Time to Buy into the Hype: A Healthy Byron Buxton Is MLB's Best Player

Zachary D. RymerMay 2, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 23: Byron Buxton #25 of the Minnesota Twins celebrates his solo home run against the Chicago White Sox in the fourth inning of the game at Target Field on April 23, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the White Sox 9-2. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
David Berding/Getty Images

It's common for superhero alter egos to have alliterative names. Think Clark Kent. Or Bruce Banner. Or Peter Parker.

Or Byron Buxton, whose superpower is being the best player in Major League Baseball when he's able to play.

This is to say that, apart from that one caveat, we don't necessarily disagree with what Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli thinks about his $100 million center fielder:

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Rocco Baldelli on <a href="https://twitter.com/Twins?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Twins</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/OfficialBuck103?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@OfficialBuck103</a> Sunday: "I think he's absolutely the best player in the world"<br><br>Rocco today on <a href="https://twitter.com/MLBNetworkRadio?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@MLBNetworkRadio</a>: "I don't know how you avoid saying something like that about Buck." <a href="https://t.co/Pa6G4HSPen">pic.twitter.com/Pa6G4HSPen</a>

As takes go, this is pretty hot. It would have been safer for Baldelli to name, say, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Nestor Cortes (sarcasm...sort of) as the best baseball player in the world.

The obvious complication in him naming Buxton is, well, obvious. As much as anything he does on the field, the 28-year-old is known for how often he's not on the field. He's missed literally hundreds of days to injuries since beginning his big league career in 2015, including a handful already this year with knee and hand ailments.

And yet, it says a lot that Buxton's case as baseball's best player is compelling even though his injury history is no great secret.

In just 14 games this season, he's already up to a 1.100 OPS and seven home runs. His OPS+ since the start of last year is up to 179, which tops all hitters who've taken at least 300 plate appearances.

Buxton has likewise put up 5.8 rWAR in his last 75 games, which computes to a 12.1-rWAR pace over a full season. Never mind Trout, Ohtani, Soto or Guerrero. Among position players, that's territory in which only Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby and Carl Yastrzemski have ever tread.

Such is the CliffsNotes version of Buxton's candidacy as baseball's best player, anyway. It was perhaps always meant to be this way, even if it took a little longer than expected for things to come together for him. 

What Buxton Mainly Does

Here's a pretty good representation of what Buxton brings to the table as a hitter these days:

This was the second home run that Buxton hit on April 24 at Target Field against the Chicago White Sox, and certainly the more impressive of the two.

He turned around a 96 mph fastball from one of the league's top closers, hitting it 111.8 mph off the bat and ultimately 469 feet in distance. As Sarah Langs of MLB.com noted, it's the longest walk-off home run of the eight-year Statcast era.

That kind of contact has more or less been the norm for Buxton over the last two seasons, but especially so in 2022. The 97.5 mph he's averaging on batted balls is the best in the league. He's ahead of even New York Yankees sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, who both have a couple of inches and dozens of pounds on the 6'2", 190-pound Buxton.

This is part of the whole "meant to be" thing. When MLB.com slotted Buxton into the No. 1 spot in its prospect rankings for the 2014 season, its report read in part: "Buxton's power has already been better than expected, and scouts expect it to improve more as he grows."

In addition to consistent playing time by way of injuries, demotions and non-promotions, what Buxton lacked in his early seasonsβ€”i.e., he slugged only .387 between 2015 and 2018β€”was a proper vessel through which he could realize his power. In simpler, less pretentious terms: It was a struggle for him to find the right stance in the box.

Whether the difference was in the placement of his feet, the arrangement of his legs or in the positioning of his hands, we spotted at least seven distinct stances when digging through Buxton's video archive:

Screenshots via MLB.com

And this is just his stances. He also had to try out various timing mechanisms, from more exaggerated leg kicks to more subtle toe taps.

The mechanics he has nowβ€”upright with his weight loaded on his back leg and his hands held high, with a timing device that's more toe tap than leg kickβ€”are just about perfect. Specifically to the extent that they've helped turn one of his more notable flaws into a strength that few, if any, can match.

