The Twins began the season wondering when Byron Buxton would be healthy enough to play.
And they started the postseason in the same predicament.
In between, the tantalizing skills were on display for all to see, with the good news for the Twins being that Buxton is in the starting lineup and batting second against Houston for today's playoff opener.
His second-half power surge forced a reset of expectations for his home run capabilities. He made adjustments at the plate, turning a weakness of hitting breaking balls into a strength. He worked to avoid full-speed crashes into outfield walls. He has just two stolen bases, but claims he’s studying to be better in that area too — he just can’t prove it because he’s been hitting more homers than singles lately.
Buxton showed off an elite combination of speed in the outfield and power at the plate as he hit eight homers over a 12-game period in September.
All eyes were on Buxton as he pulverized pitches earlier this month. And all eyes are on him now as he attempts to recover from concussion-like symptoms suffered in a Friday beaning in time to play against Houston on Tuesday in Game 1 of the America League wild-card series.
Buxton shagged fly balls and took some swings during the Twins’ workout Monday at Target Field. The Twins likely will take up until the 11 a.m. Tuesday deadline to submit their roster while deciding if Buxton will play in Game 1.
“Buck was able to get out there,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Buck also took some swings today, too. All that went relatively well but as far as specifics, we’ll probably just wait as we sit down and hash out what this playoff roster’s going to look like.”
With Buxton, the Twins go from a C team to an A team. And they know it. They were 26-13 with him in the lineup and 10-11 without him.
“His offense — he’s been hitting really well,” said righthander Kenta Maeda, the Twins’ Game 1 starter, “and more so his defense, I think, will improve us 10 times above usual. He can contribute 10 times more than what other guys can. He’s just phenomenal.”
In only 39 games, Buxton batted .254 with 13 home runs 27 RBI and two steals. His home run percentage was second in the American League to New York’s Luke Voit. His Baseball-Reference WAR of 1.9 leads the team despite missing 21 games, mostly because of a mid-foot sprain in July and sore left shoulder in August.
Baldelli didn’t hold back when he was asked if Buxton deserved Most Valuable Player discussion.
“I don’t know how a player can be more valuable to a team than Byron Buxton is to us,” Baldelli said. “The results speak for themselves.
“We’re talking about a guy that, as we’ve discussed before, he’s certainly in the conversation of being the best outfielder in the world, and he’s also hit the ball out of the ballpark this year at a rate that I don’t know if any other player in baseball has. Combine those two things, flat-out just combining those two things, I don’t know how you’re not talking about him as a potential Most Valuable Player candidate.”
The Twins aren’t allowed to fit him in a rubber uniform and have tried other means to keep the oft-injured Buxton — he has played in more than 92 games only once in his career — on the field. The have him playing deeper in center field and jumping at the wall with two feet to keep him from launching himself into the wall. It was working, but then he suffered the shoulder injury while sliding. Then his September surge abruptly ended when he was struck in the head by a pitch on Friday while playing the Reds.
Buxton doesn’t turn 27 until Dec. 18, so he might not have reached his peak. And, despite the games he’s missed, he has managing to hone his hitting skills. He still strikes out a lot, but his strikeout percentage of .267 this season is below his career average of .295.
He identified a weakness in hitting breaking pitches and has worked on correcting it. After hitting .226 off breaking balls a year ago, he’s batting .340 against them this season and has hunted for those pitches early in counts.
“Obviously in past years I haven’t hit off-speed pitches well,” Buxton said. “That’s something that I knew I had to do and something I had worked on once I was able to do it. Those get me over pitches that I normally take for a strike and get myself into a hole. I’m picking those pitches up a little bit better and I’m not missing too many of my pitches.”
A crucial player
Buxton finished 18th in MVP voting in 2017 when he played a career-high 140 games. He ended up playing in 65% of the games this season, a pace for 105 during a normal baseball year.
When Buxton does play, he’s the rising tide that lifts all boats.
He converts outs with his glove, he’s driving more balls out of the park with his bat and his speed on the base paths puts pressure on opponents.
And the Twins would like to use the best tool in the toolbox against the Astros.
“I know that there have been some pretty spectacular seasons throughout the league this year from some guys, and 60-game seasons are going to give you some kind of unusual-looking numbers, I’m sure,” Baldelli said. “But what Byron’s meant to us, anyone that’s watched it firsthand, I think would stand behind that statement. I know I do.”