Byron Buxton Has 99 MPH Arm, 21 MPH Speed, 448-Foot Power and a Lot to Prove

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMay 24, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 16: Byron Buxton #25 of the Minnesota Twins runs the bases against the St. Louis Cardinals during the interleague game on May 16, 2018 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Cardinals defeated the Twins 7-5. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

James Rowson had faith at a time when so many others didn't. The Minnesota Twins hitting coach believed in Byron Buxton when the numbers said he shouldn’t.

"Over my dead body," Rowson told Twins general manager Thad Levine early last season, when Buxton wasn't hitting and the Twins were ready to send the struggling 23-year-old back to the minor leagues for what would have been the fourth time in three years.

Over my dead body you'll send him down, Rowson said then, and Buxton more than justified his faith. He had a great second half. He even found his way onto three Most Valuable Player ballots.

Rowson was right then, right big-time. So why wouldn't you believe him now, when he says to ignore Buxton's poor early 2018 and focus instead on the talent and the future? Yes, Rowson said, absolutely, Buxton is still the guy scouts raved about when he was on the way up, still the guy who could go on to be one of the biggest stars in the game.

"Never put a ceiling on him, because he's going to blow through whatever ceiling you put on him," Rowson said. "In my opinion, the sky's the limit for this kid."

Torii Hunter, part of the Twins' All-Star legacy in center field, agrees.

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"I think he's going to be among the great players," Hunter said. "Maybe not [Mike] Trout. But maybe."

Could the scouts have been right after all, when Buxton was the second overall pick in the 2012 draft, a strong predraft consideration to go first overall ahead of Carlos Correa? Two years later, Baseball America listed Buxton as the game's top prospect, ahead of Correa, Kris Bryant and Francisco Lindor, among others.

Maybe Buxton is still that guy, despite a few stumbles at the plate in his major league career. He's not just some defensive whiz, even though his defense in center field is plenty special.

"He's a gazelle," Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "He runs like a gazelle. And he has no fear of the wall."

Hunter used the same word to describe Buxton.

"Buxton runs like a gazelle trying to get away from a lion," he said. "I give him props. I rarely give any man props in center field. He's one of the best center fielders I've ever seen."

He's so good he won the American League's Platinum Glove Award in 2017, which is like a Gold Glove except it goes to the best defender in each league, regardless of position. He's so good's Statcast credited him with 29 outs above average last year—eight more than any other outfielder in the game.

He's special on the bases, too. Buxton has 29 steals since he was last thrown out, on May 23, 2017. He's more than halfway to Vince Coleman's major league record of 50 in a row. Going back to 2015, Buxton's been successful on 45 of his last 48 attempts.

"He could probably earn himself a spot in the NBA or NFL just on his athleticism," teammate Robbie Grossman said. "It's world-class speed."

Statcast tells you Buxton's sprint speed of 30.5 feet per second (20.8 mph) is the fastest in the majors this season (he also ranked first in 2015 and 2016 and a close second to Victor Robles of the Washington Nationals in 2017). Statcast also tells you his throw to get Trout at home plate last season was clocked at 99.4 mph. And Statcast measured one of Buxton's 2016 home runs at 448 feet.

He's the only player who made the All-Statcast Team each of the last two seasons.

But why are we talking so much about a guy hitting .173?

It's OK to talk potential, because Buxton will play all this season at 24 years old. Nobody is claiming he's a finished product, and everyone acknowledges his spectacular defense has kept him in the lineup and in the big leagues at times when other players would have gone to the minors to get more work.

The Twins want him on the field as much as possible. When he missed 21 games this season because of migraines and then a hairline fracture in his foot, they brought him back without a minor league rehab assignment.

Sure enough, Buxton made a great catch in center field on one of his first days back. He also went 2-for-23 with nine strikeouts in his first seven games, and rust had to be an issue. His numbers through May 24 still aren't impressive: a .173 batting average, just three walks and 24 strikeouts, zero home runs, a .205 on-base average and a .227 slugging percentage.

Buxton has always been special defensively, showing off world-class speed and no fear of the wall.
Buxton has always been special defensively, showing off world-class speed and no fear of the wall.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

The good thing for Buxton and the Twins is he doesn't seem nearly as frustrated and confused at the plate as he was when he hit .147 in April 2017. He believes in what he's doing now, he believes he will hit, and he even believes he can become as much of an impact guy with the bat as he already is with the glove.

"I know my bat's good enough to play up here," he said. "At some point this year, it's going to turn around."

And why not? Buxton hit at every level of the minor leagues. He hit like an All-Star in the second half of last season, with a .300 batting average and .893 OPS.

Rowson said Buxton can be even better. Levine believes Buxton is still just scratching the surface of what he can be offensively.

Buxton agreed.

"I knew I could play defense," he said. "That was something I was blessed to have. Hitting was something I knew I had to work on. It hasn't come as fast, and that got me frustrated."

And all the expectations, high prospect ratings and minor league success didn't help.

Buxton went through some slumps in the minor leagues, but his progress on the way up was mostly linear. He barely paused at Double-A or Triple-A, and he debuted with the Twins when he was 21 years old.

