The injury that has caused the Twins to frequently rest star center fielder Byron Buxton is patella tendinitis in his right knee, which is painful and requires daily treatment. The injury hurts even more when he swings than when he sprints, although decelerating is also problematic.
Even before Buxton aggravated the injury with a slide into second base in Boston in April, the Twins discussed how to keep him healthy and at his best this season.
That's why manager Rocco Baldelli didn't use Buxton as a pinch hitter late in a close game against Cleveland on Saturday night, and why Baldelli plans to build rest days into Buxton's schedule the rest of the season.
When the Twins' bosses met about Buxton this spring, they noted that he hasn't played in more than 87 games since 2017, and enacted the plan that is playing out this month.
They said that Buxton, throughout his career, has frequently asked to play through injuries because he feels indebted to his team. President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey and Baldelli determined that if they rest Buxton frequently, he can be one of the game's best players over the course of 100 games or so, but if they push him to play through pain and discomfort, he could wind up being either less effective, or sidelined.
Sunday, Buxton hit a home run and slammed his right leg into the bullpen fence trying to make a catch in a 3-1 victory over Cleveland at Target Field. After the game, Buxton spoke of the Twins' "plan" for him, and mentioned "100 games." It sounded like an offhand estimate, but it is the team's hope.
"We did recognize that he hasn't played over 100 games in a handful of seasons now," Falvey said. "Our view was, what's the right target between 100 and 162 that we want to get to?"
Their baseball calculus: Buxton healthy and at near full strength for just 100 games might be one of the best and most productive players in the game, and would have the best chance of being healthy and productive for a potential postseason.
The Twins are 15-8 when he plays this season and 5-7 when he doesn't. Since 2017, the Twins have won 59% of their games when Buxton plays and 46% when he doesn't. He is the rare baseball player who influences games like an NBA star.
Buxton is unlikely to play as a late-game replacement at any point this season, and especially early in the season. Falvey noted that starters spend hours preparing to play, and that asking Buxton to interrupt a day of treatment to rush into play is unwise. "I appreciate the fans' passion and thinking in the moment, but there is risk in that situation," Falvey said.
In a way, Buxton was built to play for the Twins. As a high draft pick out of high school with exceptional skills, he is following in the cleat marks of Joe Mauer and of Baldelli, another top draft pick and fleet center fielder.
The Twins' vagueness when trying to explain Mauer's ailments damaged Mauer's reputation, because no one, not even Mauer, was willing to bluntly explain his absences.
Baldelli, like Mauer and Buxton, had to learn to deal with the angst of frequent injuries and public perception. Even frequent questions about injuries can be depressing to a player.
Baldelli has a strong relationship with Buxton, and late Sunday afternoon Buxton wasn't chafing over his usage, saying, confidently, "We have a process."
"Even if he plays fewer games than another everyday player does, the performance is excellent," Falvey said. "We're trying to get him to a place where he can play as much as possible. Hopefully we're playing meaningful games in September and October, and he's good to go at that time."
Buxton rested Saturday, helped win a game Sunday and is scheduled to be in the lineup on Monday at Oakland against lefthander Zach Logue.
If the plan works, that's what it will look like for the next few months.