FORT MYERS, Fla. – Byron Buxton wore socks with yellow smiley-face logos during batting practice Tuesday. His hosiery pretty accurately reflects his mood after two days of crushing baseballs during training camp.
“The more fun you have, the more you smile, the more relaxed you are,” Buxton said. “So that’s how I’m trying to stay.”
It’s easy to relax when you’re batting 1.000, when you have as many home runs in two Grapefruit League games as in your previous 61, when you lead all of baseball with 10 RBI before you finish unpacking. Yes, it’s a preposterously small sliver of success (and it doesn’t even count) in a sport that requires months of it, but for a player as obviously talented as the 25-year-old outfielder, it doesn’t take much kindling to ignite a firestorm of optimism.
“I don’t care if these are spring training games or what kind of games they are, he looks like he’s having fun, from the time he comes into the dugout [before the game] until we slap him five and he goes back [to the clubhouse],” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s a nice way to start the spring. He looks great.”
He looks different, too, and it’s not just the added muscle that’s helping his fly balls carry over fences. Buxton used to change his swing about as often as his socks, but this time it’s permanent, he said. He consulted the batting coach who knows him best — himself — and has decided to heed his own advice.
“The whole offseason, it was just myself. So it’s my swing, my thought process, my thinking, everything with my swing now is me,” Buxton said. “I didn’t go to no hitting coach, I didn’t go work out with nobody, I worked out by myself, I hit by myself and that’s where it’s going to stay.”
No more trying to remember a dozen different hitting tips as a pitch speeds his way?
“Oh, everything is out of my head,” Buxton said. “I’m clearer now than I ever was.”
He came to camp determined to take more pitches during spring training, to see more strikes rather than lunging at the first pitch he sees.
“The last few years, I usually thought, ‘First pitch I see, if it’s a fastball, I want to hit it.’ Because I don’t want to get behind,” he said. “But the older I get, the more I realize — this is spring training, this is where I need to start seeing breaking pitches. I need to work on laying off sliders in the dirt. I didn’t used to give myself time to do that, because if you threw me a first-pitch fastball, I was swinging. I didn’t care what it was, I didn’t want to strike out no matter what.”
If his approach has changed, so have his mechanics. Most notably, he has ditched his leg kick, the timing device that he seemed to adopt or discard with every slump.
“Once I took the leg kick out, that put my thought process at ease. I wasn’t thinking about when I had to lower my leg, where I had to land, where my foot needed to be,” Buxton said. “All those things that go into having that leg kick, I eliminated. It was very simple for me — all I do now is step. Step and see the ball.”
And hit it hard, at least in his first two games. The home runs, off Tampa Bay lefthander Jalen Beeks and Baltimore righthander Hunter Harvey, were the eye-catching frosting, but Buxton was more proud of the three wait-for-your-pitch singles.
“For me, my favorite hit was the first one, the one back up the middle. Just because I did what I wanted to do and didn’t try to do too much with the pitch,” he said. “The home runs are, whatever. The base hits are what I’m trying to do — hit the ball hard somewhere, keep it on the ground, and just let me play.”
That’s all the Twins want, too.