Fort Myers, Fla. – The fastest man in baseball is focused on being even faster in 2018. But first, Byron Buxton attempted the unimaginable.
Apparently unimpressed by his sub-200-pound frame, the Twins center fielder began the offseason with a goal of adding weight. He yearned for strength and more power.
“The whole month of November, every day, three times a day, I’d eat chicken,” he said. “Every single day that whole month.”
He grilled, baked and, occasionally, fried chicken. To his dismay, he stayed lean: “I didn’t gain one pound,” he said. “Not one pound.”
Twins second baseman Brian Dozier laughed for several moments when told the story.
“I need to talk to him,” Dozier said. “I’ll tell him how to gain weight. Eating a lot of chicken is not going to do it.”
Then Dozier’s voice raised a couple pitches as he added: “He don’t need to beef up. Shoot, it’s not getting bigger and having more power. It’s flexibility, movement and stuff.”
And no one moves like Buxton. According to MLB’s Statcast tracking technology, Buxton’s sprint speed measurement of 30.2 feet per second made him the fastest runner in the game. He used his speed to devastate opponents on the basepaths. A Gold Glove winner, Buxton blazes across the outfield to make diving catches and crashes into walls so often, he could be the first player to be fitted with air bags.
And, following a .195 start, he batted .309 after June 30, giving him confidence he will hit his way on base more often in 2018. That could help him reach his goal of 50 stolen bases.
Why be infatuated with weight? Why do something that could possibly slow him down?
“I realized, I am not getting bigger,” said Buxton, who is listed at 190 pounds on the Twins website and said he fluctuated between 188 and 192 last season. “I need to find something else … something to help me out try to find something, speedwise.”
After that experimental November, Buxton went back to the lab — his old track and baseball field at Appling County High School in Baxley, Ga. That’s where he once popped a 4.37-second 40-yard dash while on the track team.
There he worked on his technique, remembering the teachings of his track coach, Sheldon Pearce. Buxton practiced his form, making sure he was in the best position to round the bases as cleanly as possible. He knows if his hands are too high while he is rounding second, it could affect his arrival at third.
“Something very small I can work on,” he said.
Buxton stole 101 bases in 128 attempts in the minors, taking off on the pitcher’s first move and using raw speed to beat throws. His thievery did not come as easily in the major leagues. Pitchers are quicker to the plate and hold runners better, catchers have stronger and more accurate arms — and Buxton was having a hard time simply reaching first base.
Buxton attempted only four stolen bases in 46 major league games in 2015 and 12 in 92 games in 2016, mainly because he was learning to read pitchers and trusting his explosion toward second base.
He used to let his right arm dangle between his legs as he took a lead off first base. That caused him to fly open when he took off for second and cost him time. Twins third base coach Gene Glynn suggested Buxton dangle his left arm instead, and he believes he is aligned better when he takes off.
That, plus reading pitchers better, enabbled him to steal 29 bases in 30 attempts last season. The one time he was thrown out, he overslid second base at Baltimore on May 23.
A pitcher who can deliver a pitch to the plate in less than 1.3 seconds is considered good. A catcher is considered good if he can throw the ball to second base around 2.0 seconds. Buxton is out to wreck stopwatches and beat them both.
“Even if a pitcher is 1.1 to home plate, we want him to go,” Glynn said, “and make them throw him out.”
Although Buxton continues to hone his baserunning technique, Glynn maintains that Buxton’s reaction time is elite. If he gets the right read and takes off, he can pile up the steals. It began to fall into place last season and could an ever bigger part of his game in 2018.
“Once I see you move to the plate, because I was so comfortable at first base, I just went,” Buxton said of the strides he made last season. “It wasn’t about if the pitcher had a quick delivery to the plate. I didn’t care about that. If I got a good jump, I was gone.”
Now, Buxton said, he wants to steal 50 bases. Dozier, once again, was incredulous.
“Why don’t he steal 60?” Dozier said. “Why don’t he steal 100? I’m not going to put a ceiling on that guy. You’re only scratching the surface with what that guy can accomplish.”
Being called the fastest man in baseball suits Buxton just fine. The moniker validates the time he has put into running the bases flawlessly, chasing down balls hit into the gaps and learning how to steal bases off pitchers.
It also is a challenge to him to not settle for anything but his best. As he slipped on is spikes and raced around his old high school field during the offseason, he felt he was doing just that.
“If I feel like I’m hitting the corners right, I feel like I’m pushing off the bases right, I can feel the difference,” Buxton said. “I knew something was changing and something was getting better.”