keyboard_arrow_uptop

It happened on June 10, 2013.

Byron Buxton, playing center field for the Low-A Cedar Rapids Kernels, took a stride to his right, then, realizing the ball was ticketed for the gap in left-center, raced some 85 feet back—I measured—to meet the ball before it completed its descent, diving headlong on the warning track to snare it.

It works better in video form:

Buxton's reaction time, first step, and eventual route might not grade out particularly well on Statcast, but that's kind of the point. The dude didn't read the ball well off the bat and he didn't take the most direct path to it, but he still made the catch.

That catch was perhaps the defining moment of Buxton, The Prospect, as it marked the high point of a season in which he hit .334/.424/.520 across two levels—Cedar Rapids and High-A Fort Myers—as a 19-year-old. The 2013 season catapulted Buxton from an intriguing talent into the best prospect in the game, as he earned No. 1 prospect status from Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, and MLB.com by the start of the 2014 campaign.

It's gone downhill since for two reasons: (1) not every super-prospect develops as smoothly as Mike Trout and (2) there was nowhere to go but down. Buxton's battled numerous freak injuries and signs of mortality at the plate over the past two seasons, which included a major-league debut in 2015, but only Corey Seager has usurped him on BP's Top 101. Despite the hiccups, Buxton still bristles with five-tool greatness.

***

PECOTA is designed, at least in part, to temper our expectations of greatness. It ties together reams of emotionless data, applies a healthy dose of regression, and generally spits out something more pessimistic than we'd like, especially when it relates to uber prospects. Here's what it says about Buxton (and what it said about Trout after his debut season):

Player

WARP

Byron Buxton, 2016

4.6

Mike Trout, 2012

0.6

Whoa. PECOTA loves Buxton—sorta, anyway.

That 4.6 WARP figure is the 15th-best mark in the game heading into 2016, just 2.7 WARP off modern-day Trout, and ahead of established stars like Jason Heyward, Andrew McCutchen, and Alex Gordon. However, with a projected .256 TAv—in line with established non-stars like Ben Paulsen, Nick Castellanos, and Rhys Hoskins—almost all of Buxton's value is coming from his defense, which PECOTA pegs at +24 runs in center field . . . +24 runs in center field. Whoa.

When I first read that number, I emailed BP's Rob McQuown to make sure Aaron Gleeman hadn't hacked into PECOTA. He assured me that Buxton's projected FRAA was correct, although he also noted that it was a topic of discussion among BP staffers before PECOTA went live. It's the sort of number that jumps out at you, even given ample video evidence (see: The Catch) and scouting report after scouting report detailing Buxton's outfield exploits.

Here are Buxton's historical FRAA numbers:

Year

Games

FRAA

FRAA/150

2012

48

0.7

2.2

2013

125

11.9

14.3

2014

31

5.6

27.1

2015

118

22.1

28.1

Total

322

40.3

18.8

Over the last two seasons, Buxton has played in 149 games and racked up 27.7 FRAA, all while dealing with inconsistent playing time brought on by injuries. He's also entering his age-22 season, which should be somewhere near his defensive peak. That's the statistical argument for +24. The argument against it is that Buxton's career FRAA/150 is five runs off that mark, and that almost all of his performance has taken place in the minor leagues. In theory, there's probably a pretty big regression-to-the-mean factor here, and projecting someone to be this good is a branch PECOTA rarely wanders onto.

How often does PECOTA project a center fielder for a +10-or-better FRAA (and how do they subsequently perform)?
Since 2006, PECOTA has projected just 18 players for a double digit (positive) FRAA in center field. Among those players, only 13 played at least 50 games in center during the year in question, and here's how the group fared:

Projected FRAA/150

Actual FRAA/150

17.4

4.5

That's a pretty big collective drop off from the projections, but there's an important caveat here. FRAA has undergone numerous changes over the years, and the past projections are based off a different formula than our current (and historical) FRAA numbers.

Since 2014, five players have met the above qualifications, and their performance has come in just four runs worse than their projections—12.4 compared to 16.4. That could be thanks to increased continuity with FRAA, or it could be something else. We're in the realm of small samples here.

Ignoring catchers, here are the best defensive projections for 2016:

Player

Pos.

FRAA

1) Kevin Kiermaier

CF

27.1

2) Byron Buxton

CF

24

3) Manny Machado

3B

20.5

4) Nolan Arenado

3B

17.3

5) Jason Heyward

RF

15.3

Buxton's in rarified air, with only defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier notching a better defensive projection going into 2016. The next closest center fielder is Lorenzo Cain, way back at +11.7.

