Byron Buxton’s Uneven Progress

While José Berríos and Corbin Burnes were rightly grabbing everyone’s attention for their dueling no-hit bids on Saturday evening, Byron Buxton played the hero on the offensive side, producing the game’s first hit and first run via his seventh-inning solo homer. It was Buxton’s second game in a row with a homer, as he went yard on Opening Day as well, and even though he left Sunday’s game before he run his streak to third in a row — thankfully, not an injury, merely a “non-COVID related illness” — his start once again kindled hopes that the speedy center fielder can put together a full season worthy of his talents.

First, the pretty pictures. If you haven’t seen Buxton’s Opening Day home run off the Brewers’ Eric Yardley, it was a sight to behold, a towering shot that caromed off the American Family Field scoreboard:

The projected distance on that 111.4 mph blast was 456 feet, a career high that outdistanced his June 5, 2019 homer off Cleveland’s Tyler Olson by two feet. And once again, here’s Buxton’s homer off Burnes, which had a projected distance of 411 feet:

Home runs are nothing new for Buxton, though they’re not as common as one would expect, less due to his raw or game power than his staying power. Last year, he homered 13 times, albeit in just 135 PA in yet another injury-marked season; he missed a total of 21 games in a campaign bookended by a left foot sprain suffered during summer camp and a hit-by-pitch induced concussion during the final weekend of the season, with a late August stint on the Injured List for left shoulder inflammation thrown in for good measure. Buxton has never hit more than 16 homers in a season; he reached that total in 2017, the only season in which he played more than 92 games or made more than 331 plate appearances.

Indeed, at times it seems as though one might sooner wait for the return of Halley’s Comet than for a healthy Buxton season, and yet here we are. Our man in question, the number two overall pick of the 2012 draft and the number one prospect in baseball in ’14 (and ’15 as well, in some outlets’ view), is now 27 years old and owns a career line of .239/.291/.434 (89 wRC+) through 1,514 PA, about three seasons worth of playing time. Thanks to stellar defense (10.1 UZR/150, which still pales in comparison to his 19 DRS/150), he’s been worth 9.0 WAR, and within his limited playing time, he’s been trending upwards since his debacle of a 2018 season (94 PA, -2 wRC+, -0.3 WAR), with a 111 wRC+ and 2.7 WAR in ’19 and then a 118 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR in his minimal playing time last year.

And yet, Buxton still feels like an unfinished product, not only because he generally can’t stay on the field but… have you looked at last year’s batting line? In those 135 PA, he hit .254/.267/.577, which is about as lopsided as one can get. Yes, it’s a small sample, but just four times has a batter made at least 100 PA and finished with a slugging percentage more than double his on-base percentage:

The Most Lopsided Batting Lines
Player Team Year PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Byron Buxton Twins 2020 135 .254 .267 .577 118
Todd Greene Rangers 2002 118 .268 .282 .580 114
Jay Bruce Mariners/Phillies 2019 333 .216 .261 .523 98
Victor Diaz Rangers 2007 108 .240 .259 .538 97
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 100 PA and SLG ≥ (OBP x2).

Oddly, all four times that it’s happened are from this millennium. Drop down below 80 PA and you get a broader swath of history that includes some sizzling Septembers like those of Shane Spencer (.373/.411/.910 in 1998) as well as Kyle Lewis (.268/.293/.592), not to mention free-swinging pitchers who run into one occasionally such as Don Drysdale (.227/.261/.591 in 1958), Milt Pappas (.087/.097/.275 in 1962) and Carlos Zambrano (.151/.160/.397 in 2006). At least within the context of the time he was available, Buxton was the closest thing to an everyday player in the above group; Bruce was a near-everyday player for about half of the 2019 season, but didn’t achieve the ratio in question until an injury-marked second half in which he cratered, going 2-for-42 without a walk or a non-homer hit (how did I miss that one before?).

Buxton achieved his ridiculous line by walking just twice (!) during the shortened season for a 1.5% walk rate, which is still one more walk than Diaz drew in the 2007 season from that table above. While he was never known for his patience, Buxton entered the season with an unremarkable 6.5% rate. He walked so rarely in 2020 because he chased an astounding 51.2% of pitches outside the zone, well above his career mark of 33.4%. Our zone-based data only goes back to 2002, but even within that span, 8,273 players have made at least 100 PA in a season, and only four have gone fishing with greater frequency:

Highest O-Swing% in a Season Since 2002
Player Team Season PA O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Hanser Alberto BAL 2020 231 54.0% 73.1% 61.7% .283 .306 .393 89
Pablo Sandoval SFG 2008 154 53.3% 76.9% 64.3% .345 .357 .490 118
Pedro Ciriaco ATL 2015 151 53.2% 67.4% 59.7% .261 .275 .352 68
Eliezer Alfonzo SDP 2009 117 52.9% 71.2% 61.5% .175 .197 .254 19
Byron Buxton MIN 2020 135 51.2% 80.4% 64.3% .254 .267 .577 118
Jorge Alfaro MIA 2019 465 50.4% 80.8% 61.2% .262 .312 .425 95
Delmon Young TBD 2006 131 49.7% 84.9% 68.4% .317 .336 .476 110
Jorge Alfaro MIA 2020 100 49.1% 79.8% 60.2% .226 .280 .344 71
A.J. Pierzynski TEX 2013 529 49.0% 76.7% 60.2% .272 .297 .425 90
Kevin Pillar TOR/SFG 2019 645 48.8% 74.6% 58.6% .259 .287 .432 84
Francisco Pena STL 2018 142 48.5% 72.8% 59.2% .203 .239 .271 33
Salvador Perez KCR 2018 544 48.4% 71.3% 57.0% .235 .274 .439 88
Wil Nieves PHI 2014 128 48.3% 68.4% 57.4% .254 .270 .344 70
John Hicks DET 2019 333 48.3% 79.8% 61.7% .210 .240 .379 56
Salvador Perez KCR 2017 499 47.9% 74.6% 58.7% .268 .297 .495 102
Francisco Mejia SDP 2019 244 47.9% 70.6% 56.4% .265 .316 .438 96
Charlie Culberson COL 2013 104 47.8% 75.8% 59.7% .293 .317 .404 79
Pablo Sandoval BOS 2015 505 47.8% 75.2% 58.8% .245 .292 .366 76
Pedro Ciriaco BOS 2012 272 47.8% 62.8% 54.5% .293 .315 .390 86
Scooter Gennett CIN/SFG 2019 139 47.7% 75.0% 58.2% .226 .245 .323 44
Minimum 100 PA.

