It wasn’t supposed to go like this for Byron Buxton.

The no. 2 pick in the 2012 draft out of a Georgia high school, Buxton thrived early and often in the minors, winning minor league player of the year honors in his first full season and hitting .302/.380/.501 in 325 games overall, including .327/.377/.563 at Triple-A. He emerged as a consensus top-10 prospect in 2013, and from 2014-2016 he ranked as either the no. 1 or no. 2 prospect in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, and He debuted for the Twins on June 14, 2015, at age 21, and has consistently been overmatched, hitting .211/.271/.376 with a 193/38 K/BB ratio through 162 games.

In retrospect he was rushed to the majors and shuttled back and forth from Minnesota to Rochester too often, with constant mechanical tinkering by assorted coaches. Terry Ryan, who was fired as general manager last July, admitted that he made a mistake by not giving Buxton more time to develop fully in the minors, and manager Paul Molitor has said that he regrets trying to force Buxton into a ground ball-hitting, leadoff-man mold just because of exceptional speed. Molitor came to that conclusion after watching Buxton’s power display last September, surprisingly making him the Twins’ no. 3 hitter this Opening Day.

That proved to be a gross overreaction to one great regular-season month and one good spring training, as Buxton looked lost at the plate to begin this season and was removed from the middle of the lineup by the end of the first week. Perhaps at some point there will be a real debate to be had about whether he’s best suited to bat at the top of the lineup because of his speed or in the middle of the lineup because of his power, but for now Buxton bats ninth and it’s tough to argue that’s not where he belongs. His flailing away at the plate qualifies as more than common early struggles, going into the realm of extreme red flags.

Of course, there’s another side of the ball, and for as awful as Buxton has been at the plate he’s been a revelation in center field. Buxton is so fast and so athletic that it often looks as if he’s out-running his body, like a newborn deer with its legs bending inward as it learns to walk or an airplane requiring the help of a parachute to come to a stop before the end of the runway. Buxton is long and lanky, all knees and elbows, and still incredibly raw physically. And there’s almost nothing he can’t run down in center field, combining limitless range with the total absence of fear for a Gold Glove-caliber performance.

(Last night, in his 162nd career game, Buxton made this sprawling catch.)

I’m constantly amazed by the ease with which Buxton glides under would-be doubles in the gap, perhaps costing himself highlight-reel footage simply by virtue of not needing to jump or dive to make the play. And there are still plenty of highlights, too. He perfectly brings together the eye test and metrics, impressing on a game-to-game basis, dropping jaws with spectacular grabs, and grading out as 18.4 Fielding Runs Above Average through 162 games. Buxton is already a superstar on one side of the ball, which is important to keep in mind while watching him struggle so thoroughly on the other side.

The potential is still there for Buxton to be an impact hitter as well. For one thing, despite seemingly being a prospect forever he’s still just 23 years old. He’s a career .303/.362/.524 hitter at Double-A and Triple-A, and one month or not a 22-year-old center fielder hitting .287/.357/.653 with nine homers in September is tough to ignore. With that said, expectations need to be re-framed within the context of his struggles and specifically his inability to control the strike zone. All the raw talent in the world can’t overcome an inability to identify pitches, work counts, and make consistent contact. Buxton struggles with all of that.

Buxton has MLB’s third-highest strikeout rate (34.8 percent) among the 312 hitters with 500 or more plate appearances since 2015 and his walk rate (6.9 percent) is lower than anyone else in the top 10. However, he’s not the free-swinger that combo suggests. His swing rate on out-of-zone pitches (32.3 percent) ranks 112th and his swing rate on in-zone pitches (63.0 percent) is 245th. His overall swing rate (46.4 percent) is almost exactly average and within a percentage point of Buster Posey, Victor Martinez, George Springer, Xander Bogaerts, Manny Machado, Giancarlo Stanton, Albert Pujols, and Anthony Rizzo.

He could stand to be more aggressive on in-zone pitches and more patient on out-of-zone pitches—who couldn’t, really?—but lots of good hitters thrive with a similar swing mix. The key difference is their ability to make contact on those swings. Buxton has made contact 67.9 percent of the time, which is 303rd out of 312. Posey, Martinez, Bogaerts, Machado, Pujols, and Rizzo make at least 80 percent contact, ranking among the top 100. Springer (72.4 percent) places 271st and Stanton (67.2 percent) is way down in the Buxton zone at 304th, but they also bring elite-level power to the table to make up for the many whiffs.

