Want to slow down Byron Buxton? Good luck
Twins speedster's only caught stealing in '17 came on overslide
You already know Byron Buxton is fast. You might already know that the Twins center fielder was the fastest player in baseball by Statcast™'s sprint speed metric in 2017.
Perhaps more impressive: Buxton took off on the bases 30 times and was caught stealing only once. A more in-depth look at his season will tell you that his 29 steals are the third most by a runner who was caught only once, behind Carlos Beltran in 2001 and Brady Anderson in 1994 (31 each). Chase Utley's 23 steals in 2009 are the most without being caught at all.
But you'll have to go to the video to realize that even on the one occasion Buxton was thrown out, he made it to second base safely -- his record blemished only because his hand slipped off the base.
In 2017, no one really caught Buxton on the basepaths. He is not just fast. He's fast in a way that tears at the seams of the game.
Buxton consistently gets from his standstill lead to the base in 3.5-4 seconds. How are defenses supposed to fit the pitcher's delivery, the pitch, the catcher's throw and the tag in there, while knowing what they're up against? The average Major League catcher's pop time on a steal of second in 2017 -- from the ball hitting his mitt to reaching the center of the bag -- was 2.01 seconds, leaving less than two seconds for the pitcher's delivery, the pitch and the tag at second.
Using the futile attempts as data points, let's try to figure out what, if anything, opposing pitchers and catchers can do to slow Buxton down.
Speed up. Slow down.
Slowing Buxton down once he's taken off is mostly an impossibility. So instead, pitchers and catchers must attempt to delay his break, or accelerate their usual routine. This is not a novel idea, it's the basic premise of controlling the running game. The problem is, the basic version doesn't really work against Buxton.
Take Rangers left-hander Cole Hamels for example. He had to deal with Buxton on first base in August. He kept his eyes focused on first and began his delivery in such a way that it mimics what a pickoff move would look like.
In a way, it works. Buxton's 19.8-foot secondary lead -- measured at the moment the pitcher releases the ball -- is one of his shortest of last season. It didn't pan out in this case, though, as Buxton still got to second in time to pop up and run to third when an errant throw bounded into the outfield.
Right-handed pitchers have an even tougher task. In May, Orioles starter Chris Tillman dealt with Buxton by utilizing an abbreviated leg kick that led to the speedster's shortest secondary lead on any attempt that drew a throw -- 18.9 feet, well below the MLB average for attempted steals of second (21.2 feet) and Buxton's 2017 average (21.9 feet). Had catcher Caleb Joseph's accurate throw been fielded cleanly, the O's might have caught him again.
One thing that immediately ends your chances of catching Buxton is a ball in the dirt. But how much are pitchers willing to change their approach to the hitter at the plate for an off chance at catching Buxton?
The simplest way to avoid the dirt is to throw fastballs. Statcast™ shows that MLB pitchers threw fastballs 62 percent of the time with a runner on first and second base open -- a small uptick from the overall fastball rate. Naturally, runners have some incentive to go on offspeed pitches that are slower, and possibly more difficult to handle.
Only 14 of Buxton's 30 attempts came on fastballs in 2017. The two closest calls of the season came on elevated four-seamers that allowed for blistering 1.91-second pop times. The Indians' battery of Mike Clevinger and Yan Gomes appeared to have nabbed him in June, only to have their work overturned by a challenge.
Keeping the pitches elevated, and straight, provides catchers with at least an improved chance of popping out of their crouch and making an accurate throw. There could be a major problem with that approach, though.
Face better Twins hitters.
Throwing more fastballs to dangerous hitters isn't likely to help anything. According to Baseball-Reference, Buxton took the extra base more often than any other runner who played a full 2017 season. In other words, he was the most likely baserunner to score from second on a single, or from first on a double.
Why is that important? This is a way speed can discourage stolen-base attempts. Five times in 2017, a double was hit with Buxton on first. He scored all five times. Out of the 16 times a single was hit with Buxton on second, he scored on 13 of them.
Why steal second with no outs and James Dozier coming up? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buxton didn't attempt to steal third at all last year -- while speedy Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton was caught at third four times.
Unfortunately for the American League, the object of the game isn't to keep Buxton from running. If the 24-year-old continues to blossom at the plate, the Twins could place him in front of better hitters with a better chance of dropping a hit in, creating fewer occasions to take the risk of stealing, but even more opportunities to score.
Pray for rain.
When all else fails, look to the sky, right? On May 22, Buxton stole second against the Orioles. Catcher Welington Castillo, who got credit the next night for Buxton's one caught stealing, unleashes a strong throw -- 83.2 mph -- that would have made for a fairly close play if handled cleanly.
While it was nothing to remark upon at the time, Buxton's 28.7 feet/second sprint speed was his slowest top speed of the year on attempts involving throws. Being we are in the business of looking for things that slowed Buxton down, this is worth investigating.
Buxton's lead is also shorter than average, but there is no apparent hesitation. Instead, the thing that jumps out is the dirt. The dirt is an especially dark shade of brown -- bringing to mind the gamesmanship of old-time groundskeepers who would tailor the grass and dirt to their team's advantage. This was nothing of that intentional sort. It was simply the rain.
There were showers in Baltimore that day, and the humidity was still hovering above 90 percent at first pitch, giving Buxton a muddier track to push through on his way to another steal and providing catchers some hope that it is possible to slow him down.