When the son was 4, the father, playing softball with friends, sent him to right field. “A fly ball came my way,” the son says now, “and hit me in the head.”
When the son was 5, the father sent him back to the outfield. “I learned to put my glove up,” the son says. “Next time a ball came my way, I caught it.”
For little Byron Buxton of Baxley, Ga., day care was a day game. He hasn’t stopped looking precocious on the diamond since he learned to close a glove around a ball.
Chosen with the second pick in the 2012 draft by the Twins out of Appling County High School, Buxton, 19, is dominating the Midwest League for Class A Cedar Rapids, becoming the rare Twins prospect who prompts the organization’s most cautious voices to one-up each other with superlatives.
“I could see him becoming a 30-30 guy,” said his manager, Jake Mauer, of the magical 30-home run, 30-steal major league season. “He has all of the tools to do it, and he’s a very smart man.”
“He’s in a class by himself, athletically,” said Perry Castellano, the Twins strength and conditioning coach. “If you want to talk about power and explosiveness, you’d have to look at a Rickey Henderson in terms of a comparison.”
“The comparable player, in my eyes, at this point, would be Andrew McCutchen,” said Twins assistant GM Rob Antony, referring to the Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder who finished third in National League MVP voting last year.
“Once he figures a few things out, I’d have to put him, in terms of speed, right up there with Willie Wilson and Devon White,” said former Twins manager Tom Kelly, mentioning two famous speedsters of the 1980s. “My goodness gracious, I know we’re putting the cart before the horse here, but oh, boy, is he going to be entertaining.”
“Honestly, I think he has a chance to be better than those two, White and Wilson,” said Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who works with Twins minor leaguers. “It’s fun for our people to go down and see players like Byron and say he’s not only going to be a good everyday player, but he’s going to be one of the best players in the game.”
“He has reminded me of the way Mike Trout played here,” said Cedar Rapids coach Tommy Watkins, who saw the Angels phenom play in the Midwest League before putting together one of the best rookie seasons in major league history. “They have different styles, but they’ve dominated the league in the same way.”
“You know who he reminds me of, in terms of approach?” Jake Mauer said. “My brother Joe. They’re quiet, but they know they’re good.”
Asked whether comparisons to Henderson, White, Wilson, McCutchen and Trout are legitimate, Twins Vice President of Player Personnel Mike Radcliff said: “Any and all of the above. I wouldn’t limit Byron to any mold. He could be a leadoff hitter, could be a No. 3 hitter, could hit a lot of homers, could steal a lot of bases. I wouldn’t limit what he’s capable of doing when he arrives in the major leagues.”
Until they drafted Buxton and signed power-hitting third baseman Miguel Sano, who is playing at Class A Fort Myers, the Twins hadn’t raved about prospects with such enthusiasm since they used the first pick in the 2001 draft on a high school catcher named Mauer.
Before Mauer, they hadn’t raved about a prospect like this, in terms of superstar potential and personality, since the franchise moved to Minnesota.
“We legitimately thought Byron was the best player in the draft last year,” Antony said. “That’s why you pass on pitching, some people who are pretty darn good and could have helped us soon: Because we didn’t want to take somebody who might turn out to be a third starter, and then you’re watching this guy play in All-Star Games every year for somebody else.”
Tools to burn
Buxton is the embodiment of an often-invoked and rarely realized prototype: the five-tool prospect. The five tools in baseball vernacular are the ability to hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field. Some scouts add a sixth tool by separating power into raw power and game power.
Barry Bonds wasn’t a five-tool prospect. He couldn’t throw. Kirby Puckett wasn’t a five-tool prospect. He didn’t develop power until he reached the big leagues. Buxton has attended only three major league games in his life, but he grew up an Atlanta Braves fan, admiring two five-tool players in Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones.
“I watched the Braves when I got a chance,” he said. “But I was always busy playing baseball.”
Buxton’s speed is his most obvious attribute. He’s not only the fastest player many baseball observers have seen, but he also runs with a unique style, as if springs were fixed to his cleats. He goes from first to third like he knows a shortcut.