Expectations? He was living up to them, so who cared whether they were fair?

Buxton got to the big leagues when he was 21, but after struggling, he quickly found himself back in the minors.
Buxton got to the big leagues when he was 21, but after struggling, he quickly found himself back in the minors.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

"I didn't realize it was difficult until I got my first stint [in the big leagues] and got sent down," Buxton said. "All through the minors, I had tricked myself. In reality, I was playing with a lot of pressure because I didn't want to let people down—the Twins, who had believed in me; my teammates; my family."

He hit .189 in 11 games in that first stint in June 2015. He hit .217 in 35 games after he was recalled in August.

The strikeouts piled up.

He was sent down again in April 2016, with a .156 average. He was sent down again in August, when he was hitting .193. He was recalled again Sept. 1, and in the final month-plus of the season he hit nine home runs in 29 games. But through 21 games in 2017, Buxton was struggling again with a .138 batting average and 29 strikeouts in 65 at-bats.

There was again talk of sending him down. He knew it. He couldn't figure out his swing. Each night he worried that if he didn't get any hits he'd be back in Rochester, New York, back in the minor leagues.

That's when Rowson spoke up. That's when he told Levine they would send Buxton down over his dead body.

"The conviction in his eyes said we didn't want to test him on that," Levine said.

It's also when Rowson went to Buxton and told him not to worry.

"JRow and some of the other coaches said, 'We've got your back, you're going be here, so smile and have fun,'" Buxton said.

He and Rowson worked out a plan. There were mechanical changes—Buxton dropped his leg kick—but more than that, there was a philosophical and mental change.

"It was simply a matter of letting the athlete play and not getting so much into his mechanics that he lost his athleticism," Rowson said. "We were playing to his strengths."

Rowson told Buxton the key was lower-half stability, something he showed in the outfield and on the basepaths but struggled to maintain in the batter's box. He also told Buxton and Levine the results might not show up right away.

Everything clicked in late June, during a series at Fenway Park. Buxton went 1-for-11 in four games, but the things he said to Rowson convinced the hitting coach his pupil understood what they were trying to do.

"Me and him, our relationship is one of those things that can't be broken," Buxton said. "He told me every single day, 'I've got your back.' He told me to stop putting so much pressure on myself that I had to get a hit every night. It's baseball. It doesn't work that way.

"He brought that positivity to me through the pain."

Rowson brought a smile to Buxton's face, one that wasn't always there during the struggles.

"My parents had always told me to go out and have fun and smile," Buxton said. "If I make it fun, there's nothing I can't do in this game."

That belief remains, and Buxton's struggles this year haven't shaken it. He's not frustrated, he insists, not like he was before.

He's ready to have fun. He's ready to be the player everyone always said he would be.

He's ready to do with his bat what he has always done with his glove.

It's not just Statcast and the numbers that tell you Buxton is a special talent in center field. It's the guys who play with him—and the guys who play against him.

"I'm a huge fan of Byron," Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "He's probably one of my favorite players to watch. He's a freak athlete. He already is one of the impact players in the game."

Kiermaier won the American League Platinum Glove in 2015, two years before Buxton won it. That was the year Buxton debuted with the Twins, and also the year he and Kiermaier became the two members of an elite mutual admiration society.

Kiermaier sought out Buxton early on. Even now, he said, he makes a point of catching up with Buxton anytime the Twins and Rays meet.

"Center fielders being center fielders, I respect him so much, as he respects me," Buxton said.

Kiermaier makes unbelievable plays, too, but he can't match Buxton's speed. No one in the game right now can match it. He has a quick first step and then the closing speed to run down fly balls he seems to have no right to catch.

"We wouldn't even need to position him," said Eddie Guardado, the Twins bullpen coach. "He can catch a ball anywhere. He could sit in the stands having a beer, and he would still get to the ball."

Levine, the Twins GM, says Buxton is so fast the warning track isn't wide enough for him and so fearless the walls at Target Field need more padding.

"We actually wish he had a tickle more fear [of the wall]," Levine said.

"I hear that quite a bit," Buxton responded. "I play the game fast. I play it fearless. I know the wall is there. But if the ball is there and I can help out the team, I don't care about the wall. My dad always told me, 'If you're going to play, play 100 percent.'"

Twins closer Fernando Rodney calls Buxton "guaranteed safety" because he can catch everything.

"He saves the game," Rodney said. "He closes the door."

For all the praise, though, Buxton said he still finds fault with nearly every play he makes. He could have reacted quicker. He could have run a better route. He hasn't made the perfect catch, not yet.

It's out there, though. The perfect catch is out there, and Buxton can picture it. It's the catch Jim Edmonds made in 1997 for the Anaheim Angels, the one where he turned his back on home plate and still managed to see the ball into his glove.

"If I ever made that catch..." Buxton said. "That's my dream catch, I kid you not. The ball's coming down, and he's running backwards. How do you see the ball?"

Someday, Buxton will make that catch. Someday, he'll impact games at the plate the way he does in the field and on the bases.

He'll live up to his expectations. And to those everyone else has put on him.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.