The Changes Byron Buxton Has and Hasn’t Made

Byron Buxton’s demotion to Triple-A Rochester on Sunday brings the tally to four demotions to Triple-A Rochester more than fans of the Minnesota Twins hoped to witness their top prospect endure once he made his major-league debut on June 14, 2015. Buxton is headed to the minors to do one thing, and one thing only: fine-tune his swing. It’s what every demotion’s been about thus far.

Buxton’s got the tools. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. Few players in the game have more speed. The defense certainly isn’t a question; he’s been something close to a +10 defender in center field. Already, he’s shown just how far his athleticism alone can take him, so long as the bat can do enough to stick in the lineup. If Buxton could manage a batting line just 20% below league average, as his current ZiPS projection forecasts, he could be something like a 2.5-win player at the age of 22. Even a league-average batting line would turn him into a borderline star. He would seem so close to that reality, if only his numbers didn’t make him appear so far away.

Buxton’s career batting line through 356 plate appearances sits at .199/.248/.319, the batting average being one point below the Mendoza Line embodying the tantalizing frustration of his being simultaneously so close and yet so far away. Among 363 batters who have batted at least 300 times since the beginning of last season, just three have a lower wRC+ than Buxton’s mark of 49. And so now, he returns to Rochester to diagnose what in that swing is keeping him from success at the major-league level, as we at home attempt to diagnose just how we got to this point.

In an attempt to identify any potential signs of progress, or at the very least, change, let’s take a look at some relevant batting statistics, split up into Buxton’s four (albeit brief) stints in the majors. Two last year, two thus far this year:

Byron Buxton’s Four Major League Stints
Time PA wRC+ ISO BB% K% Swing% Chase% Z-Contact% Zone%
2015, Pt. 1 39 33 .081 5.1% 38.5% 42.2% 32.6% 86.1% 42.2%
2015, Pt. 2 99 63 .131 4.0% 29.3% 46.9% 33.0% 82.6% 50.0%
2016, Pt. 1 49 27 .133 4.1% 49.0% 44.0% 32.5% 81.8% 45.5%
2016, Pt. 2 169 51 .118 6.5% 33.1% 47.5% 34.7% 81.8% 49.1%
TOTAL 356 49 .120 5.3% 34.8% 46.3% 33.7% 82.4% 48.0%

Maybe it’s a bit troubling how little this most recent — and most extended — look at Buxton differed from the first three. Over his first 187 plate appearances, Buxton ran a 47 wRC+ with a 32.1% strikeout-walk differential, an above-average chase rate, below-average in-zone contact rate, and a .121 ISO. Over his last 169 plate appearances, Buxton ran a 51 wRC+ with a 26.6% strikeout-walk differential, and nearly identical chase and in-zone contact rates that actually got slightly worse. One could find some solace in the sudden spike in walk rate that occurred over the final month preceding his demotion, but even then Buxton was still striking out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances with no power.

The numbers don’t look pretty. We all knew that. But what about the swing? It’s been a work in progress — a well-documented work in progress — and Buxton’s headed back into the lab as we speak. I was interested in the past, present, and future of Buxton’s swing, as well as the changes he’s made along the way. I’ve got some video of Buxton swings from each of his four stints, and to provide clarity and insight, I reached out to hitting instructor, former Baseball Prospectus author, and all-around knowledgeable human Ryan Parker to help guide me along.

Let’s take a look at Buxton’s swing right after his debut:

Crucial to understanding the Byron Buxton story to date is understanding the changes his swing underwent before he ever stepped foot on a major-league field. As noted Twins guru Parker Hageman pointed out back in 2013, Buxton underwent fundamental changes to his stance and swing immediately after being drafted, going from a taller, open stance to the more compact starting position with less stride that we see here.

When we saw Buxton later that year…

… he was even more compact, with the same stride. And, about that stride. With Buxton, the point of contention is the front foot. This isn’t new. The Twins have been teaching this for years. Our very own David Laurila spoke to past and present Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky, along with former Twins prospect Joe Benson, about hitting for Baseball America back in 2011. Benson had the following to say about the Twins’ hitting philosophy:

“Stay as quiet as possible at the plate, get your foot down early, and especially with [Brunansky], working on where I need to get to in order to get extension through the baseball.”

