Byron Buxton Is Finally an All-Star

© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

From the point at which the Twins chose him with the second overall pick out of a Georgia high school a decade ago, Byron Buxton figured to make an All-Star team, or several of them. Yet not until Sunday, in the midst of his eighth major league season, did the powerful and fleet-footed center fielder officially become one. Buxton was among the reserves added to the American League team via a vote by his fellow players.

The honor is well deserved given that the 28-year-old Buxton ranks fourth among all outfielders in WAR (limiting the definition to those who have played at least 50% of their games in the pasture):

Outfield WAR Leaders
1 Aaron Judge NYY 366 30 .282 .360 .608 168 4.2
2 Mike Trout LAA 326 24 .270 .368 .599 168 3.8
3 Mookie Betts LAD 316 20 .271 .348 .539 149 3.4
4 Byron Buxton MIN 285 23 .212 .291 .541 132 2.9
5T Brandon Nimmo NYM 352 8 .266 .354 .431 129 2.8
Julío Rodriguez SEA 356 15 .274 .334 .477 135 2.8
Kyle Tucker HOU 325 17 .259 .351 .486 140 2.8
8 Taylor Ward LAA 270 12 .292 .385 .511 156 2.5
9T Ian Happ CHC 350 9 .276 .369 .455 130 2.2
Juan Soto WSN 367 17 .243 .398 .473 145 2.2
George Springer TOR 335 17 .250 .330 .486 126 2.2
Minimum 50% of games played in outfield.

By WAR and wRC+, where his mark of 132 is in a virtual tie for 11th among the same group, Buxton is clearly having a strong season, but as his slash line shows, it’s been an uneven one. He’s hardly the first player to make an All-Star team despite carrying an on-base percentage below .300, even in the past decade; Salvador Perez did it annually from 2014-18, in seasons where his first-half OBP was as low as .259, and where his final mark as low as .274 (both 2018). Likewise with batting average when, for example, Mike Zunino had a first-half mark of .198 just last year.

Still, even with a slugging percentage that ranks fourth in the majors, trailing only those of Yordan Alvarez, Judge, and Trout, .212/.291/.541 makes for a pretty lopsided line. Not as lopsided as Buxton’s .254/.267/.577 mark from 2020, which I wrote about last year; in that pandemic-shortened season, Buxton made just 135 plate appearances, and somehow walked just twice (1.5%) while chasing 51.2% of all pitches that went outside the strike zone. This year’s performance is out of whack in a different way, some of which owes to a recent slump; he hit .238/.320/.589 through June 26, but a dreadful .113/.175/.358 in 57 PA since, with homers accounting for four of his six hits.

Buxton’s .071 BABIP for that stretch hints at his biggest issue, and I’ll get to that, but first, some background. Though he’s had his ups and downs performance-wise in the majors, it’s been the litany of injuries — too many to list here — that has prevented him from gracing the Midsummer Classic before this. He’s played more than 92 games in a season just once; in 2017, he played in 140 games, embellishing a modest 93 wRC+ with 16 homers, 29 steals and 4.1 WAR en route to a Gold Glove and down-ballot MVP consideration. After playing in just 39 games in 2020 due to a left foot sprain, left shoulder inflammation, and a concussion, he only played in 61 games last year due to a right hip strain and a left hand fracture. When he was healthy, he was damn near unstoppable, hitting .306/.358/.647 (169 wRC+) with 19 homers, nine steals and 4.1 WAR. Prorated to 650 PA, that’s a 49-homer, 23-steal, 10.5-WAR season. The closest full-season match I can find belongs to Willie Mays, who in 1962 hit 49 homers, stole 18 bases, and produced a 163 wRC+ and 10.5 WAR — and he needed 706 PA to do it. There you have it: at his peak, Byron Buxton is capable of channeling Willie Mays.

Given that performance and that upside, you can hardly blame the Twins for retaining Buxton via the seven-year, $100 million extension he signed last November, which features additional incentives for reaching plate appearance thresholds and for finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting. This is a player with generational talent, one who has averaged 5.3 WAR per 650 PA for his career. For the 2019-21 period, a stretch that included just 187 games and 684 PA — still comparable to a full season of play — Buxton produced 8.2 WAR. Back in May, Dan Szymborski used a 600-PA basis to measure Buxton against other center fielders through age 28; his 5.0 WAR matched Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and was 0.1 ahead of Eric Davis, the ultimate “if he’d stayed healthy” player.

Buxton has managed to stay off the IL this year, which isn’t to say that he’s been fully healthy. A few weeks ago, the Twins revealed that he has been battling patellar tendinitis in his right knee since the spring, an issue that predated his departure from an April 15 game after he hit a game-opening pop fly double but slid awkwardly into second base and limped away with an apparent knee injury. An MRI showed no structural damage, but after leaving that game, he missed the next five with what was described as right knee soreness. After he missed two more games in late June, the Twins revealed the nature of his injury. Via the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Megan Ryan:

The Twins have been vague about the exact problem but revealed Thursday it is a persistent and severe case of patellar tendinitis that causes immense swelling and pain, which in turn makes it difficult to move. Activity makes it worse, sometimes even within a game. Buxton works every day with trainers to quell the injury, but there are still days when his leg will give out from under him.