This would be his ability to hit the fastball, which is best seen in this graph of his slugging against fastballs through the years:

Image via Baseball Savant

Between 2015 and 2018, Buxton was 335th in slugging against fastballs. He took a turn for the better in 2019, and more recently he owns a .768 slugging percentage against fastballs since the start of last season. That's the best in baseball by a wide margin, as no other hitter is even in the .700s with him.

The catch should be that Buxton also still swings and misses a fair deal (i.e., 29.7 percent this season) against fastballs, but that seems to actually work to his advantage. It's an incentive for pitchers to keep feeding him fastballs, which they are to the tune of a 55.9 percentage in 2022.

Such is the beauty of Buxton's rise as one of baseball's premier sluggers: He has both the engine and the plentiful supply of fuel to keep it going.

What Buxton Also Does

Even before he broke out as a hitter, Buxton was tailor-made for the Statcast era in at least three ways.

For one, dude can run:

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Byron Buxton had a sprint speed of 30.9 ft/sec on his infield single!<br><br>30.0 ft/sec is considered elite. <a href="https://t.co/Dy1sw8B932">pic.twitter.com/Dy1sw8B932</a>

For two, dude can field:

Minnesota Twins @Twins

Byron Buxton saves the game for now with a spectacular catch. 😱😱😱<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MNTwins?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MNTwins</a> <a href="https://t.co/vU8xpvb5QO">pic.twitter.com/vU8xpvb5QO</a>

And for three, dude can throw:

It's largely thanks to these components that Buxton was able to have a star-caliber season in 2017 even as his hitting was below average by way of a 93 OPS+. He went 29-for-30 in stolen bases over 140 games, and he easily led all center fielders with 22 defensive runs saved to win his first Gold Glove.

If outs above average is a better measure of Buxton's defensive quality, well, so be it. His 60 OAA since 2016 ranks fourth among center fielders, though the only one of his peers who can match his 94 percent success rate making plays is three-time Gold Glover Kevin Kiermaier.

Thus far in 2022, about the only discernible red flag in these other phases of Buxton's game concerns his speed. He's averaging 28.2 feet per second on his sprints, marking the first time in his career that his average sprint has slipped below 30 feet per second.

It's a bit early to read too much into that, however. Even setting aside the scare he had with his knee, the bad weather that Buxton and the Twins have played in so far this year hasn't exactly been conducive to running. 

If Buxton's speed eventually does come around, he's going to conclude the year with a veritable pile of highlights that have nothing to do with his bat. In this way, at least, his 2022 season will be no different from any season that came before.

What Buxton Doesn't Always Do

Lest anyone think that injuries are Buxton's only real flaw, even we're a little turned off by his general disregard for free passes.

He's walked in only 5.9 percent of his career plate appearances, which ranks among the lowest rates among all hitters since the 2015 season. This is also an area of the game where he's not getting better. His walk rate thus far in 2022 is a minuscule 3.4 percent.

Paradoxically, though, Buxton isn't an entirely undisciplined hitter. Far from a Javier Baez or a Salvador Perez, he's been more of an Eric Hosmer with his rate of swings outside the strike zone over the last two seasons. Though certainly a lesser one, it's yet another reason why the quality of his contact has improved so dramatically.

As for how all the injuries can be explained away...well, fine. You've got us there.

There's nary a part of his body that hasn't been banged up at some point or another, and the causes have ranged from unexplained breakdowns to literal bad breaks. His 2021 season was a microcosm in these regards, as his hip strain seemed to come out of nowhere while his broken hand was the direct result of a hit-by-pitch.

The psychological strain of all these injuries, meanwhile, can't be discounted.

"He's beyond upset. And that's what I would expect from him," Baldelli told reporters after Buxton broke his hand on a hit-by-pitch last year. "I think the number of traumas, physically, that he's had to deal with, and because of that, emotionally, when you have to deal with that many types of things, difficult things, it's hard on you."

But especially in this context, it's encouraging downright impressive that Buxton has been able to get on and thus far maintain an upward trajectory into superstardom. And even if his injury history can't be disregarded as one great, big warning of future injuries to come, what matters most is that Buxton is healthy in the here and now.

So, might as well enjoy what he has to offer while he's offering it. And since he's the only player in baseball right now who's as elite at slugging as he is at fielding, running and throwing, suffice it to say there's a lot to enjoy.