For those willing to reinvest, Byron Buxton dangled a carrot of hope on life’s treadmill at the end of the 2016 season. Many lunged for the carrot, others did not.
Those who resisted the temptation found a renewed confidence in their visceral opinions, for about 70 games. Those who bought in, questioned why they continued to buy in, for about 70 games.
Elite speed was always present. Elite defense was always present. But often times relevance to baseball’s general population is contingent upon offensive output, and that’s what drove the division around Buxton at the end of 2016. Buxton rode a .370 BABIP to a productive 165 wRC+ in the Twins’ final 29 games of the season. To start 2017, Buxton put together a 70-game stretch that quickly made us forgot about his final productive month of 2016. (Qualifying because of a small sample will be a recurring theme in this column.)
While I often enjoy looking for mechanical tweaks that fall in line with production changes, the final month of 2016 didn’t bring with it substantial alteration for the righty. The results still manifested for a variety of fleeting reasons, but there wasn’t that “ah ha!” moment — from my digging — that caused some Buxton-doubters to change their affiliations. As we can reluctantly concede in this fickle sport, Buxton was just better in that month.
This point doesn’t hold when you break down, in video, how Buxton progressed as 2017 aged. He adjusted throughout the season and improved production-wise according to various metrics.
Here is a Tweet I sent out a few days ago.
Mentioned within those 280 characters is my interest in Buxton’s elimination of his leg kick, and positive results not coming immediately afterwards. The approach took further tweaking, most notable when you compare Buxton’s upper-body mannerisms in the earliest forms of his tweaked stride (5/27) and in the last frame of the gif above (9/26). But with the final stages of Buxton’s tweaking came another product that I find particularly interesting.
When we look at two of Buxton’s swings from the above gif side-by-side, where I’m going with this point becomes more apparent.
The result of these two at-bats from Buxton are small representations of the trend that will fulfill the title of this column: Buxton and the opposite field. The gif directly above is filled with selection bias and a plethora of other qualifiers, I know. Yet fundamental difference in Buxton’s approach gives an encouraging look at what could come in Buxton’s future. With Buxton’s swing on the left, keep an eye on his hips and lower body as his upper body lunges at this breaking ball on the outside part of the plate. His lower body flies toward the third-base dugout because his initial intention was to take this ball to his pull side.
While this swing actually results in a hit, the contact quality isn’t encouraging. Fooled by the breaking ball, Buxton’s athletic ability allows him to adjust, and put bat on ball, but there is very little opportunity for him to take that pitch — or one that is more hittable — and drive it the other way given the position of his lower body. As with most hitters, Buxton isn’t particularly productive versus breaking balls, slugging only .324 versus a pitch he saw around 20% of the time in 2017.
With Buxton’s closed-off stance, he’s quieted nearly everything from his hands to lower body. His toe tap and nearly invisible stride allow him, even if he is fooled, to stay inside of a pitch on the outer half of the plate. This can hopefully help Buxton’s ability to hit balls on the outer half of plate, a spot most pitchers are going to target regardless of prospect status or lack thereof. Buxton’s lack of production against pitches in this location of the plate, which isn’t uncommon, contributes to the 30 percent strikeout rate Buxton holds against right-handed pitchers.
This minor opposite-field trend is shown in FanGraphs’ rolling average of Buxton’s opposite-field percentage below. From just after the 80th game of Buxton’s 2017 through the end of the season, his tendency to go the other way started to tick upward.
This opposite-field tendency isn’t earth shaking because once again, we’re looking at a relatively small sample of data. But it’s fascinating to look at how far Buxton has come in such a short amount of time. Even though this spray change doesn’t correlate with endless positives — Buxton’s strikeout rate went up compared to his former, pull-happy self — the intentions are correct. The results have yet to manifest in a large sample that I so desire to see.
A productive Buxton can emerge if this approach continues. If he ever evolves into the above-average power tool some speculated he could become is another story. If you were to ask me whether power comes, I would remain doubtful, with Buxton’s current skill set, that it occurs in the next two or three years.
Are these changes a step along the path to power? They very well could be. But is this the end of the road? Unless your ceiling for Buxton is the 20 home runs I think he can edge towards in 2018, the answer is clearly no.
I see no doubt Buxton’s refined stance is better for his long-term value. Stubbornness to change is something I’m convinced Buxton has no conception of, given the multiple variations we’ve seen from the center fielder in his last 140 games.
We’re left with a 24-year-old who has been considered associated with the term “bust.” All the while possessing two plus-plus abilities other prospects would dream to have one of. Whether his other tools venture into merely average or plus territory remains to be seen.
This, among other subplots, is something I’m thoroughly interested to see the progress of in four months.
A version of this post can be found on my site, BigThreeSports.com.
Thanks to Richard Birfer (@RichardBirfs) for help gathering and organizing my thoughts.
Graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Stringer for the Associated Press. Feature writer for Baseball Prospectus. Co-founder of Prospects Live. Aspiring baseball scribe.