The idea behind teaching the front foot down early, as Parker puts it, is to “prevent swings and misses, allow hitters to see the ball better, and improve a hitter’s balance.” In other words, it’s a swing geared for contact, perhaps in Buxton’s case in an effort to allow him to put the ball in play and use his speed. Problem is, it can do so at the expense of rhythm and athleticism — “The swing gets the foot down. Putting the foot down to swing is a backwards line of thinking. No hitter has ever taken a swing, looked down, and said, ‘Oh, darn! I swung and my foot is still in the air!'” — and to make matters worse, Buxton’s got baseball’s second-highest strikeout rate since his debut, so the intended contact isn’t showing up.

Let’s move to a swing from early this year:

Buxton’s even more closed now, with his body almost perfectly aligned with the pitcher, and even more compact. If you’re a Twins fan, you’ve surely thought of Carlos Gomez while watching Buxton’s struggles. Gomez was a similarly toolsy center-field prospect — though one with an admittedly more robust frame — who struggled mightily early on in Minnesota. Gomez, too, broke into the big leagues with a quiet, front foot down early swing, and didn’t find success until implementing a leg kick in Milwaukee that allowed him to generate rhythm and power in his swing.

After his demotion in early 2016, Buxton came back with a leg kick and a stance that more resembled his younger self…

… though, as our Eno Sarris pointed out in June, he would either mute it with two strikes or revert back to his “foot down early” toe-tap in an effort to maximize opportunity for contact:

Parker likes the idea of the leg kick in theory (as might a Twins fan who pines for the version of Gomez which the Brewers received), though conceded that the “front foot down early” technique still crept it’s way into the kick, leaving the execution some to be desired:

“Hitters who leg kick reach the top of their leg kick as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, and plant their foot back down around the time the ball is halfway to the plate. Buxton would take a decent leg kick, but then immediately place it down, negating any timing benefit he could reap from the move.”

There’s also the possibility that Buxton’s struggles could be more directly attributed to his pitch recognition and plate discipline rather than the swing itself. The swing certainly is still a work in progress, but Buxton hasn’t done himself any favors by swinging at one of baseball’s worst ratios of in-zone pitches vs. out-of-zone pitches. Though, as Parker pointed out, one could be informed by the other. “Which is to blame? The swing that made him miss the first pitch, or the lack of pitch recognition that made him chase the second?”

Hope certainly isn’t lost for Byron Buxton. He’s 22. He’s had less than a full season’s worth of plate appearances. The Gomez comp is obvious, but there have been plenty other toolsy prospects who struggled like Buxton upon their debut only to turn their careers around. Look at what Jackie Bradley Jr.‘s done in Boston after beginning his career with a 50 wRC+ over his first 530 plate appearances. Milton Bradley’s top prospect shine had dimmed after his first 434 trips to the plate resulted in a 57 wRC+. His career wRC+ over the next decade was 120. Brandon Phillips, Carlos Gonzalez, Miguel Tejada: the list goes on. History’s proven that a year’s worth of struggles, even as extreme as Buxton’s have been, are far from a death sentence.

Especially given Buxton’s tools. There’s a reason he’s been a top-10 prospect four years running. In Parker’s words, “He’s got hand speed that most hitters can only achieve in their dreams. Watching him run and throw there’s obviously an ability to make his body accelerate in a snap, but that ability has yet to show up in his swing.” Back to the lab he goes.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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tz
5 years ago

You would have thought the Twins would have learned after Gomez. Pushing a speedy player to hit for contact at the expense of pop is only a good idea for the Ben Reveres of the world. Now it looks like they’ve really gunked up Buxton’s whole hitting approach. Such a shame.

johansantana17
5 years ago
Reply to  tz

The Twins routinely shoot themselves in the foot with their blanket approach of coaching conservatively (teaching “quiet” swings geared for contact, encouraging changeup development instead of breaking pitch development, drafting control/finesse pitchers over power pitchers, etc.) with every single player in the organization. It’s a fine approach for some, maybe even most players, but many players who were freed from the relentlessly conservative coaching of Minnesota went on to be better players with other teams – Gomez, Ortiz, Cuddyer, Hardy, Garza, Colabello, even Jason Bartlett