Byron Buxton Is Slowing Down in the Good Way

CLEVELAND – Byron Buxton sat before his locker in the road clubhouse at Progressive Field before a game last week, intermittently scrolling through his smart phone and chatting with several nearby teammates. As I approached Buxton to request an interview, his clubhouse neighbor, Miguel Sano, morphed from a 6-foot-4, 260-pound third baseman to clubhouse bouncer. He was prohibiting me from addressing Buxton until I paid a fee, something of a toll. He was joking, I think, and I played along, asking if he would give me a receipt for business expenses. While Sano, who’s known for his loquaciousness and sense of humor, prompted some laughter in the corner of the Twins clubhouse, he was also perhaps trying to protect his teammates a bit from another prying journalist.

Buxton wore the label of “No. 1 Prospect in the Game” for multiple years, which has placed his offensive struggles at the major-league level under great scrutiny. But no one has placed more pressure on Buxton than himself. And that pressure was creating something that prevents success from occurring in the batter’s box: anxiety.

It was, in part, anxiousness plaguing Buxton through the first 500-plus appearances of his major-league career. Many were hoping Buxton had turned a corner late last season when he posted a healthy September slash line. But his strikeout issues remained. I noted Buxton’s tough first day this season, when he whiffed on nine breaking pitches. Dave Cameron wrote about Buxton’s tough first week, during which the outfielder recorded 17 strikeouts in his first 29 at-bats. Everyone knows Buxton had a tough first month, too. He ended April with a 38% strikeout rate. Early in his career, he has been susceptible to breaking pitches of all shapes. The bat-to-ball skills have not translated.

 

Buxton said anxiousness crept into his at-bats.

“What pitch is he going to throw next? Or, hoping I don’t miss that fastball,” Buxton said of thoughts at the plate. “Things like that.”

Things, in other words, besides just focusing on release point and calmly allowing a pitch to travel.

He felt the pressure of trying to help his team, trying to live up to his uber-prospect hype. And for a player who demonstrated not only few contact issues but also double-digit walk rates in the minors, he had some of the deepest swing-and-miss issues in the majors, owning a 15% swinging-strike rate to date in his career. That mark is the 19th-highest swinging-strike rate in the game since his debut.

“Typically I get a little more anxious when I get in [the box] because I want to get a hit, I put too much pressure on myself, instead of just relaxing and letting the ball come to me and travel,” Buxton said. “I was too anxious to want to do too much. Anything that looked close to the plate, I was just hacking. I wasn’t seeing the ball.”

And then, at the height of troubles, Buxton went out for early hitting one Sunday in Minneapolis. There, around the on-field batting cage, in an empty, quiet Target Field he engaged in conversation Twins manager Paul Molitor, hitting coach James Rowson, and Twins coach and long-time major leaguer Torii Hunter. As the game kept speeding up, accelerating on Buxton, the Twins’ coaches began to try and slow it down. And maybe it worked. Maybe that conversation and the following adjustments have helped Buxton begin to get the bat to the ball and fully unlock his elite athletic gifts.

As he demonstrated in Cleveland this weekend with four-star catch after four-star catch, there is no doubting Buxton’s defensive gifts. Indians analyst Jensen Lewis said Buxton’s glove is “where launch angles and exit velocity go to die.”

 

And if his contact skills are indeed improving, perhaps Buxton can soon live up to his prospect pedigree.

***

Molitor told FanGraphs that the conversation that Sunday morning with Buxton at Target Field was more “dialogue” than “preachy.” They discussed the “mechanics… and mental aspects” of hitting.

At one point that morning, Molitor asked Buxton a question about his leg kick. Buxton employed the leg kick as an amateur, the Twins shelved it when he entered pro ball, and Buxton brought back last summer. Molitor asked Buxton at what point during his leg kick did he pick up the pitch?

“I think it caught him off guard. I don’t think he ever really thought about that,” Molitor said. “The transition from his leg up to leg down was at a pace, at a rhythm, that wasn’t allowing him to make adjustments to various [pitch] speeds that you might see. I just asked him if he could hold onto that lift for just a little bit, where you are not just using your hands to hit the slower offspeed stuff… It’s not the only thing he’s trying to get better at, but it’s something where the question turned into a good thought process.”

