Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Byron Buxton You've Waited For, Maybe

Byron Buxton has now played his first major league game, he's recorded his first major league hit, and he's all but delivered on the enormous amount of hype that has followed him since being selected in the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft. Needing seven at bats over the course of two games to record his first hit, we can now begin to wonder what the first tour of duty may look like for the Twins phenom. The expectations are high, but where does reality lie?

As a minor league hitter, Buxton owns a career .296/.380/.486 line over the course of four seasons, 263 games, and 1,014 at bats. In that time, Buxton hit 40 doubles, 36 (!) triples, 27 home runs, drove in 150 runs, and stole 92 bases. He batted .248 in his first professional season, following that up with a .334 average through two levels of A ball. 2014 was cut short by injury and saw Buxton post just a .234 average in 31 games, and that was followed up by a .283 avg at Double-A Chattanooga this season.

Nearly any way you cut it, Byron Buxton was a very good minor league player. If not elite, he was very, very good. To suggest the expectation of the second overall pick is anything but very good would seem silly, but Buxton more than did his part. Having now made the leap to the big leagues, the expectations once again need to shift.

Buxton is in the same prospect realm as Kris Bryant or Mike Trout before them. Looking at both of those players however, Buxton shines elsewhere. As a minor league, Trout owned a career .342/.425/.516 slash line across 286 games. Bryant spent less time on the farm having come out of college, but he compiled a .327/.426/.667 slash line across 181 games.

Obviously Bryant has yet to complete his first big league season, but he's off to an impressive start slashing .294/.403/.482 through his first 53 games. Trout had bigger struggles in his first season at the big league level. In 40 games in 2011, Trout batted just .220/.281/.390 for the Angels.

Looking at what some similar Twins players have done, maybe only Joe Mauer can hold a candle to the kind of hype Byron Buxton brings with him. As a hometown kid, and the first overall pick, Mauer went on to hit .308/.369/.570 in his first 35 games with Minnesota. A .330+ minor league hitter, Mauer's early success was not all that surprising.

Both Torii Hunter (20th pick 1993) and Justin Morneau (3rd round 1999) were prospects with a lesser degree of hype. Hunter hit .255/.309/.380 in his first big league season (135 games in 1999). Morneau, who has always hit more for power than average, batted .226/.287/.377 in 40 games during the 2003 season for the Twins.

Looking at what's been done by those before him, it's understandable to suggest dulling offensive expectations for the Twins new centerfielder. Always regarded as a speed threat (as already witnessed at the MLB level), Buxton's bat was the tool noted as needing the most time to develop. Despite success on the farm, it is going to take time to get acclimated to the pro game. Sp when the dust settles, what does 2015 look like for Buxton?

Across the minors, Buxton struck out at roughly a 19% clip, that number should rise a little bit in the big leagues. He is still adjusting to offspeed pitches, and doing so against MLB caliber players on a nightly basis will prove more challenging. His biggest asset is no doubt going to be his speed.

Not a big bunter, as witnessed by the ugly attempt in his first game against the Rangers (and Buxton himself noting that was his first sacrifice bunt in years), his speed will play in stretching bases. Infield hits should be something Buxton can make a habit of, and his standup triple in his first major league hit was a sign of things to come. With 12 triples across 59 Double-A games in 2015, he's got a real shot to lead the bigs at years' end.

Although I'd argue that Buxton's ceiling is significantly higher, I think 2015 looks a lot like Billy Hamilton's first major league season. The Reds speedy centerfielder put up a .250/.292/.355 slash line in his first season with Cincinnati. Somewhere around five home runs would seem realistic for Buxton, and he should steal plenty of bases. It's going to take him some time to adjust, and with that, there will be growing pains.

No matter how 2015 shakes out however, Buxton is going to benefit greatly from the experience as the Twins will need to lean on him in 2016. As he morphs into the superstar he should become, it will be the next four months that help to springboard that journey. Patience is going to need to be practiced with Buxton, but it should be well worth the wait.

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