Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Buxton With the First Of (How) Many

As the Rawlings Gold Glove Award winners were announced of the night of November 7th, Byron Buxton was a lock. Yes, there were surprises among the finalists, but it was a certainty that the Twins centerfielder would win his first. There wasn't going to be a Mauer-esque snub, or a Dozier-like surprise, Byron Buxton is the best centerfielder baseball currently has to offer. With the Gold Glove solidifying that belief as reality, the question now becomes, how many more follow it?

To recap a bit, Buxton was nothing short of exceptional in the outfield for the Twins this season; you don't need sabermetrics to inform you of that. Looking at the numbers, he posted 24 DRS, a 9.9 UZR, 12.6 RngR, and a 13.1 UZR/150. In short, it was both his speed and his routes that made him the most impressive centerfielder in the game. Statcast (via Baseball Savant) came out with a new metric, Outs Above Average, for 2017 as well. Buxton's 25 OAA led all of baseball, and was also better than the total any other team (Rays 2nd with 23) could muster. For his efforts, Buxton's ability added 6 percent to expected catch percentages on balls hit his way.

It seems that each time Statcast puts forth a new defensive metric, it's Buxton that finds himself at the top. The 26 four-star outs he recorded in 2017 were an MLB best, and the 92.9% conversion rate on those outs (26-28) were also tops in the major leagues. With a 30.2 ft/s sprint speed on the basepaths, Buxton has also taken the crown as the fastest player in The Show. You'll likely be looking for a while to find something he doesn't excel at in the field.

Whether just watching him from afar, or taking a deeper dive into the advanced analytics, it's apparent that the kid from Baxley, GA is special.

So, with one Gold Glove now is his trophy case, the question becomes how many join it? Knowing what we do at this moment about his career, and what we can project going forward, I think there's a couple places we can point to in making an educated guess.

First and foremost, there's going to need to be a level of offense that follows Buxton's path. While the Gold Glove is a defensive award, Joe Mauer was left out for bigger offensive names, and Brian Dozier was included (and won) for his prowess with the bat. A guy like Buxton, so far beyond normal realms in the field, is going to be given more of a pass with his bat. For both the Twins and Buxton going forward though, the dish can't simply be a place where he punts. The good news is that a rebuilt swing under James Rowson has made it seem like that won't be the case.

Buxton ended 2017 with a career best .728 OPS despite hitting below the Mendoza Line for the first two months of the year. Across his final 82 games of 2017, Buxton owned an .801 OPS with a .278 AVG and a .332 OBP. In a full season, those numbers elevate Buxton to All-Star status, with at least a couple of MVP votes along the way. For a guy that's hit at every level of his career, I think we've only begun to see the offensive production begin to blossom, and that's quite the comforting development.

Outside of what Buxton can do in the field or at the plate, it will be integral for him to stay healthy as well. While there are times that routes are less than crisp, or closing speed allows for miraculous catches, the Twins centerfielder often finds himself acquainted with immobile objects. Finding a way to balance the ability to save games, but also not miss them will be a must as his career goes on. Outfield walls are far from forgiving, and missing stretches of play from crashing into them is hardly an ideal tradeoff. Some of Buxton's biggest highlights have included physical altercations with field dimensions, but he'll need to take care of himself from a longevity point of view.

Finally, how much can Buxton unlock from his arm. With advanced metrics measuring all aspects of defensive output, Byron has an opportunity to push the envelope with his throwing ability. A strong arm that can touch the mid-90s, accuracy seemed to leave him at points during 2017. Whether throws sail up the line, or miss cutoffs in certain scenarios, cutting down runners with more pinpoint accuracy is only going to enhance his defensive offerings as a whole.

Looking across the landscape of centerfielders, and specifically those that played for the Minnesota Twins, I'm comfortable putting Buxton Gold Glove over/under at nine. It's the same number that Torii Hunter won, and three more than Kirby Puckett tallied.

As a betting man myself, I'll take the under, but only slightly. My fear is that Buxton's reckless abandon costs him time at some points during his career, and that will hold him back from putting up the counting stats. If healthy however, Buxton is easily the best centerfielder I've ever seen, and watching him reach double-digits in the Gold Glove department would be an absolute treat.