Byron Buxton was a pretty trendy breakout pick this season, because you thought you already saw it happening last year. After a few false starts in 2015 and '16, the No. 2 overall pick from the '12 Draft was an absolute monster last September, hitting nine homers among 17 extra-base
Byron Buxton was a pretty trendy breakout pick this season, because you thought you already saw it happening last year. After a few false starts in 2015 and '16, the No. 2 overall pick from the '12 Draft was an absolute monster last September, hitting nine homers among 17 extra-base hits to go with a stellar .287/.357/.653 line. Buxton is an elite outfielder. He's arguably the fastest man in baseball. He has it all. It was supposed to happen.
It didn't happen. Buxton struck out 17 times in his first 30 times up. It took until July 4 for his batting average to stick above .200. By the time he reached the All-Star break with a .216/.288/.306 line, he'd been one of the 10 weakest hitters in the game, and a groin injury at the start of he second half seemed to provide almost a welcome break.
But batting average can be deceiving, especially when you get off to a start like Buxton did. And as the Twins continue to stick around the American League Wild Card race, there's increasing evidence that the Buxton we're seeing is the one we were expecting. He's no longer a liability. He might even be a driving force.
The first thing to remember is that Buxton is young. He won't even be 24 until December; he's more than a year younger than the likely AL Rookie of the Year Award winner, Aaron Judge. Minnesota has the youngest lineup in the AL, and Buxton is the youngest hitter in that lineup. When he made his Major League debut in 2015, Buxton was less than a year removed from playing Class A games in Fort Myers, Fla. If, perhaps, he'd had more time to develop in the Minors, we'd be perceiving this differently.
The second thing to remember is that full-season stats don't always tell the story of what a player is right now. In the same way a reliever can have his ERA torpedoed for months by one disastrous outing, Buxton's April was always going to make it difficult to look good this year. Even now, his .234/.306/.336 line is near the bottom of the rankings. Almost no matter what he does from now on, his 2017 stats won't look great.
But for the Twins -- as they challenge not only for the playoffs this year, but hope to grow future teams around young hitters Buxton, Max Kepler and Miguel Sano -- the one thing more important than production is improvement. It's one thing to get off to a bad start. It's another thing to let it define your entire year -- and Buxton, to be sure, is headed in the right direction.
It starts with contact. After whiffing an unacceptably high 37 percent of the time in April, Buxton is down to just 27 percent since. That's probably still too much, but it's progress. As you can see, there's really been three parts of his season, contact-wise -- the very bad April, the decent May and first half of June, and the above-average two months since.
It's not just about making more contact, of course, it's about making better contact, and Buxton's exit velocity follows a similar, though not identical trend. In both cases, however, the story is the same: April was really, really bad, and he's been better since.
As you might expect, for a young player trying to figure it out, there are always changes. In May, FanGraphs' Travis Sawchik relayed the story of a batting-cage conversation between Buxton, manager Paul Molitor and Twins coaches James Rowson and Torii Hunter. Buxton, who is probably best known for his speed, was encouraged to slow down.
You can see the effects in this side-by-side view of a plate appearance Buxton had against Cleveland on April 18 (when he went 0-for-4) and on Thursday, just before his home run off Carlos Carrasco. In April, Buxton had a large leg kick. Now, that's mostly gone, replaced by a more controlled approach.
As told to MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger in July, Buxton knew exactly what he needed to do -- make more contact.
"It's just about not missing pitches," said Buxton. "There were pitches early in the year I could handle, but I was popping them up or fouled them off. So it's about being balanced and not worrying about everything."
It hasn't been a steady ascent, of course. While Buxton's May was better (.254./321/.380), June (.184/.237/.287) was nearly as bad as April. But he had 11 hits in the final week of the first half, and he's hit .319/.377/.468 in the first two weeks of August (through the first game of Thursday's doubleheader). In the first 15 games of this month, Buxton has a hit in 13, and he failed to reach base just once.
Remember, Buxton doesn't need to slug like Sano or Judge to be a star. Even with all his struggles at the plate this year, he's still been worth 1.4 Wins Above Replacement -- more than stars like Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Cabrera or Jason Kipnis. You don't have to love the math that goes into WAR to understand that no one plays center field like Buxton does, and that being successful on 20 of 21 steal attempts brings tremendous value.
If Buxton never learns how to hit, the glove alone -- depending on your metric, he's one of the best outfielders in baseball along with Ender Inciarte and Mookie Betts -- makes him useful. If he's a league-average hitter, he's a star. If Buxton is actually the dangerous hitter we saw last September and are seeing now, the sky is almost literally the limit.
We're a long way from that, of course. Buxton is only 23. He's been poor at the plate more this year than he's been an asset. But when a player has all the tools, you're just looking for signs that the talent is breaking through. We are most certainly seeing those signs from Buxton.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.