How often does a center fielder put up a +24-or-better FRAA?
Not often. Since 1990, here they are:

Player

Year

FRAA

1) Andruw Jones

1999

47.8

2) Darin Erstad

2002

31.7

3) Kevin Kiermaier

2015

31.2

4) Andruw Jones

1998

28.9

5) Andruw Jones

2001

28.2

6) Coco Crisp

2007

28.0

7) Kenny Lofton

1992

27.6

8) Torii Hunter

2001

24.9

9) Mark Kotsay

2003

23.9

Lower the threshold to +20 runs, and you get 24 different player seasons—or about one a year. Lower it to +15, and you get 46 seasons, including one from Ichiro (2007), one from Richard Hidalgo (2000), and two from Ken Griffey Jr. (1997 and 2000). Point is, they don't happen often.

***

Perhaps the best argument for Buxton as a future all-time great defender in center field before he's logged 50 games in the majors is the visual evidence—like The Catch embedded above, or this one, or this one, or this one (with Statcast treatment), or this one, or this one. Buxton's blessed with long, smooth strides, the kind of running style that makes it look like there's always another gear available. He's been clocked sub-4.0 home to first (and that's from the right side), which shows he also possesses super-natural acceleration. Acceleration, cruising speed, tight cornering . . . get this guy a car commercial.

When you examine his defense beyond the pure foot speed—the reactions, the first steps, the routes—it feels like there's plenty of room for him to refine the periphery skills of the position. Remember, he's missed significant developmental time in each of the past two seasons, and he's only been able to legally drink for 440 days. There's a scary combination of tools, performance, and potential here, and the sky's the limit long-term. If I had to, though, I'd still take the under on that +24 FRAA. BP's Minor League editor, Craig Goldstein, agrees, noting that while Buxton's a potential elite defender in center, if he had to throw a number on him, it'd be closer to +15. (He also noted that there's room to improve, given the missed developmental time, and that +20-and-up wouldn't surprise him.)

The good news is that spring training is underway, and Buxton will soon be roaming the outfields of the Grapefruit League, then the American League, and we'll gain a much clearer picture of just how good he can be out there.

Thanks to Sam Miller, Rob McQuown, and Craig Goldstein for assistance.

