Generally, the theory is that even top prospects bust. Byron Buxton is the toppest of top prospects, but even that distinction can’t protect him from failure of one kind or another. Exploring that theory is much more difficult when you’re the player himself. Or the writer asking that player about those expectations and the difficulties he’s been having so far. “You’re going to have a stamp on you wherever you are, but I try to put it to the side,” the struggling Twin said recently before a game with the Athletics. It’s hard not to empathize.
The theory with Buxton is that the tools are there but that he needs to make an adjustment to major-league pitching. It’s looked bad, but the talent is in there.
In 195 major-league plate appearances so far, Buxton has struck out 36% of the time and walked just 4% of the time, for a 32-point differential between his strikeout and walk rates. It’s a toxic combination. And rare. Consider: among 106 top-10 prospects since 1990, only Javier Baez has recorded a worse strikeout- minus walk-rate differential in his first 200 plate appearances.
Before you say “uh-oh” loudly in your office at some of the names on this list, note that there are also some good names on it, albeit a little lower down. There’s even a star’s star. Plus, strikeouts have been on the rise, league-wide, ever since 1990, when this list began. So that skews the list. It’s only 195 plate appearances. Not quite enough for an epitaph.
|Melvin Upton Jr.||8%||26%||18%|
And it’s important to note: Buxton’s plate-discipline numbers have been much better in the minors, where he’s recorded a 19.9% strikeout rate and 10.8% walk rate. So you ask the question: how can he get that eye back?
The theory on his latest trip down was that he would find his confidence and return to improve upon his major-league results.
Here, the implementation went fine. Buxton hit .336/.403/.603 in Triple-A this year and things just looked better. “I was able to slow it down,” Buxton said. “Better than up here: not chasing pitches outside of the zone, being more aggressive to the fastball, swinging at better pitches.”
The theory behind those changes is that a mechanical adjustment is the source of better play. And he did make a large change while he was down there — he added a leg kick.
The execution of that theory is in progress. It’s not clear cut in the first place — he used to have a leg kick. “I started with it, I got rid of it, and brought it back,” Buxton said, saying that the changes along the way were “just to change” and came from “not trusting myself.”
The benefits from adding the leg kick sound a lot like what I’ve heard from Josh Donaldson in the past and Danny Valencia recently. “I had a two-part swing without it,” Buxton said. “Once I got my leg kick back, and got comfortable with it, everything else kind of sunk into place. It slowed the ball down, my hands were always in the right spot, I landed in the same spot every time, and I was seeing the ball deep, laid off some tough breaking pitches.”
With a leg kick, you have to start earlier. “There’s more to the process, so it makes you start earlier so you can be on time,” he said. And that’s how adding a complication to your swing can actually ‘slow the ball down’ — by making you start the process earlier.
That’s the theory of the leg kick. Implementation has been more difficult.
Buxton has struck out four times in twelve plate appearances so far. He’s swung and missed on more than a fifth of the pitches he’s seen, and that would lead baseball if he qualified. And it looks like he doesn’t even implement the kick all the time. You could say he still looks lost.
In the same at bat, he leg kicks:
And then toe taps:
What’s really going on here, as Parker Hageman pointed out to me, is that he goes to the toe tap with two strikes, presumably to become quicker and more compact to the ball, in order to make more contact. Hey, that’s a two-strike approach. If having a two-strike approach sounds so mature coming from Nomar Mazara, then we should probably give Buxton some credit for adjusting to the situation.
In the end, we have the old job/experience conundrum. “You have to have the confidence, to believe in yourself, and go up there and swing at good pitches at the plate,” he said of what he needs to do while he struggles. Yeah, but how can he get that confidence first?
The answer is time. We need to give him time. Even if it doesn’t look good now.
Other top prospects have come up and failed, but others have also taken some time to get there. This top prospect went down, changed his mentality at the plate (the pull-happy Buxton mentioned hitting the ball on one hop past the second baseman), changed his mechanics, and got his confidence back. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, too — “You can’t play this game long, so wherever you are, go out there and play hard.”
Let’s give him some time to implement his theories and improve the execution before we call the whole thing off.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.