Molitor loves inspirational quotes. He has them posted around the clubhouse. And during a speech to the team at the club’s spring training facility in Fort Myers, Molitor had recited — or, recited as best he could from memory — Gandhi’s words: “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

Buxton, perhaps the fastest player in the AL, had to slow down. The Twins wanted Buxton to think about seeing the ball longer. Molitor boiled the idea down to “lift to see.” Lift to pause, lift to track the ball. Lift with a purpose.

“That thought kind of stuck with me. ‘Lift to see,’” Buxton said. “It feels comfortable to me. That’s a term I can relate to.”

Rowson explained it another way: Buxton had to have a controlled movement forward, similar to what Andrew McCutchen employed at his MVP peak.

 

“Sometimes, guys who have a leg lift, who have that move, it becomes where they will rush that move from time to time. It becomes as soon as they start to lift, they start everything that goes along with the swing,” Rowson said. “What you try to create is the thought process that, when you lift that leg, when you start that move, that move happens so it gives you a chance to see the ball before you make a move… When you separate the two, and start to lift and get a good a look, you start that move slower and more under control. That’s what Buck has been able to do. He’s begun to slow the down that move. It’s happening a lot slower, more under control. It allows him more time to see the baseball before he makes a move to hit.”

Buxton’s strikeout and chase rates have all declined since the talk. All three of his extra-base hits have come in May.

The Twins staff has also talked with Buxton about being more process-oriented. Rowson said he uses data tools available, like exit velocity and hit probabilities, to reinforce good processes. He employs different tools with different hitters depending on their skill set.

“When I say results-oriented, we can’t base [success] off of hits,” Rowson said. “We have to base it off of making good contact on good pitches. Take small victories and hopefully those small victories turn into hits. When you are reaching for that big hit, if you are looking for the five-run homer, it doesn’t exist. You want to get it all back at once sometimes. So I think a lot of times it’s about what you focus on, if we can bring their focus to a smaller focus. Let’s focus on five or 10 at-bats at a time. A lot things we can do, you [trim] your focus down to allow you to reset.”

Molitor and his staff did something else, too, that had nothing to do with mechanics: they moved Buxton in the lineup.

While saber-minded analysts, fans, and players perhaps do not value lineup placement to a great degree, Buxton said opening the season in the No. 3 batting-order position did affect him. Molitor acknowledged he probably should have opened Buxton in a less significant batting-order position.

“In the beginning of the season, I was very anxious, especially me hitting in the three hole,” Buxton said.

But with the drop in the order, the pause in his swing, and a renewed focus on process over results, Buxton has the sense that he’s finally slowing the game down.

***
Buxton feels like he’s in a more comfortable place, has less anxiety. The Twins want to believe this is the new Buxton, the Buxton slashing balls into gaps and running for days:

“I just have to keep being myself. I have been lately. I just have to let the ball travel and slow down,” Buxton said. “It’s product of me getting experience, but also me slowing the game down and getting back to being myself.”

If Buxton can be himself, the five-tool star he was in the minor leagues, the player with obvious gifts — he tracked down every ball seemingly hit from right- to left-center in Cleveland — then the Twins have the star they expected to enjoy. Molitor believes slumps are more difficult and often have greater depth with young players.

“You don’t know your way out,” Molitor said of a young player. “You’re looking over your shoulder a little bit when you’re worried bout having to go a back to the minor leagues.”

The Twins demoted a struggling Buxton last season. While Buxton has improved in May, Molitor said no guarantees were made about his status or playing time.

“I don’t do that very often. I don’t think that’s fair to say ‘Hey, don’t worry about your job, you’re locked in,” Molitor said. “I’d hate to have that go backwards on me one day. But when he was 2-for-50 I told him I still believed it him. But you still have to earn it out here. There is nothing free about the game. You have to go out and play at some point.”

And the Twins hope that point, offensively, is now beginning.





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.

newest oldest most voted
mike sixel
Member
Member
mike sixel

Lots of great quotes! Thanks for those. We remain hopeful…