Byron Buxton struck out in his first opportunity to hold on to a starting job in the major leagues. Literally.
The Twins, pleased with the rookie center fielder’s speed, range and defense, nonetheless returned him to the minor leagues Monday after his strikeouts piled up to an alarming degree over the season’s first three weeks. The 22-year-old whiffed 24 times in 49 plate appearances, a 49 percent K-rate that made him the runaway leader in MLB and finally convinced the Twins that Buxton needs more time to develop his game.
“With the talent and speed he has, he needs to learn to put the ball in play more,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said shortly after informing Buxton, rated before the season by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the sport, that he is headed to Class AAA Rochester. “He’s upbeat about it, and he’s going to try to get back on track.”
Another heralded outfield prospect, 23-year-old Max Kepler, also was sent back to Rochester on Monday, though unlike Buxton, he was always projected to spend the season in the minors.
Buxton, the second overall pick in the 2012 draft after Houston shortstop Carlos Correa, made his debut with much fanfare last June. But he was plagued by similar problems at the plate, though not quite as acute, before suffering a wrist injury that aborted the Twins’ attempt to make him a permanent part of the major league roster. That project resumed this spring, and though Buxton had only moderate success at the plate in Grapefruit League play, he was given the center field job.
Buxton mostly thrived on defense during the season’s first three weeks, and Molitor hoped that batting ninth would remove any pressure he felt.
It didn’t happen.
“Contact is all. Everything [he did] defensively is what we were hoping to get out of him,” General Manager Terry Ryan said. “Unfortunately, we’ve got to have some more productivity out of the bat. There simply wasn’t enough contact.”
No other major leaguer owns a strikeout rate higher than 43 percent, and the problem was getting worse. Buxton struck out nine times in his final 14 plate appearances, including four times during Sunday’s 16-inning loss at Washington. Yet Molitor was hesitant to give up on the young Georgian.
“He’s one of my favorite people around here. He’s a very humble young man with an extremely talented gift set,” Molitor said. “We’ve tried to exhibit patience but it got to the point where it started to affect him a little bit, and that’s the last thing we want — for him to lose confidence.
“It was tough. He’s an easy kid to pull for. … But it reached the point where he need to relax a little bit and let his talent flow.”
Once he does, Ryan said, he believes the strikeouts will abate. He used Buxton’s experience at Class A Cedar Rapids in 2013 as an example. Buxton struck out 56 times, but in 321 plate appearances — a 17 percent rate. He also walked 44 times that year; he has drawn only two this month.
“I don’t think he’ll be a strikeout guy throughout his career,” Ryan said. His 49 percent rate this year, “that’s a lot. Way too much. But I believe he’ll correct it. We’re OK with some strikeouts, but certainly not at that level, especially for a guy who’s speed-oriented.”
That speed would be expected to produce plenty of hits in the infield — but Buxton has only one bunt hit this year.
“That part of his game isn’t refined yet,” Molitor said. “It’s something that would help him through these stretches, if he would improve on that.”
Can the Twins’ most valuable prospect be fixed? Molitor said he has no doubt.
“It’s going to need to start with finding a way to be more relaxed. We’re working on things mechanically, which sometimes can be more problematic than helpful,” he said. “Shorten your swing. Find a way to put the ball in play. Try to stay away from those behind-counts. … Hopefully we’ll see him again in the not-to-distant future.”