Sinking and Then Swimming with Byron Buxton

The Twins demoted a struggling Byron Buxton, once the consensus top prospect in the game, twice last season.

The first occasion was on April 25th, after 17 games and 13 starts. Buxton was batting .156. The Twins dispatched Buxton again to Rochester, N.Y., on August 6th after Buxton had played in 63 games — 59 starts — and was slashing .193/.247/.315.

On April 25th of this season, Buxton was again struggling mightily, batting .133.

After a strong finish last season, he had issues right out of the gate this season.

On August 6th of this season, Buxton was slashing .218/.290/.309 through 87 games and 79 starts, making the most modest of improvements from the same date on the calendar a year earlier. It’s been easy to forget Mike Trout comps were once placed on Buxton, who is undoubtedly one of the top athletes in the sport.

But once again, Buxton is saving his best baseball for the second half and creating some hope and enthusiasm, which Jeff Sullivan noted last week.

Buxton continued to look like a star during the weekend with this remarkable catch:

And on Sunday, Buxton produced the first multi-homer game he remembers authoring since entering professional baseball.

Everything offspeed and breaking was a challenge for Buxton early this season. That wasn’t the case, though, for his first homer on Sunday…

Nor his second…

And Buxton completed the hat trick in the ninth inning…

What’s different about Buxton from this season to last is how the Twins have handled him. Last season, as noted earlier in this post, Buxton was sent twice to the southern coast of Lake Ontario to address his swing and offensive approach.

Said then-interim Twins GM Rob Antony last August to the Star-Tribune:

“We’re not trying to let a guy sink and drown. He’s just 22. His struggles are not unprecedented; it’s just that he’s been such a highly touted prospect, it gets a little more magnified than a younger player.”

This season, under new Twins general manager Derek Falvey, the Twins have stuck with Buxton throughout his struggles. They have stuck with him through his experimentation with — and, ultimately, elimination of — a leg kick.

Interestingly, through both player-development approaches, Buxton has arrived at the same place, saving his best for late in the season and stoking hopes of his promise.

But if this leap proves to be stickier, more permanent, then perhaps it’ll serve as a model with which to reconsider player-development paths.

While the NBA has a developmental league and while other, lower-level pro football leagues serve as a sort of de fact minor league for the NFL, prospects in those two sports essentially sink or swim at the highest level. Baseball, meanwhile, has its minor-league affiliates in place not only to develop talent but to serve as a confidence-building safety net for those who, like Buxton, struggle in their first exposure to the major leagues.

But what if there is something to simply allowing an elite athlete like Buxton, one who’s already dominated the minor leagues, to sink or swim at the major leagues?

The Twins are being rewarded for the patience and developmental approach with Buxton this season. Consider: it wasn’t until May 21st that Buxton finished a day batting .200 this season. He didn’t finish consecutive games hitting above .200 until June 11-12. And it wasn’t until July 4th that Buxton reached .200 and remained above the Mendoza line, the traditional demarcation line of unacceptable offense.

I asked Twins manager Paul Molitor back in May if he’d promised Buxton he wouldn’t be demoted again, to offer some level of comfort.

“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 told FanGraphs. “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 in 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.”

Buxton was going to have to sink or swing, in other words. Encouragement was offered, but no guarantees.

Molitor also didn’t force Buxton to abandon the leg kick of which Molitor seemed skeptical early this season.

As Buxton struggled with it, Molitor asked Buxton around batting cage one day in lat April why he used it. Then he suggested starting it earlier in his swing. Eventually Buxton eliminated the move altogether. There’s an art to getting players to buy into what might be good for them.

Perhaps there’s something to elite talent working with an organization’s best coaches, which one would assume are those present at the major-league level. Perhaps there’s something to the urgency created at the highest level, under the brightest lights, that forces players to more quickly find the right changes.

Perhaps if the Twins saw a player whose confidence was crushed, they would have acted differently. But Buxton never seemed overwhelmed. Buxton was more than willing to speak with me, and seemingly candidly, in the midst of his struggles earlier this season. That seemed to speak to a player who had inner confidence, to a player who wasn’t shaken.

Regardless of the development path, all players must eventually figure out how to hit major-league pitching. The sooner, the better. Perhaps more time at Triple-A is often just delaying positive growth.

The Twins were going to allow Buxton to continue to sink or learn how to swim this season. It wasn’t the helicopter-parent model of player development. This was tough love. And, at the moment, it’s working. Buxton is swimming.

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.

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6 years ago

Great progress but still some concerns even during hot streak. Namely his approach. The K rate is still very high. I think this is who he is, an extremely streaky hitter. But good on him for keeping head up.

Luke Hoopermember
6 years ago
Reply to  southie

23% K-rate since July 1st. That’s barely above league average. It’s a huge improvement on last September’s hot streak when he was at 33%.

6 years ago
Reply to  Luke Hooper

To be fair to southie, Buxton has not walked since August 17th. Only the Vlads of the world can get away with that kind of “swing-at-everything” approach, but perhaps Buxton will become that type of hitter? He’s a fascinating player in many aspects.

6 years ago
Reply to  Deadheadbrewer

I should have specified K/BB