weightlifting from the offseason -- two-a-day workouts, six days a week -- looks to be more than paying off in Buxton’s early results, and his newfound power doesn’t look to be compromising his approach at the plate. His three homers this season have come against three different pitch types -- Eric Yardley’s sider, Corbin Burnes’ cutter and, now, Cisnero’s four-seam fastball -- and has also drawn two walks to complement his double and trio of blasts.
“He’s not going up there swinging aimlessly,” Baldelli said. “He’s going up there with a plan. He knows the pitches that he is looking to attack and do damage on, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
The experience Buxton has accumulated over parts of seven seasons helps. Consider, for example, his homer on Thursday off Yardley, a sidewinding Brewers reliever. Buxton had two strikeouts and a walk at that point, and he felt he hadn’t swung at a good pitch. But he remembered facing Yardley in 2020. He knew he’d get a slider at some point.
“I was like, ‘You know what? This is what he’s going to try to do to me,’” Buxton said. “I went up there and had a plan.”
He got one, and he didn’t miss.
Another thing that Buxton has discovered is that he can sit on offspeed pitches when he’s at the plate because he’s got more confidence that pitchers won’t be able to throw fastballs by him. Though he’s struggled to make contact with breaking and offspeed pitches, he’s always had a good track record on fastballs, and his 22.3 percent whiff rate against heaters last year was bested by only Luis Arraez, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler among Twins starters.
The results back that up. Buxton's homer off Burnes came on a 95.7 mph cutter that was spotted at the knees on the outside corner -- and Buxton went the other way with it and popped it 411 feet to right-center. Tuesday’s big fly came in from Cisnero’s hand at 96.4 mph and exited the ballpark at 114.1 mph.
“I feel confident enough now where it doesn’t really matter what you throw to me,” Buxton said. “I’ll sit on breaking pitches. I’m starting to realize how quick my hands are to react to those fastballs. Once you get to that point, it’s pretty scary.”
Buxton entered Tuesday with a .616 slugging percentage since the start of the 2020 season, ranking sixth among all hitters with at least 100 plate appearances in that time. He and Nelson Cruz finished the game tied with several others atop the MLB home run leaderboard at three after Cruz continued to torment the Tigers with his third homer in two games, a seventh-inning blast to right field that drew the Twins within one run.
Entering the season, it might have sounded far-fetched to think that Buxton could hold his own with Cruz in the power department -- but Baldelli claims his center fielder could be “taking this thing to the next level” in 2021.
"I wouldn't even attempt to tell you what I think it looks like, because he can do things that others don't do out on the field,” Baldelli said.