Minnesota Twins

Is Byron Buxton finally for real this time?

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 23: Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) digs for third base as he scored from second base on a single during the seventh inning of the Major League Baseball game between the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians on June 23, 2017, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. Minnesota defeated Cleveland 5-0. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
(Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

Once upon a time, Byron Buxton was the most highly touted prospect in baseball. Then, he made it to the major leagues.

Oh sure, his defense and baserunning were as advertised. His bat, however, was a disaster. In that first pass through the big club, he struck out nearly a third of the time with zero power and no ability to draw a walk. He posted a 53 wRC+ in 138 plate appearances.

The next year proved not much different, at least at first. GM Terry Ryan did Buxton no favors by sending him back down to Triple-A, but while with the Twins, Buxton struck out nearly 36 percent of the time. He generated slightly more power, but not much. By the time of his September call-up, he was carrying a 45 wRC+ in 218 plate appearances.

But then a funny thing happened: Buxton started hitting. He started hitting a lot. He hit nine home runs from Sept. 1 to the end of the season. He rocked a 165 wRC+ in 113 plate appearances. It appeared that Buxton had finally learned how to hit major league pitching.

Upon reflection, that September hot streak was built on a shaky edifice. Buxton was still striking in one of every three trips to the plate. He chased and whiffed way too much. His contact rate was abysmal. His raw Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) was more than 100 points higher than his expected wOBA. That magical September was a mirage.

Buxton began 2017 right back where he started. He hit for a 59 wRC+ and struck out nearly 31 percent of the time in the first half. His xwOBA sat at a piddling .261. At the All-Star break, I speculated that we may have to accept that Buxton would forever be this type of hitter.

Suddenly, Buxton is breaking out. Since the All-Star break, he’s hit for a 165 wRC+. Eight balls have gone over the fence. His .323 isolated power percentage is gobsmacking, considering what Buxton once was. His extraordinary speed certainly helps to stretch singles into doubles–and doubles into triples–but the point is that Buxton is making the kind of contact that’s allowing him to get on base in the first place.

Is this another mirage? Will Twins fans get excited to see Buxton finally arrive at the plate, only to see that hope turn to sand between their fingers? I’m not so sure. Buxton still had terrible contact and strikeout problems last September. It was his central flaw. His second half strikeout rate is a much more manageable 23.4 percent. His contact rate in that period is hovering around the league average. He’s still chasing and whiffing a bit too much, but not nearly at the level he was. Slowly but surely, Buxton is developing plate discipline.

His xwOBA has also jumped 55 points from the first half to the second. He’s getting the ball in the air more frequently and letting his legs do the rest. Put it all together, and Buxton may have found his groove.

There must be some grain of salt taken with all of this. For one, we’re only talking about 111 plate appearances. Buxton’s xwOBA-wOBA differential is roughly 100 points. His speed is doing some of that work, but there’s probably a fair share of luck mixed in there, too. A .373 average on balls in play would seem to confirm this.

And yet, the plate discipline can’t be ignored. The better contact can’t be ignored. If Buxton kept working on controlling the strike zone, could he eventually be a 100 wRC+ guy over the course of the season? It’s not out of the question.

This is the first time where real sunlight is starting to poke through the clouds hanging over Buxton’s bat. He hit three home runs on Sunday. He’s not letting pitchers beat him. He’s giving himself a fighting chance.

Buxton has been living under the clouds for too long. Maybe now, the sun will hang around a little while longer.

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