Byron Buxton Explains How He Catches Everything

CLEVELAND — Last week, this author wrote about how Byron Buxton’s glove had improved from good to great in part thanks to Statcast. The post was inspired by a Jared Diamond piece for the Wall Street Journal.

Buxton told Diamond it was player-tracking data that had led him to focus on improving his first step this offseason. Quite possibly as a result, Buxton has transformed from merely a speedy outfielder to the best outfield defender in the game, according to Outs Above Average (24). He’s the top center fielder in the game, according to Defensive Runs Saved (26).

Pretty explosive first step, eh?

I was curious to learn more about how Buxton’s attempt to improve his first-step quickness and initial track to balls. Moreover, some readers had doubts after reading last week’s post about whether a defender could improve elements of his defensive play like first-step quickness. Thankfully, the Twins are in Cleveland this week hoping to whittle their magic number down to zero. So before a Twins hitters’ meeting Tuesday at Progressive Field, Buxton granted me an audience before his locker in the visiting clubhouse.

Buxton said it was about a year and a half ago that Twins officials approached him with Statcast data to illustrate how he might better take advantage of his athletic gifts to save runs. Most players, of course, are likely to embrace the advice of coaching staff; the addition of cold, hard, unfeeling data, though, makes that advice even more persuasive.

So last offseason, when Buxton returned to his native Baxley, Ga., he also regularly visited his alma mater, Appling County High. He went to work with his old high-school track coach, Sheldon Pearce, with the goal of improving his first-step quickness. Is this something you can improve? Without a doubt, Buxton believes.

“I knew [improving] my first step was the biggest thing for me,” Buxton told FanGraphs. “I just went back home and found some things that could help me out doing that.”

Pearce had Buxton go through a number of drills to increase his initial explosiveness, including one particularly intensive practice Buxton explained in detail. Buxton said he began the drill by laying on his back on the red rubberized surface of his old high-school track. Pearce barked out whether he should spring into a running stance either to his right to left. But there was a catch.

“I can only use three fingers [to get up from the ground], so I had to use my legs to get up. It was pretty intense,” Buxton told FanGraphs. “If I had to roll right, I used three fingers to get up. After I use those three fingers to get up, [the opposite arm] arm goes straight back into running position. Then I go.

“My track coach, he has always talked about the first step being quick and explosive. I could improve and be a little bit better… He helped me get it quicker and more explosive. I found some techniques to help me out.”

Apparently so.

Again and again he worked on that drill and others. The effect: to allow one of the game’s premier athletes to become even more explosive on his initial movement after a ball.

Buxton said another area in which he endeavored to improve was his path to balls hit directly over his head — particularly on what he calls his “drop step,” the first movement back on such a route.

This spring, on the backfields of the Twins’ Fort Myers, Fla., complex, Buxton engaged in hundreds of reps with Twins coaches, tracking ball after ball over his head. The goal: for Buxton to become more accurate, quicker, in his initial diagnosis of batted balls. It’s the most difficult play for a center fielder.

“It was more footwork than anything else,” Buxton said. “Getting my first step quicker. Getting my drop step a little quicker, more accurate, toward making those tough plays.”

Progress anyone?

The improvement of Buxton’s first-step quickness might also be showing up on the base paths: he set a Twins record on Tuesday night by stealing his 23rd consecutive base without being caught.

Twins manager Paul Molitor said the defensive metrics tells the story of an athlete maturing, understanding that his gifts alone cannot carry him, of remaining open to coaching and data.

“As athletic as he is — and he is upper-echelon elite in terms of athletes in our sport — we found some things we felt would improve him in terms of reaction, first step, angles,” Moltior said. “It’s gotten better. Things that show up in the metrics, the numbers, all those things are improved because, I think, he realized he couldn’t just rely on [athleticism].”

We’ve seen Statcast tools help inform hitters on how to improve swings and approaches. Buxton says it can also help defensive play. And Buxton’s testimony is important as he has emerged as the top outfield defender in the game this season, and he is a significant reason why the Twins have enjoyed a defensive turnaround (-46 DRS in 2016 to +11 this season). Buxton and his glove are reasons the Twins are on the cusp of a postseason appearance.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Now if his bat could catch a few more pitches we might be onto something. He is right back to 30+% K rate in September after “turning the corner”. Streaky this man is.

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

With an .841 OPS. I think that’s okay.

6 years ago
Reply to  Bryz

His improvements this year are all against lefties. That’s not nothing, and if he is a true talent 116 wRC+ against them (vs. -21 and 91 the past two years), that’s quite valuable.

However, he’s still a mediocre to bad hitter against righties. His wRC+ against righties hasn’t improved at all in three years: 90, 84, 82. He’s still averaging 5:1 strikeouts to walks against righties and his OPS against them went .704, .704, .701.

He’s potentially very good against lefties and bad vs. righties. Until and unless he improves against righties, he’s close to his offensive ceiling.

That doesn’t mean he’s not valuable, but he doesn’t have much more room for growth unless he starts seeing the ball better against righties.

EDIT: I looked at second half splits vs. righties and he’s done much better there: .284/.327/.539 for a 123 wRC+. If that’s real, watch out.

However, it’s still come with a 6:1 K to BB ratio and is built on a .255 ISO and .356 BABIP. I’m not saying that’s entirely unsustainable, but I’m skeptical.

And remember that he had a 106 wRC+ and a 100 against righties in the second half of the previous two years and it didn’t carry over.

I hope it does this time, because I do like Buxton (despite my constant criticism of his offense) and I think it would be great if he could be a better hitting Billy Hamilton.

6 years ago
Reply to  Bryz

That is OK, but it doesn’t address the K rate. He can do better. As the OP said, streaky.

6 years ago
Reply to  southie

He is going to remain streaky until he can get a more maintainable swing in place. He is such an incredible athlete that all he has to do is not K… and stay healthy. I think he is capable of simplifying his swing – he did upon signing a pro contract and I think he can do it again. There are some guys like Joc Pederson, that are possibly a lost cause mechanically, and have shown no signs of wanting to change, but I think Buxton can get straightened out.

6 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

So far, the problem seems to be pitch recognition against righties rather than a slow or bad swing.

6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

I disagree somewhat. I agree that his pitch recognition is bad and was even worse, but the stroke is gross and inconsistent. You don’t have to agree with me, but I know hitting mechanics as well as anyone. I am not even critiquing his swing, it is just inconsistent and awkward – both very fixable things. I was more worried about the pitch recognition which is not always fixable, but he has made major strides this year.