It's Time to Get Excited About Byron Buxton Again
Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice? In the famous words of President George W. Bush, "You can't get fooled again."
It sucks to look like a fool. When you go all-in on a minor-league player set to make the transition to the majors, and that guy flames out, you end up with a little bit of egg on your face. You could probably assume this has been the case for more than a few people with Byron Buxton.
The Minnesota Twins' former top prospect has twice been up in the big leagues previously, and the cumulative result of those trips is a .195/.239/.316 slash with a 36.4% strikeout rate over 187 plate appearances. When the failures are that pronounced and lead to reduced playing time and eventual demotions back to the minors, that's going to sting a bit for those who endorsed him the first time around.
Now, as Buxton gets set to come back up, we've got a choice to make. We can get excited to see if the old hype was legit, or we can temper expectations. If we fully buy in, we run the risk of being made to look like fools, and ain't nobody want that.
Even with the former president's words echoing in our ears, one look at Buxton's numbers will tell you this: it's time to get jacked up again, y'all.
Slaughtering of Triple-A
When Buxton was sent down earlier this year, it was clear that the main intent was to cut down his strikeouts. When you strikeout in 24 of your first 49 plate appearances in a season, that's going to happen. Buxton accomplished that, but then he also made it rain silly sauce on his opponents by excelling in every other category, as well.
Let's focus first on the strikeouts as that's clearly the most important factor in this equation. Things got off to a bit of a rocky start as he whiffed 11 times in his first 7 games back. Ruh roh. Nobody'd blame you if you felt the pangs of doubt at that point. But what happened after that obliterated all said doubt.
From May 2nd on (84 plate appearances), Buxton cut his strikeout rate dramatically, all the way down to 15.8%. That brought with it a 9.5% walk rate, in line with what you'd expect from a five-tool stud going up against lesser competition. It didn't stop there, though, as all of his other numbers were ridiculous, too.
Byron Buxton. Please keep doing this. https://t.co/vRxyPU4yYc
— Parker Hageman (@ParkerHageman) May 30, 2016
Buxton dropped the illitude by slashing .336/.403/.603 (that's a cool .448 wOBA and .267 isolated slugging percentage) with 9 doubles, 2 triples, 6 bombs, and 4 stolen bases. All of that even includes the semi-rough start with all of the strikeouts. If the Twins hadn't called him back up, he would have been detained for psychological torment of the opposing pitchers.
We'd usually be a bit hesitant to put too much stock into numbers over such a small sample, but Buxton did well in the categories that matter most when we're trying to draw quick conclusions. Based on this FanGraphs piece on sample sizes, the stats that stabilize most quickly are strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate, and isolated slugging percentage. Buxton was around average with his walk rate, but everything else was in line with what you'd want out of a young pup, especially one who had struggled with strikeouts in the majors.
Additionally, this isn't simply 129 random plate appearances. It's a return to the form that he showed in the lower minors, which indicated that he'd one day ball out in the majors. He has done this before at multiple levels, and the sample there is much larger than the struggles he showed while he was up with the big squad. It basically just looks like the old Buxton is back.
Expectations Going Forward
We shouldn't expect Buxton to come back up with the Twins and immediately start raking. As we've seen with him in the past, the transition from the minors to the majors isn't an easy one. However, eventually, it seems as if things should start to click this time.
He'll likely wind up batting ninth again for the Twins, as he did most of last year and the start of 2016. If he can excel, then it shouldn't be long before Buxton slides up into the leadoff spot. The team has been searching for a leadoff hitter all year, and while Eduardo Nunez has been having a fine season, you don't see many leadoff hitters with a 3.0% walk rate. Buxton would be the ideal candidate to hold down that spot once he gets going.
Although he hasn't had a ton of power thus far in the majors, Buxton has shown an ability to loft the ball with a 43.9% fly-ball rate. When he can make contact, a number like that is going to give him chances for extra-base hits. This increases our optimism about him, especially when we take into consideration his isolated slugging percentage in Triple-A. This isn't -- by any means -- just a singles hitter who can swipe bags.
At the end of the day, though, the most important thing with Buxton is strikeouts. He was able to lay off bad pitches for the most part his first few trips in the majors with a 29.5% chase rate (the league average is slightly lower at 28.5%), so the issue wasn't with his eye at the plate. His manager at Triple-A, Mike Quade, told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle earlier in May that they were trying to get Buxton to reduce his strikeouts and make solid contact. It seemed to work as Buxton struck out in only 2 of his final 29 plate appearances, and if he's got the contact down, the rest may quickly follow.
Nobody wants to look foolish by getting pumped for a guy who eventually disappoints. That's already happened twice with Buxton. But that doesn't mean it'll happen a third time.
Based on what he did in Triple-A, Buxton looks like an entirely different hitter from what he was earlier this year with the Twins. He was making more contact, he was drawing more walks, and he was hitting for a whole lot of power. It's a small sample, but what he did in that small sample -- in the areas that matter most -- was enough to inspire confidence that Buxton is here to stay this time.
I don't know about you, but I'm willing to look a bit foolish if it means I can get excited for the potential of a guy who could wind up being baseball's next star.