Take a look at how closely Buxton’s swing and contact rates align with a hitter we’ll call Player X for now:














Player X







Very close, across the board. Player X is Giancarlo Stanton, a career .265/.356/.538 hitter.

Buxton will never approach the same level of power as Stanton (or even Springer), but he showed serious power potential while hitting upper-deck bombs last September. And despite struggling mightily overall he has 13 homers in 503 at-bats after going deep 18 times in 122 games at Double-A and Triple-A. There is 25-homer upside in his bat and Buxton also has the speed to turn singles into doubles on a regular basis. His career isolated power of .165 is above average for all big leaguers and well above average for center fielders, which is impressive for someone still cinching his belt past every hole.

(One of Buxton's nine September homers, this one traveling 448 feet.)

Buxton ranks among the top 25 in both pulled-pitch rate and fly-ball rate, which further adds to what looks like the profile of a slugger rather than a speedy leadoff man … except he has also has the highest rate of infield hits in baseball at 18.3 percent. There is no shortage of extremes present in his approach, skill set, or results, the latter of which have mostly been a mess offensively. Buxton has struggled against all pitch types, but he’s been especially inept against breaking balls and downright helpless once the count turns in the pitcher’s favor.

Buxton has whiffed on a quarter of his swings against four-seam and two-seam fastballs, hitting .227 with a .402 slugging percentage and 72/37 K/BB ratio. Those numbers, while certainly far from good, are sort of palatable at least. He’s been similarly not-horrendous against changeups, hitting .276 with a .414 SLG despite ugly strikeout and walk rates. However, versus sliders and curveballs Buxton has whiffed on 47.2 percent of his swings while hitting .198 with a .327 slugging percentage. His plate appearances ending on sliders and curveballs have resulted in 86 strikeouts and two (yes, two) walks.

All hitters thrive when ahead in the count and struggle when behind in the count, but as with most things Buxton takes that to an extreme. When ahead in the count he’s hit .265 with a .462 SLG and when even in the count he’s hit .258 with a .453 SLG. Not awful! But when behind in the count—which, as you might have gathered by now, happens a lot—he’s hit .139 with a .255 SLG. Once there are two strikes on him, Buxton has struck out 60 percent of the time while hitting just .114, including .124 after 0-2, .118 after 1-2, .134 after 2-2, and .145 on full counts. He’s constantly in the deep end of the pool and can’t paddle back.

Simply by virtue of being in the majors so young, even while struggling, Buxton has a leg up on countless other center fielders who were still stuck in the minors at his age. For instance, Kirby Puckett—the player to whom all Twins center fielders will forever be compared—spent his entire age-23 campaign playing at Single-A and didn't debut in Minnesota until he was 10 months older than Buxton is now. Torii Hunter, the second-best Twins center fielder of all time and a personal mentor to Buxton, had all of 17 career at-bats in the majors at Buxton’s same age.

Buxton is 23 years and 137 days old, and has played in 162 games and logged 555 plate appearances in the big leagues. Among all center fielders in the history of baseball through age 23, a total of 195 had at least 250 plate appearances, 134 had at least 500 plate appearances, and 86 had at least 750 plate appearances (Buxton figures to become the 87th in that 750 PA group within a couple months). Among those young center fielders, his OPS+ of 76 ranks 164th out of 195 in the 250 PA group, 120th out of 134 in the 500 PA group, and (would rank) 80th out of 87 in the 750 PA group.

None of that is pretty and, regardless of the PA cutoff used, the majority of the center fielders in the same OPS+ range as Buxton through age 23 failed to develop into good or even average bats. However, there are definitely some positive examples for Twins fans in search of reasons for optimism. For instance, the aforementioned Torii Hunter totaled 443 plate appearances through age 23 and posted a 73 OPS+ (before spending much of his age-24 season back in the minors). That's a cherry-picked example, of course. Here are a dozen others:

70 OPS+ Carlos Gomez
71 OPS+ Daryl Boston
71 OPS+ Rudy Law
73 OPS+ Torii Hunter
74 OPS+ Del Unser
79 OPS+ Tony Armas
79 OPS+ Coco Crisp
80 OPS+ Michael Brantley
80 OPS+ Cleon Jones
81 OPS+ Juan Pierre
82 OPS+ Cameron Maybin
83 OPS+ Johnny Damon

