Byron Buxton is Finally Playing like the Superstar the Twins Need

When the Minnesota Twins drafted Byron Buxton with the second overall pick in the 2012 Major League Baseball Draft, they figured they were getting a future superstar. With blistering speed, all-world defensive sturdiness, and bat-to-ball contact hitting, Buxton projected to immediately alter the present and ensuing time of the Twins franchise.

His first few seasons in the bigs were horrendous, in comparison with the expectations laid on him. But after those struggles, Buxton has taken his game to a new level in the first third of the 2019 MLB campaign and is finally playing like the luminary outfielder they envisioned on draft day in 2012, leading the surprising and infectiously fun Twins to the best record in the sport.

Minnesota has been a sensational story in 2019, as they sit at 35-16 and atop the American League Central, nine games up on their biggest competition, the struggling Cleveland Indians. No major-league team — even the Houston Astros, winners of 16 of their last 19 games, has a better winning percentage than the Twins — who are looking to make the postseason after failing to qualify last season.

Buxton has been perhaps the team’s most versatile and consistent player this season, posting career-best offensive rate stats, smoking around the basepaths, and continuing his unmatched defensive stardom. The 25-year-old went into the Twins’ Saturday afternoon matchup with the Chicago White Sox hitting .261/.323/.490 (all of which are career highs) with four home runs, 25 RBIs, eight stolen bases, 13 walks, a major-league best 19 doubles, and a 114 OPS+. Worth 1.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, the center fielder trails only Jorge Polanco (3.3) — a legitimate Most Valuable Player Award candidate — in wins provided to the Twins this season.

To mention candidates for end-of-season awards, we can get back to Buxton; he has an elite case for Comeback Player of the Year. In a disappointing 2018 season for everyone in Minneapolis, it was a campaign spent mostly in recovery for the righty. Buxton played only 28 games, hitting .156/.183/.200 over 94 plate appearances. Migraines and the looming effects of such killed off much of the early part of his season while a fractured toe in May decimated the middle of the 2018 schedule. Even when his health cooperated, he was unable to get into a rhythm at the plate.

This season is different. His career-best offensive numbers are as impressive as they are because of his aggression and pure pitch selection at the plate. Buxton’s page on FanGraphs tells us that he swings at damn near everything (77 percent swing rate on pitches within the strike zone, 52.8 percent total). That says to me that the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Buxton is seeing the ball well and coming out of his shoes on it.

It’s no coincidence that Buxton is enjoying career-best hard-hit percentage (43.1 percent), barrel percentage (8.6 percent), and average exit velocity (91.1 mph), according to Baseball Savant’s StatCast measurements. Purely out of pitch recognition and situational aggression, Buxton has transformed himself into a capable hitter.

Of course, his unique skill set makes him dangerous on defense, as well. With six defensive runs saved in center field (397 innings) for Minnesota this year, Buxton is on pace to match his absurd 2017 season, his best to date, when he posted 24 DRS in the middle of the outfield grass.

Around the bases, he has provided unequaled value for the Twins. Both by the eye test and StatCast measurements, the former second-overall pick is literally the fastest dude in Major League Baseball.

Byron Buxton’s sprint speed leaderboard rank through the years. (Credit: Baseball Savant)

There is no reason why the Twins cannot win the AL Central division title and contend for the World Series. They have gotten solid contributions from the veteran core they installed last offseason with C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, and others contributing, while their pre-established inner stars have grown into anchors of national headlines.

Their powerful lineup has set opposing pitching ablaze with historic home run outputs, while their own pitching has been stout to this point. But a rising superstar named Byron Buxton is giving them that All-Star production they have long needed, and as they push for the postseason, the 2012 first-rounder finally has a chance to show the organization, the Twin Cities, and the baseball world what he’s made of.

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