Even within the rough equivalents of Buxton’s playing time, it’s hard to produce at an above-average clip while hacking away like that. Only one player above was able to swing at so many pitches outside the zone and carry a 100 wRC+ or better across more than 154 PA, namely Perez.

The other thing to note here is that because Buxton swung at such a high rate of pitches in-zone as well, his overall swing rate of 64.3% was actually the second-highest of any of those 8,273 player-seasons, and in fact seven of the 10 players with the highest overall swing rates managed to produce at an average or better clip:

Highest Swing% in a Season Since 2002
Player Team Season PA O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Delmon Young TBD 2006 131 49.7% 84.9% 68.4% .317 .336 .476 110
Byron Buxton MIN 2020 135 51.2% 80.4% 64.3% .254 .267 .577 118
Pablo Sandoval SFG 2008 154 53.3% 76.9% 64.3% .345 .357 .490 118
Randall Simon DET 2002 506 33.7% 88.5% 63.6% .301 .320 .459 105
A.J. Pierzynski MIN 2002 469 30.3% 86.2% 63.3% .300 .334 .439 102
Johnny Estrada MIL 2007 464 44.8% 80.0% 63.0% .278 .296 .403 77
Delmon Young TBD 2007 681 39.4% 84.2% 62.4% .288 .316 .408 89
Hector Sanchez SFG 2014 177 46.0% 84.8% 62.2% .196 .237 .301 51
Jorge Alfaro PHI 2017 114 46.2% 83.1% 61.9% .318 .360 .514 126
Randy Ruiz TOR 2009 130 39.3% 83.9% 61.8% .313 .385 .635 163
Minimum 100 PA.

I realize that I’m squinting excessively at this 135-PA sample, but I’m just fascinated by the extremes here, and how Buxton pulled this off. He hit .292 on pitches in the strike zone, which is a bit better than middle-of-the-pack (54th percentile), but he slugged .764, which put him in the 97th percentile; for reference, in 2020 all of the majors hit for a .283 average and a .501 slugging percentage on pitches in the zone. As for outside the zone? Buxton hit and slugged .171, which ain’t great, but is still only bad enough to place him in the 36th percentile; the big leagues as a whole hit .150 and slugged .211 on such pitches.

As for his overall quality of contact, Buxton has sharply increased his tendency to hit the ball in the air with authority over the past couple of seasons:

Byron Buxton Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% FB% EV LA Barrel% HardHit% xwOBA
2015-2018 0.98 38.7% 39.7% 88.3 15.2 4.6% 30.2% 0.257
2019 0.61 29.4% 48.5% 90.0 20.3 7.3% 38.3% 0.302
2020 0.71 36.5% 51.0% 91.2 23.6 13.5% 47.9% 0.332
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Last year, Buxton’s barrel rate placed him in the 88th percentile. If he’d had enough batted ball events in 2019, he’d have been in the 61st percentile, up from the 40th in ’17 (’18 was a mess best not considered). The story is similar with regards to his hard-hit rate: 89th percentile in 2020, 58th in ’19, 31st in ’17. Meanwhile, Buxton has cut down his strikeout rate, though the development hasn’t been quite as smooth: from 29.4% in 2017 (and 31.7% from ’15-18) to 23.1% in ’19, then back up to 26.5% last year. So long as he’s hitting the ball harder when he does connect, that still counts as progress, even if that progress is uneven.

Given his extensive injury history, Buxton’s abrupt departure from Sunday’s game in the third inning had observers fearing the worst — another wrist injury, another shoulder problem, more concussion-like symptoms, even COVID-19. The comparatively good news is that no, he was just sick. Via the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Phil Miller:

“He wasn’t feeling so hot during the game, and we kind of had to make a call on the spot, early in the game,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I didn’t feel comfortable sending him back out on the field before we were able to check him out and get a good look.”

Buxton .. spent the rest of the game in the trainer’s room, getting fluids and trying to fight off nausea. He was tested to rule out COVID-19, and was negative.

“It looks like a possible bug of some kind,” Baldelli said. “We’re going to continue to monitor him and see how he’s doing tonight and tomorrow.”

The Twins have already announced that Buxton won’t be in Tuesday’s lineup, but this appears to be a short-term problem. Hopefully he can get back to business in short order, build on his hot start, and continue to shore up his strike zone judgment. The ridiculously small sample stats show that his O-Swing rate is out of outlier territory (30.8%), and in one other bit of good news that I deliberately buried, he equaled last year’s walk total on Opening Day. It’s onward and upward from there.





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.

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dsalmanson
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dsalmanson

Did you mean Sandoval instead of Perez? If I’m reading the chart right, he produced a wrc+ of 118 with a similar O swing percentage