Byron Buxton Just Missed a Perfect Season

Since Byron Buxton arrived in the majors, observers have wondered if he’s going to hit. The concern there is valid, but it also misses the point, because Byron Buxton is already special. He’s already a better hitter than Billy Hamilton is, and if the bat moves further along, the Twins will have a superstar. Yet even with Buxton as what he presently is, he’s the envy of many opponents. The non-hitting skills are where Buxton stands out.

He’s a clear Statcast favorite, because of his league-leading sprint speed, and because of his league-leading outs above average. Buxton’s in the conversation for the most valuable defender on the planet, and Twins pitchers have basically given him credit for saving their most recent season. That speed, though, also helps elsewhere. According to our metric, Buxton was 2017’s most valuable baserunner. He ranked third in baseball in stolen-base value, fifth in double-play value, and seventh in all the rest. Buxton, of course, relies on his speed. But he also benefits from good baseball instincts and big-league experience. Buxton just ran with more confidence than ever, and his baserunning season was just about perfect. I’ll tell you what I mean.

For this part, I’m going to use numbers made available at Baseball Reference. If you click on the link, you’ll see a bunch of baserunning stats. I looked at every single player from 2017 who batted at least 400 times. For each player, I found two numbers, plotted below. On the x-axis, there’s general extra bases. I combined steals, bases moved up, and extra bases taken. On the y-axis, there’s outs on base. That’s both outs on baserunning plays, and caught steals. I’m not including regular force plays, because those aren’t the baserunner’s fault. I highlighted Byron Buxton in yellow.

Relative to our own BsR, this is maybe a little sloppy, but it gets the right point across. Buxton just ranked 140th in plate appearances, but he also ranked 17th in extra bases. Meanwhile, he was out just two times. While Dee Gordon, for example, took 50 more bases, he also made 18 more outs. Billy Hamilton took 30 more bases, but he also made 16 more outs. Whit Merrifield took seven more bases, but he also made 15 more outs. Buxton took a total of 70 bases; the highest total for the nearest guy with two or fewer outs is 47. Buxton didn’t grab the most extra bases in baseball, but he was aggressive, and, even more than that, he was efficient.

Two outs. Two outs are all that got between 2017 Buxton and perfect efficiency. I don’t have a historical leaderboard at my disposal, but from what I can tell, no aggressive baserunner has ever before recorded a perfect season. Obviously, it’s easy to not make outs if you never take chances, but Buxton took chances, and he was almost always safe. He almost did something I haven’t seen elsewhere. Ultimately, Buxton wound up 29-for-30 as a would-be base-stealer. And he made one other out at second base. That’s everything. And in the interest of being complete, we should look at the video. We should look at how Byron Buxton made two baserunning outs.

The caught steal is easy to track down. Buxton was thrown out on May 23, by Welington Castillo, as the Twins played a game in Baltimore. There’s no real shame in that. Castillo threw out nearly half of all runners, and Dylan Bundy allowed just five steals out of nine chances. So, already, Buxton was taking a risk. In the top of the third inning, he took off. He wanted to get himself into scoring position, with only one out.

Byron Buxton was out. And yet, before Byron Buxton was out, Byron Buxton was safe. See, Buxton over-slid. Initially, he beat the throw and tag.

Even though the throw was right on the money, Buxton found the right angle and slid in. He just failed to grip the bag like he normally would, and momentum carried him beyond. J.J. Hardy noticed! Hardy saw that Buxton came off, so he spun around to tag him out. But even there, the Orioles’ defense was technically too slow. Buxton had time to reach back to the base. Yet Hardy’s foot was placed in the way, and so there was little for Buxton to do. He couldn’t just make himself be any longer.

Buxton, last season, tried to steal 30 times. Buxton was kind of safe all 30 times. The one time he failed, he twice beat the tag. But once, his body was moving too fast, and the other time, there was a cleat in the way. Putting a cleat in the way is allowed, and Buxton should’ve slid better in the first place. But talk about being out on a technicality. Even Buxton’s failure was initially successful.

That’s one out. But I told you there was another. And it actually happened earlier on, on April 26, with the Twins playing in Texas. Buxton stood on second base with Jorge Polanco at the plate. And Jorge Polanco hit a line drive.

If you want to be a real jerk about it, you could say that Buxton should’ve froze. You can see him break toward third, right after contact.

Maybe Buxton should’ve known that Joey Gallo was close to third, playing in. Maybe Buxton shouldn’t have broken on a ball hit in front of him. But for one thing, the drive looked like a sure single off the bat, and it required an excellent defensive play. And for another thing, even if Buxton had stayed where he was, he might’ve been doubled up anyway. These things happen lightning fast.

The extra sad part is that, immediately prior to the double play, Buxton helped the Twins avoid a double play, by breaking for second on a full count. Brian Dozier poked a ball almost directly to the second baseman, but there was no play to be made at second base, because Buxton was moving too fast.

And that’s it. That’s the story of Buxton’s two outs on the bases. That’s all that got between Buxton and a perfect baserunning season, which might’ve been the first perfect baserunning season in history, for a baserunner willing to take chances. It’s not that Buxton is entirely blameless. He could’ve slid better on the steal, and he could’ve frozen on the line drive to third. But one of Buxton’s outs came right after he was safe, and the other was mostly plain old bad luck. No one gets mad at the runner who’s doubled up on a lineout. There was simply very little for Buxton to do.

Like all players who are great, Buxton only wants to get even better. He wants to be more of a baserunning threat, even after having been the best baserunner in the game. And, in theory, you could argue 2017 Buxton didn’t take enough chances, because he was *too* efficient. He might not have taken chances close enough to his own break-even point, because in theory the truly optimal baserunner does make some outs. It’s possible that, in 2017, Byron Buxton underestimated himself. But it’s also possible he’s just too good to get out very often. This is why focusing on the hitting is kind of beside the point. Yeah, it would be great if Buxton slugged .550. Yet he’s presently excellent in ways few could hope to match. A conversation about Byron Buxton should begin with appreciation of what he can already do — on the bases, and in the field. You don’t want to miss these skills, because they don’t come around very often.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

*Out*standing piece as usual, Jeff.