Let Him Play

I got asked the question in my chat this week. Dave also got asked it in his. What do you do to solve Byron Buxton’s problems at the plate? This is essentially the question. People want to know. The answer, to me, is you let him play. It seems that we get these questions each April about a phenom struggling in his first taste of a full major league season. So while I’m writing this piece with Buxton in mind and as the lead example, it is also sort of universal.

I want to start by going back to 2006 and 2007. Dustin Pedroia was the first pick of the Red Sox’s 2004 draft, though he was actually a second-round pick. He came into the 2006 season with a little heat — Baseball America ranked him #77 in their top 100. And he would do well at Pawtucket that season — he hit .305/.384/.426 there, good for a 131 wRC+, in 493 plate appearances for Boston’s Triple-A affiliate. But when he was called up to the Show in late August, he was a shadow of that player. In 98 PA with the big club, he hit .191/.258/.303, good for a lowly 41 wRC+. Not great. Baseball America dropped him from their top 100 heading into 2007.

Nevertheless, heading into the 2007 season, manager Terry Francona named Pedroia his starting second baseman. The move would quickly become unpopular. Pedroia would tally 55 PA in April 2007, and in them he hit .182/.308/.236, which equated to a 51 wRC+. Many in Boston were howling for him to be replaced, demoted, sacrificed at the feet of the Paul Revere statue, etc. But you could see Pedroia putting it together. For the month, he had drawn 10 walks and only struck out six times. In May, he would reward his manager’s loyalty. From May 3 to May 9, he would reach base in 12 of 19 PA — six singles, three doubles, two walks and a homer. For the month, he’d post a 186 wRC+. Six months later, he’d be a World Series champion and the American League Rookie of the Year.

A month after Pedroia was crowned Al RoY, Carlos Gonzalez was part of a parcel of prospects sent from Arizona to Oakland in exchange for pitcher Dan Haren. He would get the call to the majors at the end of May, and for the next three months he started in the A’s outfield — mostly in center, but a little in right. And for those three months, he hit terribly. From the time of his call-up to August 27, when he was mercifully (or cruelly, depending on your point of view) sent back to the minors, he hit .240/.271/.364 in 296 PA, which equaled a 67 wRC+. In that timespan, he hit just 4 homers. He walked in just 4.1% of his PAs, and struck out in 25.7% of them. That’s probably not a jarring strikeout rate to you these days, but in 2008, it was abhorrent. Among those who tallied 300+ PA in 2008, Gonzalez’s K% was the 20th-worst. (For context, the same K% with the same parameters would have only been 44th worst last season.)

Gonzalez would be back in the majors by mid-September, presumably because the minor league season was over by then, but he didn’t get as much to do. Four times he entered a game as a pinch hitter, and he tallied just 20 PA between Sept. 18 and the end of the season. He would post the same disappointing 67 wRC+.

A month and change later, the A’s would ship him off to the Rockies in a package for Matt Holliday. The cycle of the previous season would repeat itself, with Gonzalez getting the call to the majors at the beginning of June 2009. And once again, he was terrible. He posted a 48 wRC+ for the month of June. That was a tumultuous month for the Rockies. After the team stumbled to an 18-28 record at the end of May, the team jettisoned manager Clint Hurdle in favor of Jim Tracy, and immediately took off. They went 21-7 in June, and when July rolled around, they were suddenly 41-37, and once again harboring playoff aspirations. And their phenom outfielder was hitting .210. What would you do?

Well, it wasn’t exactly clean, because in Ryan Spilborghs, Dexter Fowler, Seth Smith and Brad Hawpe, the team already had four outfielders who commanded their fair share of playing time. But despite that quartet, they kept running Gonzalez out there. From July 1 through Aug. 29, he started 28 of the team’s 53 games, and he played in 14 of the games he didn’t start, which was more than he deserved given his shoddy performance to date and the solid players already in the team’s outfield. But in that time, he took off. He racked up 128 PA, and hit .336/.405/.645, good for a 159 wRC+ that earned him the full-time job for good. He’s never looked back, and at the time, Tracy’s steady hand and patience to keep running him out there in the face of his overwhelming failures was credited as reason why. The Rockies would indeed live to see Rocktober that season, and Gonzalez was a big reason why. Despite only tallying 317 PA for the season, he was the Rockies’ fourth-most valuable position player.