Again, to be clear: The majority of the center fielders with 250/500/750 PA and an OPS+ within 10 percent on either side of Buxton through age 23 turned out to be bad hitters long term. But a not insignificant number of them went on to have offensive careers that, when combined with Buxton-caliber defense, would at least be decent enough to equal an all-around star. Those same basic odds are shown by the ex-Twins center fielders on the list, with Hunter (73 OPS+) and Carlos Gomez (70) on the positive outcome side and Aaron Hicks (63), Rich Becker (64), and Ben Revere (69) on the negative side.

Buxton’s flaws are extreme enough to re-frame the formerly sky-high expectations. The question now is whether those old expectations need to be dropped completely, with the new hope being that Buxton can merely exist as a non-drag at the bottom of a lineup, or if there’s enough realistic upside left to re-emerge as a solid-but-flawed, strikeouts-and-power hitter along the lines of, say, top PECOTA comp (and fellow no. 2 pick) Melvin Upton. Buxton runs circles around even prime (B.J.) Upton defensively, while Upton better balanced his high strikeout totals with a solid walk rate, but the basic skill sets are pretty similar.

After struggling for the Rays early—although not for as long as Buxton—Upton hit .255/.338/.430 from 2007-2012, averaging 20 homers, 35 doubles, and 170 strikeouts per 150 games from age 22 to 27. He was an All-Star-caliber player for six years despite never really fixing the flaws that were immediately present. Buxton has 2.7 WARP through 162 games without hitting, so adding Upton-caliber production to his defense would equal a very valuable player. There’s a long, tough road from Buxton’s current .211/.271/.376 line to Upton’s prime .255/.338/.430, but that’s the path Twins fans should be hoping for at this stage.

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Buxton rates to be at least as good as Gary Pettis who had a reasonably long career starting a couple of years older. Buxton has more power but draws many fewer walks than Pettis did, but should be a feature in center field in Minnesota for a long time even if he does not improve much. Alas, he would always be labeled a disappointment.
Nice, detailed article. Buxton is currently taking the next step in fulfilling the projections. Results are now being registered. The next step is only in week two. Look at all his at bats in last 2 weeks. He is fouling off pitches with 2 strikes, his strikeout rate is like 25%. Just last night he battled on something like an 8 pitch at bat before hitting his triple. He homerd the night before.
Of everything mentioned in the article, referencing he is only age 23 and really, the Twin Organization could not have screwed him up any worse in how they handled him. Compounding his development was Molitir bringing out his 1980 hitting book and undoing things he was being coached to do in Rochester. It took awhile for Molitir to see his own mistake as article mentions. Let's look at his month of May results in 30 days and compare. I think he has arrived for good.
Very hard to make any firm judgements - small sample size and regency bias could be at work. However, with those two caveats, I agree that the recent results have been promising.
Buxton over .300 in last 30 days....
Sort of recall Curt Flood having trouble hitting his first three years with the Cardinals, each yr worse, then in the 4th it all came together. Forget why, but think mng Solly Hemus wanted Flood to do things his way.
I appreciate this article -- so much rich detail! It's worth noting that Buxton will remain 23 for the duration of this season. He could be in a completely different cohort of comparables by the time 2017 draws to a close.
It's interesting that PECOTA comps him to Upton so strongly, because their respective development paths were so different: Upton started as a shortstop, made the Majors as a teen, and also had already notched a .300/.386/.508 full season by age 23. The one that jumps out to me by far - admittedly, in part for shallow reasons - is Carlos Gomez. He had (has) a comparable (though lesser) set of physical attributes and baseball skills, was comparably rushed, sucked to a comparable degree, was comparably a center-fielder the whole way through, was comparably a Twin, and didn't develop until he got to a new team. The current Twins org staff seems to have learned their lessons re: trying to make low-contact power-hitting centerfielders into punchless slap-hitters (though the fact that they were apparently STILL doing that as recently as August 2016 is sure not an auspicious sign), so maybe things will go better for Buxton.

But I guess this is all a long way of saying that I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't break out until he's 25 or 26, and I wouldn't be surprised if he has to change organizations for it to happen.