The Twins Lose Byron Buxton (Again), but Their Problems Run Deeper

The Twins have won the AL Central in each of the past two seasons, but their chances for running their streak to three in a row have taken some major hits. Not only have they stumbled out of the gate with a 12-20 record, but now they’ve lost Byron Buxton, potentially for several weeks, due to a Grade 2 hip strain. Adding insult to injury, at this writing the team owns the dubious distinction of the largest drop in their Playoff Odds since Opening Day.

The 27-year-old Buxton was injured during Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Rangers. He pulled up hurt while running out a groundball in the ninth inning, but he may have injured himself before that. In the top of the seventh inning, he crashed into the outfield wall and then tumbled to the ground in an unsuccessful attempt to rob Jonah Heim of a home run:

In the bottom of the seventh, he didn’t run hard to first base on a groundout (I made a GIF because the video’s not embeddable, but here you can hear Twins play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer noting, “Buxton does not run hard out of the box”):

And then here’s the ninth-inning grounder, where he’s visibly limping by the time he reaches first base:

After an MRI revealed the Grade 2 right hip strain, Buxton was placed on the 10-day Injured List, though manager Rocco Baldelli said that his return is “probably more a discussion of weeks than days.” The injury will not require surgery and is less severe than the Grade 3 hip flexor strain suffered by the White Sox’s Luis Robert earlier in the week, which will take three to four months to heal fully.

The worst of it probably isn’t the time that Buxton will miss, it’s that his loss comes at a time when he’s amid one of the hottest stretches of his career, fresh off winning AL Player of the Month honors for April. He’s hitting .370/.408/.772 and before slipping below the plate appearances qualification threshold this weekend was leading the majors in slugging percentage, running second only to Mike Trout in wRC+ (226); he’s second only to Trout in WAR (2.4), and tied for third in the AL in homers (nine). Via the Baseball-Reference Span Finder (which is still in beta), only once has Buxton posted a higher slugging percentage or OPS over a 24-game span; in 2017, he hit .386/.417/.773 from August 10 to September 4, with a slugging percentage one point higher and an OPS just nine points higher than his current 1.180.

Buxton had only played 24 games because he already missed six games in April due to illness, a mild hamstring strain, and patellar tendinitis, ouchies that barely rate mention in the long litany of his injuries. As I noted back on April 6, he missed missed 21 games last year due to a left foot sprain suffered during summer camp, a late August stint on the IL for left shoulder inflammation, and a hit-by-pitch induced concussion during the final weekend of the season. Amid the injuries, he hit a very lopsided-looking .254/.267/.577 with 13 homers and a 118 wRC+ in 135 PA, making him one of four players ever with a season of at least 100 PA and a slugging percentage more than twice his on-base percentage.

With Buxton out, Jake Cave is the likely fill-in; he’s started in center field in 28 out of the 34 Twins games that Buxton hasn’t over the past two seasons, including all nine this year. Alas, he’s been the anti-Buxton, hitting just .169/.242/.265 for a 46 wRC+ in 92 PA, that after slipping from a 113 wRC+ in 2019 to just an 82 last year. He’s a lesser defender than Buxton in center field as well.

The Twins will have to make do with Cave or move right fielder Max Kepler to center at a time when he’s scuffled (.213/.289/.375, 84 wRC+), that while the outfield has been thinned out by other injuries. Rookie Alex Kirilloff is out due to a right wrist sprain that the Twins hope doesn’t require further intervention beyond a cortisone shot, and superutilityman Luis Arraez, who’s made seven starts in left field this year, is on the seven-day concussion IL following a collision with Rangers catcher Jose Trevino last Monday. Both injured players been productive, with the former hitting for a 113 wRC+ in 44 PA, the latter a 126 wRC+ in 103 PA, the team’s third-highest total.

