It took until Memorial Day for Byron Buxton to raise his batting average above .200. So, naturally, he began to wonder about job security.
“Those were some tough days,” Buxton said. “I can remember going home and thinking, ‘Today could be the day you could get sent down.’ You start thinking negatively instead of positively.”
Teammates have reminded him how his elite defense in center field and blistering pace on the base paths have contributed to a 45-43 record at the All-Star break. While he has embraced that perspective, he wants to be a more complete player.
There’s one thing keeping Buxton from being the impact player the Twins believed he was when they selected him with the second overall pick in 2012 draft: a .218 career batting average and 249 strikeouts in 221 games.
While Carlos Correa, Addison Russell, Corey Seager and others from that draft class have enjoyed stardom, Buxton, 23, is still trying to become the well-rounded player the Twins believe he can be. He hopes a recent change in his hitting approach will help him be more of a threat at the plate.
“The last couple of weeks I’ve been a little more comfortable with the swing,” Buxton said. “I feel a lot more confident when I get in the box with the swing.”
Defensively, Buxton has no peers. His speed and fearlessness in the outfield have bailed out the Twins pitching staff with spectacular catches while leaving dented walls throughout the league as he robs opponents of hits.
According to FanGraphs, Buxton’s 17 defensive runs saved are second most of any player at any position in baseball. His defensive rating of 8.2 is 12th overall.
“He’s changing the game defensively,” Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. “I don’t care if he hits .100 the rest of the year, he’s the best center fielder I have ever seen at this level.”
As a baserunner, Buxton puts opponents on notice with his outstanding speed. On July 7, he scored from first on a single to center by Dozier. Last season, he pulled into third base with a stand-up triple on a ball hit to left-center.
And more Buxton doing Buxton things: He has tripled down the left-field line.
“I have never, in all my years, seen that,” former Twin and FSN analyst Roy Smalley said. “And now I’ve seen him do it twice.”
According to Statcast’s sprint speed formula, Buxton is the second-fastest man in baseball to Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton, covering 30.1 feet per second.
Surprisingly, Buxton was not a great base-stealer when he debuted in the majors in 2015. But he’s worked on that, getting bigger leads and learning which pitches he can steal on. The next step is to start stealing third base.
“I think the biggest thing is that he has a desire to know that just his speed is not going to make him successful,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He is looking for those little edges.”
So far, Buxton has 16 stolen bases in 17 attempts.
Hitting is the final frontier. The more he hits, the more opportunities he’ll have to score from first on a single or leg out triples to left field.
Buxton began the season with a leg kick as part of his approach, but he was batting .147 at the end of April. With the help of hitting coach James Rowson, Buxton has eliminated the leg kick and moved his hands so he can attack the baseball better.
“To make the adjustments he’s making at the major league level is phenomenal,” Rowson said. “You’re going out there every day, facing the best pitching and are going through swing changes, doing things with your lower half that are uncomfortable at times.”
“It’s been a grind,” Buxton said. “There have been times where I don’t want to do this swing anymore and I want to go back to what I’ve been doing and what I feel comfortable with.”
But Buxton has stuck with it and is seeing some positive results. He’s been able to keep his hands back and use the whole field more. He has batted .474 over his past five games with a home run and two RBI, lifting his average to a season-high .216.
Molitor noted the single Buxton had on July 7 against Baltimore’s Zach Britton, who has one of the toughest sinking fastballs in the game.
“That was a good sign of how that swing is starting to feel comfortable,” Molitor said.
Time will tell if Buxton has truly found an approach that works. Smalley, who has watched Rowson work with Buxton, believes it is too soon to give up on Buxton being productive offensively.
“He has so many natural and physical attributes that are terrific,” Smalley said. “The ball jumps off the bat. You can’t teach that. When he squares it up, it jumps. He’s wiry strong. He runs like a deer and has fast hands, wrists and arms.
“He’s got all the physical talent that you need. It’s just a mechanics issue and whether or not he can make that adjustment at this level. I kind of think he can. And if he does, the sky’s the limit.”