“Most people, they go to a game, they follow the ball,” Kelly said. “With this young man, you really need to keep your eyes on him. If you do, you will be very entertained.”
That speed, combined with an arm so strong he once had a pitch clocked at 99 miles per hour in high school, promises to make Buxton a Gold Glove-caliber fielder with tremendous range. That speed also has allowed him to steal 26 bases in his first 52 games at Class A, even though his base- running is a work in progress.
“Wait until Paulie gets his hands on this young man,” Kelly said, referring to Molitor, a brilliant baserunner. “He has a few things to figure out, but he’s a very impressive young man. He listens.”
Entering Saturday, Buxton was hitting .333 with seven homers, 11 doubles, five triples and 39 RBI this season. He had a .435 on-base percentage and a .545 slugging percentage. He spent April displaying remarkable power for a player so young and lean, and spent May seeing fewer fastballs as opponents began pitching him away. He has adapted by hitting the ball sharply to the opposite field.
“He’s a very respectful, quiet, kid,” Molitor said. “When you instruct him, he gives you that quiet affirmation that he understands, and then he’s able to apply what he learns very quickly.”
Buxton has hinted he possesses that shared characteristic of great athletes, a sense of the moment. In two months at Class A, he has hit a walk-off grand slam and a key inside-the-park home run on a ball dropped by an outfielder.
“He is something to watch,” Kelly said. “And I think he’s a wonderful young man.”
Born in a small town
Buxton grew up in Baxley, a town of about 4,400 located in southeastern Georgia. His father, Felton, is a truck driver. His mother, Carrie, taught school and now runs a day care out of the family house. Byron grew up playing ball all day.
“Sometimes I played football, to toughen me up,” he said. “But I always loved baseball. We’d play against rival teams, and then we’d all get together at somebody’s house and play video games. It was really all sports.”
On draft night last summer, the Buxtons threw a party. More than 1,000 people showed up.
Felton said he grew up with a single mother and, because of family responsibilities, couldn’t pursue sports with the single-mindedness he sees in Byron.
“I wanted to make sure Byron had that chance,” Felton said.
He introduced Byron to baseball and softball at a young age. He was tough on his son, willing to “whip” him when he strayed, “but I haven’t had to do that since he was 12,” Felton said. “He respects his father.”
When Byron was 15, Felton told him that he could get fat if he sat around too much. The next day, Byron rose at 5 a.m. and hit the road.
“I’d run ’til 5:45, come home, take a shower, and then my mom would be getting up to get ready for school, and she’d make breakfast,” Byron said. “After school, I’d lift weights.”
His routine explains his build. He is listed as 6-2 and 189 pounds in the Kernels game program. He looks leaner, yet somehow stronger, than those dimensions imply.
“What really impressed me was that last winter, instead of acting like a big-shot high draft choice, he went home and worked,” Antony said. “He came to spring looking much stronger, and with a very serious attitude about getting better.”
Asked about his plans for this winter, Buxton said: “I’ll take a week off, then I’m going to Atlanta to work out with a trainer. I want to get stronger.”
Sometimes it rains
There are times Buxton isn’t the Next Big Thing, when he’s just a 19-year-old who loves hanging out at the ballpark. He eats Skittles before games and shadow-boxes teammates in the outfield before batting practice.
Tuesday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, Buxton went 3-for-5 with three opposite-field singles and an RBI. Wednesday night, the Kernels were rained out, giving Buxton a rare night off.
He could have headed to the movies, or a restaurant. As daylight faded and teammates headed toward the parking lot, Buxton grabbed a miniature bat, someone else found a ping-pong ball, and they invented games in the cramped clubhouse, laughing like there was no place they’d rather be.
“When I get into the clubhouse, I’m just relaxed, hanging out with my teammates,” Buxton said. “When I’m on the baseball field, I don’t play around.”
Sano could be starting at third base for the Twins next April. Buxton, an apt pupil and rare talent, might not be far behind.