While Byron Buxton is still searching for his identity at the plate, there is one area in which his impact is unquestioned.
“Our defense got better when he came up,” fellow Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario said.
Among the Twins’ many difficulties over what might be a 100-loss season is their outfield defense. Robbie Grossman has taken poor routes to balls. Max Kepler, in recent weeks, has dived for balls he shouldn’t have and watched them roll away. Rosario is tied with Kepler with a team-high eight assists, but his throws have not been as accurate as they were a year ago, when he was second in the major leagues with 16 assists.
Buxton’s speed, willingness to sacrifice his body to make plays and strong arm will slow down the graying of Paul Molitor’s hair.
“You would think that your outfield would be better with a Byron Buxton in it,” the Twins manager said. “You could look up all the defensive metrics. Some things they say he does very well. Some things they say there’s room for improvement. As far as natural ability and closing speed and throwing arm, yeah.”
Using defensive runs saved — a product of Baseball Info Solutions that determines how effective a defender is compared to an average player — Buxton’s impact compared to the other outfielders is clear.
Grossman has dipped to a minus-18 in left field. Rosario is at minus-2 in left and plus-2 in center. Kepler is right at zero, or average.
Buxton is the only one on the plus side, at 6.
While Buxton entered Friday batting just .195 with two home runs and 19 RBI in 64 games, the Twins have seen little evidence of his struggles at the plate affecting his defense.
“For the most part, I just try to separate defense and offense,” said Buxton, who was called up Thursday and hit a three-run homer in his first at-bat. “I don’t want my offense to carry over into me making an error in the field that could have been prevented, or make an error that is going to make us lose the game or anything like that.”
Logan Schafer, who was called up Monday, started in left Friday. But one thing to watch during the final weeks of the regular season is how the trio of Rosario in left, Buxton in center and Kepler in right develops.
Outfield range should not be a problem, as Buxton and Kepler showed in making impressive catches against the White Sox on Friday. Buxton might not take the best route to balls at times, but his elite speed helps him recover. All three throw well, with Kepler and Rosario leading the team in assists and Buxton having an arm that hit 97 miles per hour as a prep pitcher.
“They both take away hits,” Buxton said of Rosario and Kepler. “They both throw runners out. I’m comfortable with both of them playing side by side with me. I know they are going to go all out. That makes it easier for me to go out and play my game.”
Nothing is a given, but if all three continue to perfect their game, the Twins might have an outfield they can rely on for a few years.
“It kind of gets back to a potential glimpse of how we might shape up with those three guys who are going to get a lot of playing time here down the road,” Molitor said. “But there’s no locks. You kind of hope guys keep going to the next level. They are far from being established. We have to keep having them find ways to finish here and come back next spring and see how it shakes out.”