While the Twins rank sixth in the AL in scoring (4.69 runs per game), in Buxton, Arrez, and Kirilloff they’re now without three of their eight regular or part-time players hitting for a 100 wRC+ or better. While boppers Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson are boppin’, the latter after making just four plate appearances over the team’s first 13 games due to a hamstring strain, Miguel Sanó (.129/.299/.226, 64 wRC+) and Ryan Jeffers (4-for-34) have yet to get going; the latter was sent down to the alternate training site, returning the starting catcher duties to Mitch Garver, whose production has been uneven (.200/.268/.480, 107 wRC+).

Regardless of who’s available, the Twins will have their hands full digging their way out of their worst start since 2016, when they went 8-25 over their first 33 games. After starting the year 5-2, they went into a 2-13 skid, but have only played .500 ball since. The good news is that they’re not as bad as their record looks; they entered Saturday with a +2 run differential, and while they slipped to -2 with a loss (and then were rained out on Sunday), their .494 PythagenPat winning percentage and .525 BaseRuns winning percentage indicate a stronger team than their actual record, albeit one that’s suffered some bad luck. By BaseRuns, they’re five wins below expectations, the largest discrepancy in the majors. The other 10 teams within 40 points of their BaseRuns winning percentage are all within two wins of their actual record.

The Twins’ record is out of whack in large part because things haven’t often gone their way in close games. They’re tied for the major league lead in extra innings games with seven, and are 0-7 in those games, one of four teams that has yet to bank a single victory under the godforsaken format this year. They’re 3-7 in one-run games (including 0-5 in extra-inning one-run games), and 2-4 in two-run games. A couple hits here, a couple good late-inning relief appearances there, and they could be 16-16, at the very least.

On the subject of good relief appearances, the Twins’ problems are greater on the run prevention side of the ledger than on the offensive side. They’re 12th in the AL with 4.75 runs allowed per game. A bullpen that was among the AL’s top four last year in ERA, FIP and WAR, and then added free agent closer Alex Colomé after a strong season (0.81 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 12 saves) has been cuffed for a 4.84 ERA (13th in the AL), 4.73 FIP, and -0.6 WAR (both 14th). Colomé lost the closer’s job after blowing three of his first five saves; via too many walks and homers, he’s carrying a 5.68 ERA and 5.47 FIP. Taylor Rogers, who took over closer duties, is just 2-for-4 in that capacity, though he hasn’t pitched badly overall. Setup man Tyler Duffey, who was exceptional last year, has walked and struck out 17.6% of hitters en route to a 5.56 ERA and 5.04 FIP. From among their eight relievers with at least 10 innings so far, two others have FIPs above 5.00, and two have ERAs above 8.00. Hansel Robles, who had was torched for a 10.26 ERA and 5.89 FIP as an Angel last year, is now the eighth-inning guy. This is fine.

The rotation, which last year ranked second in the AL in ERA and FIP, has been a very mixed bag while posting a 3.85 ERA (fifth) and 4.35 FIP (10th). José Berríos, J.A. Happ, and Michael Pineda have generally pitched well, though Pineda has struggled to keep the ball in the park. Actually, it’s unfair to pick on his 1.62 HR/9 when both Kenta Maeda and Matt Shoemaker have each served up 2.2 homers per nine. Maeda, who after being acquired from the Dodgers in trade broke out and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting, has lost the command of his signature slider. As Luke Hooper wrote last week, he’s left too many of those pitches in the middle of the strike zone, where they’ve been demolished. As for Shoemaker, who has pitched in the majors only sporadically due in recent years due to injuries, he’s on his fifth straight season with an xERA — estimated ERA based upon quality of contact — above 5.00, and both his ERA and FIP are currently above 6.00. Is he better than the grab bag of alternatives such as Devin Smeltzer, Lewis Thorpe, and Randy Dobnak? It’s not clear, though the last of those options, the former Uber driver who netted a five-year $9.25 million extension in one of this winter’s feel-good stories, was sent across the river (optioned to Triple-A St. Paul) after being tattooed for an 8.16 ERA and 5.83 FIP.