[Twins manager Rocco] Baldelli stressed that all the medical experts consulted have agreed what the team is doing is the right way to proceed, though a potential IL stay could always become necessary, even if it’s not a part of the immediate plans.

Buxton also departed a May 7 game due to what was called a “low-level right hip strain” and missed the next two games. Other than that and the aforementioned stretches, he’s merely had a day off here and there as the Twins have managed his workload. He’s played in 68 of Minnesota’s 81 games, already his fourth-highest total, and his highest since 2019.

The persistent knee issue may explain some of what we’ve seen from Buxton this year, including the shape of his production. But whether or not the knee is implicated, the numbers show that he’s taken a more disciplined approach at the plate, swinging at just 47.3% of all pitches, his lowest rate since 2016; chasing just 31.6% of pitches outside the zone, his lowest mark since 2017; and swinging and missing 13.8% of the time, his lowest mark since 2017. He’s walking a career-high 8.1% of the time, two points above his career mark, but also striking out 28.4% of the time, his highest mark since 2017 (discounting his 92-PA ’18 season), and four points higher than last year.

Even though he’s making a bit less of it than before, Buxton’s contact has been impressive, and mostly in line with his recent work:

Byron Buxton Batted Ball Profile
Season BBE GB/FB EV Barrel% HardHit% Pull% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2019 206 0.61 90.0 7.3% 38.3% 49.5% .262 .244 .513 .419 .340 .305
2020 96 0.71 91.2 13.5% 47.9% 54.2% .254 .249 .577 .548 .345 .335
2021 173 1.05 92.5 17.9% 53.2% 53.8% .306 .300 .647 .611 .419 .407
2022 175 0.62 92.8 16.6% 49.1% 57.1% .212 .257 .541 .572 .353 .377
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The guy is hitting the stuffing out of the ball. Overall, His current barrel rate is in the 96th percentile, his average exit velo in the 95th, and his hard-hit rate in the 90th. Even during this dreadful slump, he’s barreling the ball at an 18.8% clip, with a 56.3% hard-hit rate and a 94.5 mph average exit velo. What’s a guy gotta do to collect some hits?

All that aside, a couple things stand out here, highlighted in yellow: last year’s groundball-to-fly ball ratio spike and this year’s pull rate. Buxton hit groundballs at a 40.1% clip last year, his highest in any of the six seasons in which he’s had at least 150 PA (in other words, not his 2015 rookie season or his injury-shortened ’18 one) and given his elite speed, it suited him. Major league hitters hit for a .238 batting average on grounders, while Buxton hit .290 on them, which put him in the 83rd percentile. For his career through 2021, he owned a .296 batting average on grounders. This year, he’s down to a 32% groundball rate and is hitting just .167 on 54 grounders. That’s a loss of about seven hits relative to his career norms; restore those and his batting line would be .239/.322/.559, which would still be impressive and yet much less remarkable in terms of making us ask, “Why?”

Through last season, Buxton hit to his pull side on 48.7% of batted balls, never topping 50% until 2020. As his pull rate has increased, he’s unlocked more power; already this year, his 35 pulled fly balls are 15 more than last season in only 31 additional PA. The total is three short of his career high, set in 2019, and one short of his total in 2017, his only 500-PA season. He’s slugging 1.914 on those balls, with 15 homers out of his 23 (already a career high!) to his pull side. But that increased pull rate has carried a cost, in that teams are shifting against him with greater frequency, and he’s losing hits — a whole bunch of ’em:

Byron Buxton vs. the Shift
Season BBE Shift PA Shift% GB% Pull% AVG SLG wRC+
2019 206 62 30.1% 29.0% 53.2% .339 .613 144
2020 96 39 40.6% 59.0% 61.5% .359 .410 112
2021 173 115 66.5% 43.5% 48.7% .330 .470 116
2022 175 137 78.3% 37.2% 54.7% .197 .292 31

Whoa. More than three-quarters of Buxton’s batted ball events are balls in play hit against shifted infields, and even though he’s elevating against the shift with greater frequency, he’s got very little to show for it. He’s got even less to show on pull-side grounders; in fact, he’s 3-for-42 (.071) on such balls against the shift, compared to 9-for-36 (.250) last year and 20-for-65 (.308) over the last three. That’s driven his overall BABIP down to .204, the lowest among major league qualifiers, 20 points below the second-lowest mark, owned by Kyle Schwarber.

