Just over a week into the 2020 season, Aaron Whitefield already has plans for the day after it comes to an end.
Before he returns home to Brisbane, Australia, the 23-year-old outfielder has one immediate offseason assignment to check off his to-do list -- beat Byron Buxton in a race. It’s a tall task, with Buxton ranked the fastest player in the game in 2018 with a sprint speed of 30.5 feet/second, and third last season at 30.3. But Whitefield -- a noted speedster whose run tool carried him to his big league debut on Opening Day -- is excited to showcase what he has to offer.
“Everyone in the clubhouse asks, ‘Who’s faster?’” Whitefield said. “It’s something that at the start of the season you don’t want to do because you don’t want someone blowing out a hamstring, and [getting the question], ‘Why did that happen?’ ‘Oh we were having a race on the side.’ So we said [the] day after the season, we’re going to have it and see.”
Until that happens, Buxton is enjoying the daily battles between him and his teammate.
“He's trying to chase me, so I just have to keep doing what I'm doing and try to not let him catch me," the 26-year-old said. "It's fun having that competition. It's one of those things where we go out each day for batting practice and compete on how many balls we can catch during batting practice. It's the little things now that keep us going."
Whitefield, who came into this year with 31 games of Double-A experience and not even a Major League Spring Training invite to his name, believes the race could go either way. He gives Buxton the advantage off the starter’s block, which is why the Aussie wants to see what they can do in a 60-yard matchup.
“Buck’s got a lot of different speed [than I do],” Whitefield said. “I have to get going a little bit, and he’s very quick off the start. Home to first, he’s got me, but once we start going then that’s when it starts.”
It’s been a few years since Whitefield was last timed running a 60-yard dash, and that was when he was training to qualify for the world indoor track championships in Europe, looking for an opportunity to travel and potentially win some prize money with his unique talent. At the time, on an indoor track and wearing running spikes, he ran a 5.93-second 60-yard dash.
In case that number isn’t impressive enough on its own, it should be noted that 60 yards is equivalent to just under 55 metres, and the world record in a 50-metre race is the 5.56-second mark Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey set in 1996.
“I trained for like a month,” Whitefield said, as if that explained his running prowess. “I was training at the [Queensland Academy of Sport] every morning with sprinters and that. But the worst thing was, my 5.93 -- the three guys I trained with killed that, and then one of the girls I trained with beat that too. But they were Olympic-level sprinters.
Whitefield claims baseball gear might add three or four tenths of a second to that time, but that won’t weigh him down against Buxton.
“I’m just wearing a pair of leggings and that’s it,” he said. “No shirt. Nothing that can drag me back. I’ll probably shave my head so it doesn’t hold me back either.”
Until then, Whitefield plans to use his opportunities on the base paths to accomplish an in-season goal: “I told Buck [Wednesday], ‘I’m just letting you know, if I get to run here on first and someone hits something in the gap, I’m breaking your Statcast record.’”
While Whitefield has taken the dugout joke and run with it -- or he will, when he gets the chance -- he’s also relishing in the improbable reality that he’s in the Majors. And though it took some time early in his career to understand, especially as a converted softball player who had about six months’ baseball experience when he signed with the Twins at 18, he knows his speed is a game-changing tool that can help him find success.
“I had to learn the game, learn how to use my speed and in the right way,” he said. “I hit 11 home runs one season in Low A and then I thought the next season I was a home run hitter. That didn’t go very well for me; my strikeouts went through the roof. … My speed and my defense are my greatest tools, so getting on base is what I need to do. No matter how I do it, if I get on base, I’m going to make something happen.”
The young Aussie has gotten into three games with the Twins, twice to pinch-run and once as a defensive replacement with a single at-bat. Though he almost turned a groundout into an infield knock with his speed, Whitefield -- just the 35th Australian player to make the big leagues -- hasn’t had much opportunity to run.
“I still haven’t been given a real chance to let it go on the bases yet because Nelson Cruz decides to hit homers all the time, so it makes my pinch-running job a lot easier,” he said. “Hopefully soon I can really show off the wheels.”
And it will give him a chance to gear up for his first big offseason activity, where he’s looking for a win.
“I’m ready whenever.”