Usually, Byron Buxton goes from home to third so fast you wonder if he took a shortcut. But through three major league games, his primary accomplishment has been running so hard and fast that his teammates worried that he might hurt himself, or an innocent bystander.
Monday, Buxton’s first major league hit left his bat as if propelled by gunpowder, and he followed suit. He flew into his first turn, almost flattening Cardinals first baseman Mark Reynolds, who was standing where he’s out of the path of most humans.
Buxton accelerated so hard toward second that he twice almost tripped, or “got sniped,” in baseball slang.
As Buxton rounded second his arms began to flail for counterbalance and he coasted into third with a stand-up, almost-fell-down-twice, triple. On an innocent line drive to the gap, Buxton produced Minnesota’s fastest-running drama.
“I’m fairly certain I’ve never seen anybody run that fast,” Twins closer Glen Perkins said.
Buxton has been the consensus top prospect in baseball since 2012. He played in his first major league game Sunday, scoring the winning run easily from first on a double. He played his second major league game Monday, hitting that fast-forward triple. Today, he will make his Target Field debut.
Like those gyrations during his first hit, Buxton represents something perhaps never before seen in a Twins uniform: a superior athlete who chose to play baseball.
The Twins have won two World Series. They have produced Hall of Famers, built ballparks and played host to countless major events and milestones. They have never employed anyone quite like Buxton.
“He looks like a shooting guard in basketball, a running back in football, a 100-meter star,” outfielder Torii Hunter said. “That’s what you do when you see a great all-around athlete — imagine him in other sports. He’s a pure athlete.”
After missing most of the 2014 season because of injuries, Buxton at 21 is not yet a polished hitter, but he may be the fastest player ever to wear a Twins uniform. Twins manager Paul Molitor compared his speed to Bo Jackson, Ron LeFlore and Willie Wilson, who could turn routine groundballs into infield hits.
Speed alone doesn’t make a player great, otherwise the St. Louis Cardinals would have signed Usain Bolt. Buxton’s speed is the most prominent of his attributes, which include the prototypical five tools of a top prospect — throwing, running, fielding, hitting for average and hitting for power.
“I think the power might be the last thing you see,” Hunter said. “He doesn’t have his man muscles yet. He still has baby muscles. Maybe by the time he turns 27 he’ll be hitting 20-something home runs, to go with all of the other things he can do.
“He has talent. He listens. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do in this game.”
If Buxton becomes the player he projected to be, he could be the next big thing in several categories and legacies.
Of all of the Twins’ great players, Buxton has a chance to be the purest of the five-tool stars. Tony Oliva possessed all five tools but had his speed robbed by bad knees. Rod Carew lacked power, Harmon Killebrew, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau lacked speed.
Kirby Puckett arrived as a skinny leadoff hitter who frequently bunted, then morphed into a squat line-drive producing powerhouse. Hunter possessed all five tools — throwing, running, fielding, hitting for average and hitting for power — without matching Buxton’s speed or offensive upside.
This is a franchise known for round bellies and sharp instincts, a franchise that won a World Series by deking Lonnie Smith and yanking Ron Gant off first base. Buxton may not need guile.
“I haven’t seen another one like him,” said his agent, Al Goetz, a former player and scout. “There are guys close to some of his tools, but when you consider his skills, and then consider that he will be adding power as he matures, you’re talking about someone who is unique.
“He’s going to keep getting bigger and stronger,” Keith Lockhart, who played for the Braves and is now a Cubs scout, told me. “I know I haven’t been scouting that long but he’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”
Baseball once produced waves of five-tool center fielders. Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider all played the same position in the same city at the same time. Buxton’s arrival gives him a chance to join Mike Trout and Andrew McCutcheon as young, five-tool center fielders.
“McCutchen, Trout, people like that come to mind,” Molitor said. “I don’t like labeling guys with potential too quick, but, yes, he has all of those skills. Part of his learning process will be figuring out how to use all of those skills up here.”
Buxton also represents the passing of the Twins’ Gold Gloves in center field. Puckett mentored Hunter, who now mentors Buxton, who as a fielder should outdo his predecessors in range if not savvy.
“I listen to everything he says,” Buxton said of Hunter. “He helped me a lot this spring, and I’m sure he’s going to help me a lot up here.”
Buxton may need the advice. After dominating Class A in 2013, he missed most of 2014 because of injuries. He was playing well but not hitting spectacularly at Class AA Chattanooga when an injury to Aaron Hicks left the Twins with few other palatable options to play center field in the majors.
Buxton’s speed, arm, defensive range and bat speed are ready for the big leagues. His approach against good big-league pitching might be a work in progress.
“I hope Twins fans are patient with him, understanding that for all of his attributes, he’ll have to learn how to hit in the majors,” Goetz said. “There’s no question he’ll be coachable, and that he’ll adapt. But you never know what the timing will be.”
In his first few days in the big leagues, Buxton was the same quiet, polite kid who impressed people throughout the Twins’ organization. He calls his elders “Sir,” arrives early, stays late, and was the first Twin to take the field before the first pitch Monday.
It can be overwhelming when a lifelong dream arrives in the form of a surprise. Buxton, on the road with Chattanooga, had to get dress clothes appropriate for big-league travel from Twins traveling secretary Mike Herman, and Twins’ director of baseball communications and player relations Dustin Morse helped him pick his number, 25.
Buxton kept telling Morse he didn’t care what number was on the jersey, as long as he got to wear one.
“The first day, everything felt rushed,” he said. “I don’t think I took the time to slow everything down before I started playing. Yesterday, I was able to do that before the game.
“It’s almost too much at first. You try to soak in as much as you can and just go out there and relax, but it’s pretty tough to do.”
In three games, he has scored the winning run from first, standing up, on a double. He has tripled. He has singled. And he has been thrown out stealing after getting a bad jump in the top of the eighth Tuesday.
The triple marked the moment when Buxton’s potential coalesced.
“His hands were so quick on that pitch, and he hit that ball so hard with such a short swing,” Perkins said. “Then the way he ran. … I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like that.”
Buxton said he didn’t realize he almost ran into Reynolds until he watched film. He felt his limbs flailing as he rounded second.
“I almost got sniped — twice!” he said. “That was maximum effort.”
Someone asked Molitor about Buxton’s speed from home to third, and Molitor noted that it might be fun to measure Buxton “from home to home.” He was smiling, but not joking.
Today, Buxton will play center field in his new home, and the question is whether he is ready for the big leagues.
If he’s as good as the Twins think, he’ll eventually reverse that question.