Byron Buxton, says ESPN.com’s Keith Law, is a prospect with more tools than Home Depot.
OK, now that the requisite pun is out of the way, let’s delve into the nitty-gritty. After MLB.com anointed Buxton the number one prospect in all the land, Law’s Top 100 list concurred. As a 19-year-old, the center fielder smacked pitching around in the Midwest and Florida State Leagues to the tune of .334/.424/.520 with 12 home runs and 109 runs scored.
An on-base menace, Buxton scampered around the bases with blinding speed and, defensively, he covered more real estate than is in the Alaskan wilderness. But it is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the game -- hitting -- that separates the elite prospects from the flamed-out Brandon Woods of the world.
The game is organic and climbing the ladder involves making changes in approach and mechanics to ensure the stud high school/college player not only reaches but succeeds at the highest level of professional baseball. When it comes to Buxton, those changes are in process.
As Law writes about Buxton:
“[The] Twins have done a great job of smoothing out Buxton’s swing; he’s more balanced through contact and already has more power because he keeps his back foot in contact with the ground so he gets more loft in his swing.”
The bold section of his analysis is what jumped out at me.
At midseason, I reviewed Buxton’s mechanics from the available video at the time, compared the changes made from his high school showcase days and concluded that he and the Twins had made some significant changes to his swing. To summarize, Buxton had eliminated his open stance and leg kick in favor of an in-line approach with a toe-touch stride. In theory this provides improved timing and greater contact ability with less body movement -- the “balanced through contact” part that Law referenced.
What was prominent but not mentioned was the fact that his back leg left the ground at contact. At that time, I did not see this as a flaw, per se. After all, there are some hitters who do quite well for themselves with this in their swing. Albert Pujols’ swing pulls his back foot off the ground and forward after contact. More pronounced, however, is the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper who displays this very trait in his swing perhaps more than anybody.
As you see at the point of contact, Harper’s back foot has left the ground by an inch or two. Though somewhat unorthodox, in an article published by Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post last year, biomechanics expect Glenn Fleisig explained why this move is beneficial for Harper:
[Fleisig] said the majority of hitters he’s studied transferred 90 percent of their weight to their front foot and kept 10 percent on their back leg at contact. Harper, of course, would move 100 percent of his weight forward at contact when his back leg lifts. That, Fleisig said, would enable him to generate a ground rotational force equal to 150 percent of his body weight.
“He would probably have towards the peak of his value,” Fleisig said. “It’s not about maximizing your ground force. It’s about how much you pass through your system.”
So, biomechanically speaking, the move in and of itself does not reduce power.
The main difference between Harper and Buxton’s leg lifts was the weight transfer. In Harper’s case, you see that his front side has absorbed essentially all his weight. Buxton, on the other hand, lacks the max effort transfer and has a more balanced weight distribution making the leg lift something that could diminish his power. What’s more is that from the front view, it is noticeable that Buxton’s back leg slides out a bit, too.
Over the course of last season, video of Buxton in Cedar Rapids and then Fort Myers showed the game’s top prospect demonstrating this back-leg lift in his swing, but there was evidence of it beginning to tone down in the Florida State League. It was not until clips of his performance in the Arizona Fall League that Buxton’s swing seemed different than that of his Midwest League.
From the Twins’ perspective, you can see why they would want to try to streamline Buxton’s mechanics. Any reduction of unnecessary movement will streamline the swing and provide Buxton -- who is graced with countless tools -- the opportunity to succeed at the major league level for a long time.