Byron Buxton’s Slow Rise to Stardom

Baseball News
6 months ago

The best prospects in baseball generally become very good major league players. When I looked at prospect valuations last year, on average, position players ranked first or second in baseball became three-win players in the big leagues with more than half playing at an All-Star level or above. Those averages and All-Star rates were far and away the best results for ranked prospects, with players just five spots down worth roughly half of what the players who were ranked among the top-two prospects in baseball were worth. There are certainly busts (with Delmon Young at the forefront), but most players do well. When I looked at players like Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. yesterday, one player showed up as bust-like in some of the charts, but I don’t think those charts were completely fair to Byron Buxton.

Here’s the chart showing top prospects in their 600 plate appearances after their first 10 games or so and how they performed over the rest of their careers. Byron Buxton should be pretty easy to spot.

The only other player with so few plate appearances was Ronald Acuña Jr., but he just sits innocuously in the middle of the graph while Buxton stands out in the bottom. After just 250 or so plate appearances in High-A as a 19-year-old, Buxton was the consensus top prospect in baseball. After injuries stunted his 2014 season, he was still kept at number one by MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus, with Keith Law, Baseball America, and our own Kiley McDaniel all bumping Buxton down to number two in favor of Kris Bryant. This is what McDaniel had to say about Buxton at the time.

Buxton was the consensus top prospect in the game last year, but had a mix of freak and regular injuries that limited him to under 200 plate appearances, including the Arizona Fall League. You can mostly throw out his mediocre-for-Buxton numbers from this year, because the tools are still there, which puts in context how good he was in 2013. He hit above league average at High-A at age 20 and it was seen as a disappointment; if he can stay healthy and perform like healthy he did, he could be a dynamic All-Star talent as soon as 2015’s stretch run, but more likely in 2016.

Buxton had an unfortunate debut in 2015, but he was back at number two on the prospect lists for 2016 and put up mixed results. He didn’t hit particularly well until September, striking out way too much, but thanks to defense and baserunning, put himself on a three-win pace in half a season. He started off slowly in 2017, but picked things up over the summer and his 3.5 WAR, again thanks mostly to defense and baserunning, put him on a four-win pace over a full season. Heading into last year, Buxton was worth 3.1 WAR per 600 plate appearances. If you ignored where Buxton provided value and only looked at the overall figure, a successful player emerged. Focusing too much attention on the 84 wRC+ distracts from the great defense and baserunning that were making Buxton a good player, albeit in fits and starts due to injuries and minor league demotions.

Last season was pretty much a disaster. Migraines sidelined Buxton in April and part of May. A fractured big toe cost him June. Instead of bringing Buxton back up to the majors, Minnesota optioned him to the minors. A hand/wrist injury cost him another couple weeks in the minors in both July and August, but from the time of his optioning through the end of the minor league season at the end of August, Buxton tore the cover off the ball with a .308/.364/.527 slash line. At the time, Buxton was 12 days short of a third full season of service time, which would have made him a free agent at the end of the 2021 season; the Twins opted not to bring him back up in September, delaying his free agency until 2023.

Buxton entered the 2019 season as a 25 year old and the presumptive starting center fielder. With 1074 plate appearances under his belt, he had a career 76 wRC+, far from the numbers that stars put up. If we can revisit the graph from the beginning, it’s worthwhile to draw attention to one other point on the graph, that of Andruw Jones.

Andruw Jones had a great first 10 games in the majors, and his postseason exploits made him a name on a national stage, but he was a pretty poor hitter for almost an entire season when he came up to the majors. After those first 10 games, Jones put up an 81 wRC+ over his next 600 plate appearances. He was roughly league average for another season or two before his offense caught up with his defense at the big league level. Jones was younger than Buxton, but not markedly so, when they graced the top of prospect lists and Jones had the benefit of good health and an organization willing to keep giving him playing time despite his struggles. Those 600 plate appearances didn’t define Jones’ trajectory, as he ended up with a wRC+ 30 points higher (111) in what could be a Hall of Fame career.

Buxton isn’t Jones, but there’s still a ton of potential there, and he is off to a solid start this season with a 100 wRC+. Buxton’s strikeout rate is down to 24% this year, thanks in part to swinging at a lot of first pitches. He still swings at too many pitches outside of the strike zone, particularly sliders, and his swing has produced an absurd eight infield flies on the season already. Buxton’s exit velocity is up due to hitting the ball in the air a ton, but the hard contact hasn’t produced great results and his xwOBA is a very low .279 despite average results. Nearly all of the issue with Buxton’s low xwOBA is due to his 15 doubles and two triples. I looked through all the doubles expecting to see Buxton take advantage of his speed to turn a bunch of singles into extra bases. That isn’t what happened, however, as most of Buxton’s doubles looked like this:

or this:

This is Buxton’s spray chart for his doubles this season, from Baseball Savant.

The two main components to xwOBA are launch angle and exit velocity, and judging by those two factors ignores Buxton’s pull heavy line drives. Buxton isn’t taking advantage of his speed on these balls. He’s just got a pull-heavy approach leads to sure doubles that aren’t picked up by xwOBA. Buxton is generally hitting the ball hard and in the air; he’s just missing the ball a lot as evidenced by his 14.4% swinging strike rate and his launch angle chart showing all of the popups.

Buxton’s speed is certainly an advantage. His two triples this season were of the standup variety and his 30.5 ft/second sprint speed is first in the game. He has seven steals against just two caught stealings and he’s been about 10 runs above average on the bases per 600 plate appearances without even getting on base all that often. Hitting the ball on the ground more might turn more outs into singles, but keeping the ball in the air can turn more singles into doubles and doubles into triples.

If Buxton reverts back a bit and hits his projection as a 90 wRC+ player, he’s still a three-win guy. If he hits his career averages on the bases and on defense, he’s a four-win player. If he keeps his 100 wRC+ up all year and hits his averages on defense and baserunning, he might get close to a five-win season. Buxton hasn’t been a great player thus far, and he might not ever be, but when healthy and given an opportunity, he’s been good, even with a poor hitting line. Buxton’s ceiling, which made him the best prospect in baseball, is still there. If we just look at hitting, his line might make him seem like a bust. But he hasn’t been a bust, and he’s a lot closer to a star than an initial look might make him seem.

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