Monday, June 10, 2019

Buxton Ticketed for Big Time Votes

The year was 2017 and the month was August. Byron Buxton had just been shelved since mid-July, entered with a .604 OPS, and was ready to get back on the field. The Minnesota Twins needed a jolt to push towards the playoffs and man did his month of August provide it. A .973 OPS across 29 games ended up vaulting him onto the national scene and he was rewarded with an 18th place finish in the American League MVP voting. Fast forward to 2019 and we’re watching it happen again.

Right now, Buxton doesn’t own a .973 OPS, and no 29-game sample size has jumped off the page quite like that final month of summer did. However, it’s what Byron Buxton has done this season that is getting deserved recognition across the sport. He isn’t going to win an MVP award because Mike Trout exists, but behind arguably the greatest player to ever step on the diamond, Buxton is currently the second-best centerfielder in the game.

On May 13th Buxton had played 37 games for the Twins and his 17 doubles led all of baseball. He had just one homer, but his .275 average and .806 OPS were plenty promising. This date is significant as it was then that I offered the following thoughts on Twitter:

We’re now roughly a month out from that Tweet, and things have gone as expected. Buxton’s hard-hit rate since that date is 38.6%. He has jumped the 2% HR/FB rate all the way up to 25% and has six dingers. He still leads the American League with 21 doubles (trailing only Josh Bell’s 25 across baseball), but the longball is now being incorporated back into his game. I have long believed Buxton won’t hit for average as much as he’ll combine to hit for power. If the .270 sticks, so be it, but the .500+ SLG is exactly what I’d like to see.

You already know about the defensive acumen. Buxton leads baseball in Outs Above Average (10) and Actual Catch Percentage (94%). His 9 DRS is third in the big leagues, and his UZR is also off the charts. It’s fair to suggest that, when healthy, he’s the most dynamic player on defense that the sport currently employs.

What is great, and maybe less known, is that the offensive outburst looks sustainable. He’s decreased his chase and whiff rates. His contact rate is a career high, and the hard-hit rate is a substantial improvement. The ball is on the ground nearly 10% less than career averages, and he’s not just trying to beat out ground balls as has been previously suggested to him. This is a good hitter that allowing his tools to work and is creating absolute nightmares for opposing pitchers because of it.

It really doesn’t matter where he hits in Rocco Baldelli’s lineup. I’ve talked about moving him up previously, and something like 6th or 7th seems to make sense. Even if he stays in the 9-hole though, this is a guy that’s settled in and finally comfortable showing off the ability that has been there all along.

While he won’t win the MVP award, he’s a top 10 candidate at this point in the season, and even that may be a bit too light.