Byron Buxton plays center field as if he’s a crash test dummy. He slams into walls repeatedly in fearless pursuit of baseballs. At this rate, he will need duct tape to hold his body together.
He has no plans to change.
“Either go [all out],” Buxton said, “or don’t play at all.”
Therein lies the conundrum. Buxton is a marvelous outfielder who makes spectacular catches that often save runs … and endanger his health. His durability has become a problem, but it’s a problem without an obvious solution.
Buxton is on the injured list again after suffering a left shoulder injury, the third time he’s been injured since June. His injury history is extensive, caused largely by his daredevil nature in the field, which has fueled fan angst and public outcry for Buxton to change his approach.
Asking Buxton to show restraint and play less aggressively sounds good in theory, but it’s not practical. That’s like asking a 2-year-old to be less irritable.
“I have to keep it in perspective,” Buxton said. “It’s the way I want to play. As long as I’m happy, that’s all that matters to me. Obviously being on the IL isn’t the happy part. But at the same time, it’s one of those learning things.”
Unless or until he changes — or Major League Baseball turns outfield walls into feather beds — Buxton likely will remain injury-prone because he runs like a cheetah and believes no ball is uncatchable. It’s both his gift and his curse.
Buxton makes catches that others don’t attempt. He suffered concussion-like symptoms in July when he face-planted while catching a line drive. Most outfielders play that ball on a hop.
That outcome — a single versus a trip to the IL — would’ve been a better alternative for both Buxton and the team. But playing it safe isn’t how he’s wired. Instincts and competitive drive cannot be dialed back in a split-second crack of the bat.
“I don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds, to tell him to slow down,” Twins baseball boss Derek Falvey said. “We’re asking him to be himself.”
The healthy version of himself is pretty darn valuable. Buxton finally is starting to fulfill his potential and live up to the hype surrounding him since draft day. The Twins are a different team with him, defensively and offensively, because his blazing speed provides a unique element.
The Twins have tried certain things hoping to reduce Buxton’s injury potential. They positioned him deeper in the outfield to lessen the impact when he runs into the wall. Buxton has had several conversations with Torii Hunter about how to maneuver his body to absorb crashes better. Buxton also added 20 pounds in the offseason.
Bubble wrap might be next.
“If he could control his body when he hit the wall that would be better, but you can’t tell Buxton to hold off,” Hunter said by phone. “He won’t be Byron Buxton. I would never tell Buxton to let up and take it easy. That takes away from his gifts.”
Hunter played with that same bravado. He compared the sound of a ball hitting off the wall to fingernails on a chalkboard. He hates that sound.
“You can’t tell him, ‘You’re getting close to the wall, hold up so you won’t get hurt,’ ” Hunter said. “That’s not Byron Buxton. He’s willing to take the extra step.”
Falvey said the organization believes Buxton’s approach will evolve with experience. He cited Ken Griffey Jr. as an example of a player who learned to take fewer risks and understand positioning better as he matured.
That’s a process, not a snap of the finger. Buxton compared his mind-set to a football player.
“It’s like a wide receiver,” he said. “You’re going to do whatever you’ve got to do to catch the ball.”
Sometimes the result is an injury. But simply telling him to be more cautious as he chases fly balls isn’t a realistic solution.