Fantasy Baseball: Can Byron Buxton Duplicate His September Breakout in 2017?

The Twins' uber-prospect was a man possessed in the final month of 2016. Is this the last chance to own him while he's relatively cheap?

Just this past August, the Minnesota Twins demoted Byron Buxton to the minors for the fourth time since his MLB debut in 2015. The uber-elite outfield prospect looked to be in danger of becoming yet another high-profile bust, if not an outright punchline.

But as dark as things looked for his to-date MLB numbers in August, Buxton’s run with the Twins after his September call-up seemed to be a long-awaited flip of the switch.

Buxton went from toiling below the Mendoza line to becoming one of the hottest hitters in baseball, swatting nine homers in that final month while sporting a 167 wRC+ that matched Mike Trout’s mark across that span.

Many fantasy owners heading into 2017 drafts are understandably excited. After all, this could very well be the last chance to get in on the ground floor while Buxton is still relatively cheap on draft day.

But do the numbers check out? Is there substantial evidence in Buxton’s ridiculous fall 2016 run to suggest he has turned the corner and is primed to claim his spot as one of MLB’s top young fantasy assets?

Just How Good Was He?

The contrast between Buxton’s production before and after that September call-up is so stark that we almost seem to be talking about two different players.

Sept/Oct 113 24 9 22 1 .287 .357 .653
Rest of 2016 with Twins 218 20 1 16 9 .193 .247 .315

Indeed, over that last month of 2016, Buxton outproduced his counting stat totals from his first two 2016 stints with the MLB club in just over half of the at-bats, with average, on-base, and slugging percentage all soaring.

Only the stolen base numbers lagged behind -- but then again, he was hitting for extra bases so often that the opportunities just weren't there.

Buxton’s extra-base prowess was the real eye-opener. His .366 isolated slugging over that last month was the second-highest mark in baseball, trailing only Justin Upton (whose ISO over that span was an absurd .458), while being just ahead of a surging Joc Pederson (.365) and veteran thumper Nelson Cruz (.364).

What Changed -- And What Didn’t

Of course, there’s more to see than just the surface production. The underlying numbers showed Buxton made some notable adjustments to his swing, while a few key issues with his approach did not change much at all.

Let’s concentrate first on the positive changes.

Season Line Drive % Fly Ball % Infield Fly % Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Sept/Oct 23.30% 41.70% 4.00% 56.30% 28.10% 15.60% 17.20% 53.10% 29.70%
Rest of 2016 20.70% 44.10% 18.40% 43.10% 29.30% 27.60% 16.30% 57.70% 26.00%

It appears he's finally put his elite bat speed to good use. He pulled the ball significantly more often in his most recent stint, making more hard contact and hitting more line drives. The noticeable correction in the awful early 2016 infield popup rate is an encouraging sign that he is getting on top of pitches and no longer overmatched at the plate.

We also saw slight improvements in Buxton’s strikeout rate (down from a ghastly 36.7 percent to a still-less-than-ideal 33.6 percent) and walk rate (up to a decent 8.8 percent from a paltry 6 percent).

That said, approach-wise, some areas of concern still were not corrected, even as his power numbers blossomed.

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
Buxton Sept/Oct 34.30% 62.80% 46.90% 46.30% 80.00% 66.20%
Buxton First Half 2016 32.50% 64.00% 47.20% 48.30% 81.40% 69.30%
League Average 30.30% 66.70% 46.50% 63.90% 86.30% 78.20%

Buxton’s plate discipline problems did not simply disappear during his hot September run -- in fact, the numbers here suggest they might have gotten marginally worse.

Contact rates remain a major issue, as does pitch recognition. Buxton is still getting fooled outside of the zone, hitting well below league average on non-strikes. There’s a chance his hot hitting brought on a more aggressive approach that is slanting this small sample, but the overall plate discipline picture is hardly encouraging.

Batted Ball Anomalies

Two particular numbers in Buxton’s September/October profile jump out as anomalous and unsustainable. One is his outrageous 36 percent homer-to-fly-ball rate; the other is his equally gaudy 28.6 percent hit rate on balls in the infield.

That homer-to-fly-ball rate is the stuff of small sample legend. Only three players across the majors with 400 or more plate appearances maintained a 26 percent or higher homer-to-fly rate across the 2016 season: Cruz, Ryan Braun, and Khristopher Davis, all high-end sluggers. That Buxton beat this mark by 10 percent over the month-long sample is a pretty clear indication of batted-ball luck that is bound to regress.

It’s not as if Buxton’s other batted ball numbers were any sort of revelation over that last month of 2016. The young outfielder’s 29.7 percent September/October hard contact rate wouldn’t have made for a top-150 full-season mark. It’s the sort of rate we saw from Jean Segura, Leonys Martin, and fellow free-swinger, Javier Baez.

Buxton’s infield hit percentage was also pretty clearly a sample-size anomaly. The 28.6 percent infield hit rate he put together over his hot final month almost doubles the MLB-leading full-season rate of 15.8 percent from Aledmys Diaz.

This probably explains why Buxton's marginal increases in both soft contact and hard contact with a noted drop in medium contact nonetheless resulted in a massive leap in batting average. Buxton is fast as all heck, but beating out dribblers at this rate across a full season simply cannot hold.

Mixed Messages

In short, it’s hard to take away from Buxton’s white hot September any ironclad confidence that the young outfielder has turned the corner at the plate.

His potential remains promising, but the Steamer projections (14 homers, 16 steals, 65 runs, 75 RBI, .244 average) reflect the sober truth of his underlying numbers.

Given the persistent plate discipline issues, a truly impactful breakout still appears to be a distant prospect, though perhaps a 20/20 campaign with a replacement-level average seems more plausible now than it did when Buxton was at rock bottom early last summer.

Of course, the X-factor from a fantasy perspective is cost.

It might not hurt to gamble on Buxton with a pick in the mid teens (and that's around where the experts have him, per the FantasyPros consensus ranks). You could be passing up slightly more proven hitters like Brad Miller, Brandon Belt, and the aforementioned Pederson, but then again, picks at this part of the draft are bound to be hit or miss. None of these players offer the potential boon of a meteoric Buxton breakout, especially in the steals column.

But if there is any more helium behind Buxton as draft day gets closer, the prospect of grabbing him over solid veteran assets like Dexter Fowler Ben Zobrist and Hunter Pence seems quite risky, given his potential to bottom out on us all over again.