Buxton looks to heal, make '20 a breakout year

When he was on the field, game-changing talent was plain to see

October 11th, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS -- was determined to make this year different.

Fueled by the frustration of an underwhelming, injury-plagued 2018 campaign and the sting of being left in Triple-A during September callup season that year, Buxton went home to Georgia during the offseason and worked by himself to bulk up, simplify his swing, clear his head and renew his focus for the future. He arrived at Spring Training up 21 pounds and without a leg kick in his swing -- the fruits of his offseason labor.

Two steps forward, one step back.

This season offered Buxton a clean slate to erase the struggles of '18 and prove, once again, that he can be a foundational piece of this franchise's contending future. He did that. When healthy, Buxton built on the promise of his successful 2017 campaign and was one of the most productive and valuable players in baseball, combining line-drive ability and speed on the basepaths with his transformative defense in center field. He was among MLB's leaders in doubles and WAR when he was in the lineup.

But once again, he couldn't stay healthy -- and much of it was out of his control. First, he missed time with a bruised right wrist after he was hit by a pitch. Next, it was concussion-like symptoms after his head slammed into the ground on a diving catch. And finally, his season ended after he sustained a torn labrum on a collision with an outfield wall.

And therein lies the dichotomy of Buxton's career on full display once more: tantalizing, game-changing talent, coupled with an unfortunate injury history that forces the Twins to examine how they can keep their center fielder in the lineup. But there's a difference at the end of 2019: He is less of a question mark, having shown that his outstanding '17 isn't necessarily an outlier -- or even the extent of his full potential.

What went right?

When Buxton was on the field, not much didn't go right. He posted career-bests across the board with a .262/.314/.513 line and he demolished his career-high in doubles, with 30 two-baggers in only 87 games. His strikeout rate was lower than it had ever been, while his hard-hit rate and average exit velocity soared. His line-drive rate, barrel rate and whiff rate were all career-bests. That is to say: All of his peripherals showed the makings of a young hitter taking a noticeable step forward.

All the while, he played his trademark game-changing defense in center field. Even while active for only half the season, Buxton's 12 outs above average, as measured by Statcast, were fifth-best in baseball, and he caught the highest percentage of balls in the field considered five-star difficulty (36.4 percent) among all qualified outfielders this year.

It's no surprise, then, that Buxton still finished tied for seventh place on the Twins with 2.7 WAR, according to FanGraphs, despite missing nearly half of the season.

"[Buxton] was, for the early part of the year, close to halfway through the year, he was one of the best players in baseball," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said in September. "I mean, you can spin it any way you want and look at the numbers any way you want. There were very few players in baseball [who] were more valuable than him to that point, and obviously, then, we got to the point where we were dealing with some of the injuries."

What went wrong?

The exact moment it all went wrong was with one out in the bottom of the second inning of the Twins' series finale against the Marlins on Aug. 1. Miami outfielder Harold Ramirez drilled a fly ball into the right-center field gap, and Buxton couldn't snare the ball as he sprinted and leapt on the warning track. His cap flew off as his left shoulder hit the outfield wall at Marlins Park.

The initial diagnosis was a left shoulder subluxation (partial dislocation), but Buxton first hit a setback while swinging on a rehab assignment with Class A Cedar Rapids and then attempted a comeback as a defensive replacement and baserunner in September. He then saw a specialist and ultimately opted to undergo season-ending surgery for a torn labrum in his left shoulder. His comeback bid incomplete, Buxton was forced to watch the Twins' first appearance in the American League Division Series since 2010 from the bench.

"I wanted to try to do everything I could to rehab and get back," Buxton said following his surgery. "Cedar Rapids was kind of the insurance of me knowing what I needed to do next. The toughest thing was me accepting that I had to have surgery. Being a kid, you always hear, 'You don't ever want nobody to cut on,' and things like that. It was one of those situations where I wanted to do anything I could."

Best moment

For all the Twins' home run-hitting prowess this year, one of their most head-scratching developments was their season-long futility with the bases loaded, when they posted a Major League-worst 41 wRC+ and only two grand slams. One of those was Miguel Sanó's blast at Progressive Field in September to essentially seal the AL Central title for the Twins.

The other one belonged to Buxton. On May 18, Buxton stepped to the plate with one out against the Mariners following a Max Kepler double and a pair of walks to Sanó and Jason Castro in the top of the second inning. He worked the count to 2-0, got a belt-high cutter from Wade LeBlanc, and unloaded for his fourth homer of the season and second career grand slam.

With that said, no article about Buxton is complete without showcasing his defense. Everyone associates Buxton with his range in center field and his penchant for leaping grabs at the outfield wall, but it's easy to forget that Buxton, a former high school pitcher, also has a cannon of a right arm. He showed that off in the eighth inning of a May 14 contest against the Angels, when he fielded a Brian Goodwin single on one hop and fired a 98.6 mph strike to home plate to nail Shohei Ohtani and preserve a one-run lead.

2020 outlook

When healthy, Buxton is this team's unquestioned starting center fielder. If his performance with consistent playing time during the '17 and '19 campaigns are any indication, Buxton could provide a solid 5-7 WAR over a full season if he can stay on the field.

How, then, do the Twins keep Buxton healthy? Baldelli addressed that question in a more head-on manner than he had in the past on Wednesday, when he acknowledged that preventing Buxton from putting his body at risk is a "very challenging question" given the center fielder's mentality and instincts. The Twins have worked with Buxton on some fielding adjustments, and Baldelli expressed the hope that Buxton himself would, in time, also develop ways to put himself in harm's way less frequently.

"We’ve talked with Byron about the possibility of just, in general, playing deeper because then you have less room between you and a potential wall, coming up on a wall," Baldelli said. "That’s just one example. So there are individual things that you can point to. There’s also the big-picture discussion of, 'Hey, in general, we would prefer that when you go after all these balls, we’d rather you stay on the field than risk any sort of collision.' That’s so challenging to throw at such a competitive, wonderful athlete like Byron."

As for now, though, Buxton's only job is to recover as fully as he can from his shoulder surgery. He went under the knife in September and the procedure was expected to have a recovery time of five to six months, though Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey expressed optimism on Wednesday that Buxton could be a participant in Spring Training in February.

"The reason we did [the surgery] at the time we did ... was to give us as much off season as possible to get him to be healthy," Falvey said. "So far, so good, no setbacks with respect to that. So we fully anticipate he’s in a position where the month of January and going into February, he’s capable of doing a lot of things that would be more baseball-oriented, that would get him to be healthy come Spring Training, and hopefully we’re not behind when he shows up in Fort Myers."