Byron Buxton: Breakout At Last?
After his forth straight appearance on Baseball America’s top 10 prospects list, it was reasonable for Twins fans to expect that their lauded prospect would finally be able to contribute to the Major League team. Unfortunately, Byron Buxton once again failed to stick on the Twins roster, being sent down to AAA multiple times throughout the 2016 season. The skill set and athleticism have always been there for the former second overall pick, but his inability to translate his offensive game to the MLB level have prevented Buxton from reaching his expected stardom. Even as a below average hitter in 2016, Buxton’s speed and defence made him a valuable asset, earning him almost 2 Wins Above Replacement, further exemplifying his elite potential, if he was ever to master hitting.
Buxton’s high ceiling has always been praised, but his struggles throughout the minors, and more significantly in the bigs, have caused concern. The Twins have been trying to push Buxton towards success, but in the process may be causing more trouble than good for the top prospect. After drafting Buxton in 2012, the Twins completely redesigned his swing (see Swing 1). By condensing his stance, and shortening his swing Minnesota hoped to create the high contact, speedy and defence minded player Buxton has teased us with so often. Instead Buxton struggled, owning a high K rate, and at the big league level failing to make contact anywhere near a respectable clip. Urging Buxton to have a “quite swing” and abandoning the leg kick that brought him so much success in his youth seemed to have failed, and many suspected the tinkering had gotten to his head.
In his first Triple-A stint last season, Buxton reverted to his original High School swing, bringing back a leg kick to help his apparent timing issues. Buxton was happy to revert back to his roots, and the new swing showed initial success in the minors, earning the outfielder a promotion. Buxton’s new leg kick (see swing 2), is unlike that of stars such as Josh Donaldson or Justin Turner’s, as he plants his foot far before the pitch reaches the zone. Planting early, causing a swing reliant in arm power opposed to hip torque, defeats much of the desired effect of the kick, especially for a player of Buxton’s stature. Buxton, post swing adjustments, experienced success in AAA, but but upon promotion the flaws in his swing were exposed, suggesting a greater issue may be afoot for the 23 year old, namely pitch recognition and swing selection. Once again sent down to AAA, and back to the drawing board, Buxton was done with the swing tinkering that had plagued him in the past. Embracing his natural swing, and discarding the organizations attempts to suppress it, Buxton worked on the cerebral aspect to his game. What resulted was the success that Buxton and Twins fans had long been waiting for.
After being recalled from his second AAA stint of the season, Buxton began to finally come into his own, showing signs of the five-tool player the Twins drafted almost 5 years earlier. Slashing a respectable .238/.315/.497 in the second half (most of which came in September), Buxton was a threat in the field, on the bases, and finally at the plate. Buxton was still marred by a high strike out rate, but his new approach enabled him to draw walks and hit for power unlike ever before at the Big League level. Whether it was the embrace of his new (old) leg kick, or finally mastering the art of hitting, Buxton had a September to remember, and hopefully he isn’t done just yet.
Through 2016, the only consistent themes of Buxton’s young career were injuries and the minor leagues. With both of these hopefully in the past, Buxton will look to finally live up to his draft position, starting with the 2017 campaign. Being suggested as an early candidate for the Twins lead off position, and hitting in front of the likes of Brian Dozier and Miguel Sano, will certainly help the young centerfielder. At only 23, there is plenty of time for Buxton to figure out the Major Leagues, but with the Twins young corp beginning to develop, Buxton’s progression would be appreciated sooner rather than later. Needing only to be average at the plate, due to his dominance in other aspects of the game, Buxton’s September success last season could be a sign that he is finally everything the Twins have been dreaming of, and maybe more.