All of which is to say that the Twins’ problems run deeper than losing Buxton, though that still counts as a significant blow in a division where they’re running fourth behind Chicago (19-13), Cleveland (18-14) and Kansas City (16-17). By our Playoff Odds, the Twins began the year with a 63.3% chance of making the playoffs (48.6% division, 14.7% Wild Card). They’re down to 22.0% (14.2% division, 7.8% Wild Card), and their deltas for both the division (-34.4%) and overall (-41.3%) are the majors’ largest by a country mile; the Yankees’ 15.2% drop in winning the AL East and the Braves’ 22.4% drop in making the playoffs by any means are the next-largest. For the sake of their playoff hopes — and for the viewing pleasure of all of us enjoying Buxton’s latest breakout — they’ll need their center fielder back sooner rather than later.





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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cartermember
1 year ago

It is weird that you write all this and do not mention Larnach, the Twins #3 prospect who was called up already and projected to hit 5th in their lineup. He has hit basically the same as Kirilloff in the minors, and has a better approach and more raw power. The knock on him, and why he wasn’t higher as a prospect is his defense. But his arm is so strong that potentially he can be a serviceable RF for the time being, at least according to scouts. The bat is likely every bit as good as Kirilloff.

MRDXolmember
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

Larnach is not quite the same caliber prospect as Kirilloff. He’s a touch older, has less than half the high-minors PAs AK does, and has significant swing-and-miss issues that at least offset the better approach– a 27.6% K rate at AA in 2019 is cause for significant concern, especially in this New Year of the Pitcher. Additionally, his offensive performance was boosted by a .390 BABIP across A+ and AA in 2019, very likely unsustainable given that he’s a slower lefty hitter.

If Larnach, like AK, is also a 1B miscast as a RF, he won’t exactly help the Twins’ main issue of run prevention. An Arraez/Kepler/Larnach LF/CF/RF or a Larnach/Cave/Kepler outfield will not be pretty to watch field, and the only one of those guys hitting better than average is currently concussed.

cartermember
1 year ago
Reply to  MRDXol

I understand that he isn’t quite the same prospect, but a lot of that is likely defense related. And I have seen AK try and play the outfield and he hasn’t looked good thus far, he has actually looked quite bad. My point is while there is likely a difference between a 55 FV and a 60 FV the long term results could go either way, and there isn’t a substantial difference. Also I think the power is going to play. The EV is already elite, and when you combine it with all fields approach and a high walk rate I think something is there.

MRDXolmember
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

AK and Larnach are both rated as 40 CV/FV defense corner outfielders. Unless Larnach has, sight unseen, slimmed down and sped up without sacrificing his strength, that isn’t changing. It’s all fine if he hits, and there’s no reason to doubt he will… eventually. I’m just a little wary of him hitting right away; it seems to me that approach over bat control guys like Larnach often require longer to adjust to big league pitching than their opposites like Kirilloff.

Long-term, the 55/60 FV difference between the two probably comes down to the fact that approach often improves with experience, but bat control rarely does, giving AK a better chance to improve/higher ceiling at the plate than Larnach.

2wins87
1 year ago
Reply to  MRDXol

The bat control aspect is huge. Also there’s the fact that Kirilloff has shown off his talent at the major league level now.

Larnach might be able to step in and provide the same production, but a lot of prospects don’t. Kiriloff had some terrible luck in his first week, but has basically raked the entire time he’s been up. His .468 xWOBA is in Trout/Buxton territory, albeit for a pretty small sample. Obviously that is going to come down, but he was demonstrating the skills that were likely going to keep him producing at a solid level even as the league tried to adjust to him

We just don’t know how Larnach is going to adjust to the league, but the increasing strikeouts as he climbed the ladder are concerning and probably demonstrate that there are weaknesses that major league pitchers will be able to exploit.

It’s a loss for the lineup, even if it’s just a loss in some level of certainty with Kirilloff that we don’t have with Larnach.

cartermember
1 year ago
Reply to  2wins87

He has a a 29.5% k rate and a 2.3% walk rate. I don’t think he has demonstrated anything, especially since those stats stabilize relatively quick.

2wins87
1 year ago
Reply to  carter

96.5 MPH average exit velocity. Also stabilizes quickly.