These are far from the only two examples. And obviously finding an apples-to-apples comparison is hard to find. That’s baseball. You can’t always find a perfect comparison for things, but you don’t need a perfect comparison for the comparison to be instructive. In these two examples, we have players who were given ample time to fail, and with that time, they eventually succeeded. The same was true of Jackie Bradley Jr. He fell on his face in his 2013 trial, when he was rushed to the bigs. But in 2014, he basically got the whole season. He lost playing time in August to Mookie Betts, though that was understandable, given that Betts was an equally talented phenom, and that Bradley still wasn’t hitting. When Betts came up for good on Aug. 18, Bradley was hitting .216/.288/.290, for a 60 wRC+. Bradley never found success across this 387 PA stretch — he wouldn’t really put it together until a year later — but the point is that he was given that 387 PA stretch. You know who hasn’t had a stretch like that in the majors? Byron Buxton.

Let’s take a look at Buxton’s playing time in each of the times he’s been in the majors.

Byron Buxton, Splits by Playing Time
2015 6/14-6/24 39 5.1% 38.5% 0.081 0.318 0.189 0.231 0.270 0.221 32
2015 8/20-10/4 99 4.0% 29.3% 0.130 0.295 0.217 0.258 0.348 0.265 62
2016 4/4-4/24 49 4.1% 49.0% 0.133 0.333 0.156 0.208 0.289 0.217 27
2016 5/31-8/5 169 6.5% 33.1% 0.118 0.306 0.204 0.257 0.322 0.252 51
2016 9/1-10/2 113 8.8% 33.6% 0.366 0.370 0.287 0.357 0.653 0.419 165
2017 4/3-4/13 35 2.9% 54.3% 0.029 0.200 0.088 0.114 0.118 0.106 -48
Total 504 6.0% 35.9% 0.167 0.314 0.210 0.263 0.377 0.276 68

While Buxton now has built up nearly a season’s worth of plate appearances, he’s done so sporadically. He’s never had the time to stretch his legs and put together a body of 250, 300 PA without being demoted. He needs that stretch now. After all, he’s still just 23. Are you really ready to give up on a 23-year-old? Pedroia was 23 when he took off in 2007. So was Gonzalez, when he took flight in 2009. Bradley wasn’t 25 until he hit his stride at the end of 2015, and there were still plenty of people doubting him heading into 2016.

But, you say — Buxton has already been good. Enough is enough, it’s time for him to show progress. Progress, however, is not always linear. Mike Cameron put up a 64 wRC+ in his age-25 season in 1998, a year after posting a 110 wRC+. After that 1998 season, the White Sox would send him off to the Reds for Paul Konerko (which is a fascinating trade for another day), and the Reds, Mariners and a host of other teams would be the beneficiaries when Cameron finally did put it all together.

Turning to the B-Ref Play Index, a search for outfielders who posted a .300 OBP or less in the first 500 PA of their career (while playing their first three seasons by the end of the their age-23 seasons) turns up plenty of names you’ll recognize: Starling Marte, Carlos Delgado, Jay Buhner, Willie Stargell, Kirk Gibson, Graig Nettles, Bernie Williams, David Justice, Bo Jackson, Frank Thomas, Jim Edmonds, Preston Wilson, Shane Victorino, Jackie Jensen, Cameron and Bradley. And that’s just outfielders. Now, not all of those players would go on to post superlative OBP’s in their careers, but they all improved, and Buxton doesn’t need to post a .380 OBP to be a great player, given his prowess in the field and on the bases.

Byron Buxton is off to a slow start this season, and for the most part, in his career. But he was a highly touted prospect for a reason, and the Twins owe it to themselves to learn from history, and just let him play.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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5 years ago

Fortunately, the man still brought his glove/legs.