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
huztlers
3/02
Mike Trout's debut was anything but smooth - possibly worth pointing out.
dutt22
3/02
That's fair, but in terms of his development as a whole, it was much smoother than Buxton's has been. There was no significant lost time to injuries, and he never showed even the slightest signs of struggles against minor-league pitching. Even his debut major-league season was a good bit better than Buxton's, at least offensively.
bleaklewis
3/02
The biggest thing I took from this article is just how incredible Andruw Jones was.
richkraetsch
3/02
As the years go on I think he's a guy we'll more and more appreciate it. I got lost in a wormhole watching his highlights a few weeks back, just an incredible all-time legendary fielder.
smallmanoncampus
3/02
Is all that 4.6 WAR coming from his defense? Not even one word about his offense in this article, so I'll put it here: .209/.250/.326 in an admittedly small major league sample. Hardly the line I would want if I was gonna project somebody as the 15th best player in all of Major League Baseball.
lmarighi
3/02
You did read this sentence before commenting, right? "However, with a projected .256 TAv—in line with established non-stars like Ben Paulsen, Nick Castellanos, and Rhys Hoskins—almost all of Buxton's value is coming from his defense, which PECOTA pegs at +24 runs in center field . . . "
dutt22
3/02
Yeah, check Imarighi's comment where I did, at least briefly, mention Buxton's offense. If Buxton projected as something like an average defender in center, his WARP would probably be near 2.0. He'd project as right around an average player in 2016, and nowhere near the 15th-best player in the majors. So in that sense, a good portion of his value is coming from that defensive projection. PECOTA does like his offense to rebound from last year's debut, which isn't surprising, and many scouts/baseball people presumably believe Buxton will turn into a much better offensive player than where PECOTA has him.
lichtman
3/03
You cannot project a CF'er with limited MLB (really any playing time, because once you get lots of time, aging becomes a factor) for +24. Not possible. I've been doing defensive analysis and projections for almost 30 years. Your own projections versus actual, no matter how much you want to qualify them (e.g., our projections are much better now than they were then), are evidence that that is true. A +24 CF'er is equivalent to a +34 RF or LFer, just to give you some context for how good of an outfielder a true +24 player has to be. Not even sure there is such a thing. Even if there is, you can never project someone to be that good. Certainly not someone with 44 games in MLB! I can't emphasize it enough that there is simply no way to project a CF'er at +24 runs. None. What is the cap? I don't know. Probably somewhere around 15-20 if you think that a player is the absolute best outfielder you have ever seen AND he has the historical numbers to back it up over a relatively large sample of performance. My contention is even stronger when you include the fact that a projection must include the normal chances of minor and major injuries. Even if you project a player +20 IF they stay perfectly healthy, that is not a proper projection. The projection has to include chances of injuries affecting the performance. If anyone disagrees I will happily go with an MGL wager on the under and I'll give you 2 runs! I'll take under 22. Can't use FRAA at the end of the season though. I have no idea whether it inflates good fielders or not. Have to use DRS or something like that.
dutt22
3/03
Hey MGL, No bet for me. As I noted in the article, I'd take the under on Buxton's +24 FRAA projection if I had to choose a side. What I really wanted to explore here was how often PECOTA projected a CF this high (not often) and how often CFs perform at this level or higher (not often). As far as the nuts and bolts of this projection, I don't really want to comment further simply because I don't have all the information that went into it. That might have been a more interesting article, but I guess I was going for something slightly different.
lichtman
3/03
Dustin, I understand. Right, your own numbers showed evidence that Pecota (and perhaps other projection systems - I don't know) overestimates what they consider the best defenders. (BTW, to say, "Well we did this in the past, but our projections are better now," with zero evidence that that is true and that you fixed the over-estimate problem, is a poor argument). Even without that evidence, anyone who does projections on a regular basis or for a living, should realize that you simply cannot project a CF'er at that level. If nothing else, add more regression to your def. projections. I don't know, really, as I don't know the nuts and bolts. But, to say, "Yeah, I believe this projection is wrong, too," and still proffer that projection, well, that seems to me to be wrong in some way. The article is fine. Is anyone at BP willing to stand by that projection? If no, why would they put it out?
dutt22
3/03
MGL, I think your first point of contention is with this part: "That's a pretty big collective drop off from the projections, but there's an important caveat here. FRAA has undergone numerous changes over the years, and the past projections are based off a different formula than our current (and historical) FRAA numbers." What I was trying to say there was that our calculation of FRAA has changed over the years, so I'm comparing old projections (that were based off the old versions of FRAA) against our current version of FRAA. Simply, the FRAAs don't match and obviously that might cause some issues when trying to compare the player's numbers beyond performance. I'll get back to you on the other stuff.
lichtman
3/04
Let me try and give a little primer on projections in general. A good projection must do 2 things: One, it must project a range of talent that is a significant percentage of the actual range of talent. A range in talent in a projection can never equal the actual range of talent in the population. So, let's say that the true range of defensive talent in CF is +- 25 runs (per 150), say, at 3 SD. A good projection might go as high as 15 or 17 runs. The lower the range of projections, relative to the actual range of talent, the poorer the projection. Taken to the extreme, a bad projection system could just project everyone at league average. A bad one that uses a little info could simply project all players they somehow know or suspect to be good at +1 and -1 for the players they know or suspect to be bad. Now, just because a projection system projects a wide range of talent, relative to the actual talent range, still doesn't mean it is a good projection. Those ranges have to be accurate. IOW, if you look at every player projected at +10 to +15, their combined future performance needs to be around +12. If, as is suggested here, all +20 players perform at a +10 level, all +10 players perform at a +5 level, then those projected ranges are bogus. It could be that the procjetion algorithm is simply not regressing enough and/or there could be other problems. Either way, it is a problematic projection system and it needs to be adjusted in one way or another in order to "scale" those projections correctly before we can even begin to evaluate the system. Now, if the projected players at +20 perform at +6 and the projected players at +10 perform at +3, and those at +5 perform at +1 (and the same for players projected in the negative), then what looks like a good projection system, because of the nice wide ranges, is bogus. It still may be basically a decent projection system, but something needs to be tweaked (as I said, maybe just regressed much more aggressively), and the system needs to be evaluated based in part on the "real" spread (in this example like plus or minus 6) and not on the bogus spread of +-20, again, as compared to the spread in true talent (as best as we can estimate it). Finally, even if a projection system has a nice spread and that spread holds up to scrutiny (it equals the spread in observed values group to group - i.e., all +20 combined perform at +20, all -15 perform at -15, combined, etc.), we also need to verify that it is measuring accurately what it purports to measure, in this case, defense or fielding. I can come up with a completely random, bogus metric which purports to measure defense but doesn't, and I can construct in such a way that it presents a nice range of projections AND those projections match up with future performance. Of course that future performance is not really measuring defense. This is the whole reliability/accuracy dichotomy you learn about it STATS 101 in college. So as far as testing whether Pecota's extreme fielding projections are "good" ones, the first thing that MUST be done is to take their range of projections and test them against future performance, using aggregate players and aggregate opportunities to cut down on the noise. Dustin did this to some extent, and the results were not good. Absent any other information, that tells you that a +24 projection is bogus. If BP is claiming that they have changed their methodology such that their projections are more accurate such that they can accurately project a wider range in talent (remember that a performance projection is essentially - not exactly - a talent projection), then they simply need to use this new methodology to back test and see if their projected range matches up to the actual performance range. It is one of the first tests that you do when you do projections! If it fails then you need to go back to the drawing board and figure out why. If your methodology is good it is usually a simple matter of not regressing enough given the sample size of the historical data going into the projections.
therealn0d
3/07
^this is among the best advice your are ever likely to receive.