Friday, April 21, 2017

Where Does Buxton Go From Here?

Through his first 15 games of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, Byron Buxton owns a .082/.135/.122 slash line. He's just 4-52 and has struck out in 24 of his at bats. There's no one who wants to see things turnaround more than Buxton, but the question is, where do we go from here?

First, we have to take a look at what isn't working. The reality is that Buxton is striking out 46.2% of the time, up from 35.6% a season ago, and easily the worst mark of his career. Despite his success at Triple-A, he posted a 27.8% strikeout rate in 49 games during 2016, and that number has only increased at the big league level.

On top of the strikeouts, Buxton seems to be guessing far more often than not at the plate. His hard hit rate of 24% is a career low, and his 20.1% swinging strike rate is worse than every qualified big leaguer not named Paulo Orland (21.2%) or Danny Espinosa (23.1%). As would be expected with all of the whiffs, Buxton's contact percentage comes in at just 61%, down from 67.9% a year ago, and easily a career worst mark. That number is the second worst among qualified hitters, thanks again to Danny Espinosa (58.5%).

While I don't expect Buxton to hit for the average he's posted in the minors, he appears to revert into a complete guess hitter while struggling. The belief that his average will be left on the farm is mainly rooted in the idea that I see power being more a part of his game at the big league level. If things are working, an average somewhere around .240-.260 seems to make sense, as long as there's 20 or so homers with it.

The most concerning thing at this stage is Buxton's ability, or lack thereof, to put the bat on the ball. Through April 20, he's seen 240 pitches. 34 of them have been called strikes, while he's swung through another 40 or so. Although he does have problems with breaking pitches, there's been more than a handful of fastballs that the Twins centerfielder's bat has avoided. Looking at his swing and miss chart to this point, the book appears to be targeting him down and away. A guy that chases and already struggles to make contact, is going to have a real rough go with that type of pitch.

Parker Hageman, from Twins Daily, compared Buxton's swing from last September to where it is now. His plant foot has virtually closed him off to the inside pitch, and it leaves at least a third of the zone that he's unable to do anything productive with. This could be an effort to reach the outside edge, but data tells us that those pitches aren't being executed on either. In striding directly back towards the pitcher, Buxton would have a much more realistic view of not only the zone, but ability to spray pitches from where they are pitched.
Of the nearly 50 at bats Buxton has had this season, the Twins youngster has had two strikes on him in 30 of those instances. He's been behind in the count roughly half of the time (23 ABs), and has faced 0-2 or 1-2 counts in 19 at bats. If you're going to close off the hitting zone, guess through pitch sequences, and fail to drive your hands through the ball, none of those additional factors will set you up for success.

Now, why shouldn't we worry? First and foremost, this sample is based off of less than 50 at bats. Right now, the White Sox Avisail Garcia (a career .260 hitter), leads MLB with a .423 average. There's also 12 big leaguers batting sub .150, and they include names like Napoli, Story, Granderson, Swanson, Bautista, Reyes, and Martin (no wonder why the Blue Jays are off to a slow start eh?). On top of that, Buxton is still just 23 years old.

It's absolutely fair to groan a bit when looking at the reasons for positivity when it comes to Buxton, we've heard them plenty of times before. That doesn't change the reality however. Most big leaguers don't truly show what they are as a hitter until right around 1,000 career at bats (Buxton has 474). In total, across three seasons, Buxton has played just 152 major league games as well (he debuted at 21).

Looking back at some former Twins greats, Buxton is already quite advanced. Kirby Pucket was at Single-A as a 23 year old, Torii Hunter had just 17 at bats in the big leagues prior to his 23rd birthday, and really, Joe Mauer is last the last true success story at an age younger than Byron (Mauer had a .297/.371/.440 slash line in 166 G prior to his 23rd birthday). With Buxton still being among the youngest players at the highest level of the game, it's not incredibly surprising that he's still trying to find his footing.

If the two biggest reasons to pause on concern for Buxton remain related to his age and lack of experience, repetition would continue to be the biggest remedy in my book. As the Twins carry on through the 2017 season, there's little to gain by jettisoning Buxton back to a level he's dominated any time before the summer. Continuing to allow him to learn and hone his craft against the level he must succeed at seems like a logical plan. Unfortunately, it's not one I'm certain the Twins go with.

Recently, Paul Molitor pinch hit Eduardo Escobar for Buxton late in a game against the Cleveland Indians. There wasn't much reason for the move, it took an at bat from Buxton, and the Twins short bench forced Escobar out of position into left field. It's moves like these that beg the question as to whether or not Molitor understands how to develop the organization's future.

When evaluating whether the Twins skipper is the right man for the role, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine could be compelled to look no further than Buxton. It's one thing to not have a first round pick to work out, but when you have the consensus number one prospect in baseball, failure really isn't an option. Molitor hasn't gotten any measurable success from Buxton's development, and his trust in him would seem uncertain as well, as witnessed by a move such as the pinch hit scenario. Regardless of who the Twins sign or trade for, the reality is the future rests on the shoulders of players like Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios.

To summarize, there's nothing that hasn't been frustrating about Byron Buxton's start through the first two weeks of the season. He knows that, and anyone watching him play knows that. There also is plenty of reason for pause when it comes to writing him off, it's been two weeks. The best remedy to get him right is continued repetition, and fine tuning what isn't working. His manager also needs to remain committed to that goal, and the talk of any demotion needs to be shelved in lieu of consistent playing time for at least the next month.

Right now, nothing is going right, but the mixed messages don't help the process either. Byron Buxton may not hit at the big league level, but we shouldn't be anywhere near that question at this point.

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