Some of this almost certainly owes to his knee problems, whether as a manifestation of the injury itself (perhaps unlikely given the way he’s hammering the ball) or an attempt to mitigate it by backing off from the all-out style of play that has so often compromised his availability. Statcast still rates Buxton’s sprint speed of 29.0 feet per second in the 92nd percentile, but that’s down a full foot per second from last year, and he’s been in the 99th or 100th percentile in that category in every year prior to this one. A closer look at his running stats on Statcast shows that his home-to-first time on competitive plays has shot up from 4.0 seconds last year to 4.18 this year, and also that he’s had just over half as many “bolts” — times reaching 30 feet per second — as last year despite only slightly more playing time: 18 this year, 32 last year. Note that he has just two stolen bases in two attempts thus far this year.

Back in mid-May, before the Twins revealed the patellar tendinitis diagnosis, Buxton discussed his max-effort style and the Twins’ effort to manage his workload with The Athletic’s Dan Hayes:

“Obviously, I want to go out there every day, but I have to readjust that,” Buxton said. “I know I’ve only played 100 games once. To get to 100 games — I have no idea what that even feels like to play 100 games. The only way to get there is we had to make a different plan. I play hard every day. Don’t really know where the slowdown button is. Little nicks and pieces here and there, if I don’t start vocally letting them know, which is what I did in the past, it’ll lead to bigger injuries, which leads to more months of me missing time. For me, it’s easy.”

…“My teammates, I know how much they want me on the field. I know how much I need them and they need me. With that being said, managing things is part of baseball. It’s kind of me making sure I have their back, and the only way I can have their back is the plan, the process, the preparation that we’ve got for me to stay on the field.”

New teammate Carlos Correa, who knows a bit about the difficulty of staying on the field, voiced his support for the approach, telling Hayes, “I’d rather have him two games of every series than have him for no games at all.”

Even with Buxton backing off in terms of playing time and maximum-effort sprints, his defense has remained exceptional. His 5 DRS is fifth among all center fielders, just three runs behind leader Myles Straw in almost twice as many innings. His 6.4 UZR is third, and his 6 RAA (Outs Above Average converted to runs) is in a five-way tie for first. On a rate basis, both the UZR and RAA marks are improvements upon last year’s elite defense. The guy can still go get it.

Long story short, the shape of Buxton’s performance may not be exactly what the Twins or the rest of us envisioned as we dreamed of him remaining healthy and available for a full season. That it’s still been so exceptional and so valuable despite the circumstances is testament to his awesome talent. We should celebrate him and the Twins figuring out a way to realize it so fully.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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6 months ago

It’s hard not to get greedy and dream on what would happen if he had a plan or anything resembling an approach at the plate, but the power is so unreal that even as an out machine he’s a well above average hitter

6 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

That’s harsh, I think this article makes the case that he has had a better plan/approach at the plate this year. It’s backed up both on the macro level by the numbers, and on the micro level, there have been some extremely notable games and individual plate appearances whose success is in large part down to an impressive approach combining with the phenomenal power/talent (his opposite field home run against Aaron Bummer in late April is the best example of this, Baldelli very illuminatingly highlighted postgame the fact that Bummer pitched that AB exactly opposite of his tendencies against righties, Buxton adjusting mid-AB to look to go oppo (counter to his own pull tendency) isn’t purely a result of pure talent and power)

6 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

It’s interesting, for a long time it looked like he was overthinking things, trying new stuff constantly, etc. And his breakout coincidentally came around the same time he just abandoned any pretense of thinking at all, and just going up there and swinging. I don’t know what will happen when the athleticism goes but I guess he figures he might as well not tweak things if they’re working.

6 months ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

One other thing I’ll mention–his peak exit velocities are not in the rarefied, 80-grade, Judge / Stanton type of tier. Or even close to it. I was surprised. His peak exit velo from 2019-2022 is 115.6, in the Bo Bichette / Matt Chapman range. Guys who give you a fair amount of power, but not anything like this. His average EV isn’t any more impressive–91.1. It’s good, but not amazing. But what he does is he hits the ball in the air a lot, and particularly those harder hit balls. He’s getting something like 70 or maybe even 80 grade game power out of 65 raw. For a guy who isn’t known for the finer points of hitting it’s really striking.

6 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Since the start of 2019, Buxton’s ISO easily tops both Judge & Stanton. Makes you wonder what “raw power” really means. Is it HR/FB? Is it total homers? Is it ISO? Is it SLG? If a hitter has a 50% HR/FB rate, but only hits one out of every 20 batted balls in the air, is that 80-grade pop?

Cave Dameron
6 months ago
Reply to  kid

Raw power is just their maximum distance (or exit velo) they can hit the ball. Eric describes the raw power tool as how far a player can hit a ball during batting practice. A guy that can hit a ball 500 ft in batting practice may have 80 raw, but if he only hits 10 home runs a year that would only be 30 game power.

6 months ago
Reply to  kid

Game power = homers (and to a lesser extent, other extra base hits)
Raw power = How deep the dents are in the outfield wall during BP.

Another way of thinking about it in your everyday life is that raw power gets measured in the gym. How much can you lift? Okay, that’s great, but now let’s say you need to break down a door to get to someone who needs help on the other side. How quickly can you ram through it? The first one is raw power, the second one is game power.