Despite suffering through a 2016 season in which they lost 103 games, the Minnesota Twins didn’t look like your typical tear-it-down rebuild project that so many teams have to do in order to become competitive again. But still, if they wanted to get competitive again right away, quite a few things had to go their way.
That’s exactly what happened in 2017, as they made history by reaching the playoffs. One of the things that went their way included the play of young outfielder Byron Buxton, who shook off a slow start to be an asset both with his glove and bat for the Twins en route to clinching a Wild Card berth.
The former top prospect’s solid second half has helped entrench himself in Minnesota’s outfield moving forward, making him a crucial piece to the puzzle both in 2018 — his age-24 campaign — and beyond.
Many players (if not all of them) have certain personal goals in mind with a new season on the horizon. Judging from his young MLB career thus far, Buxton’s goal for this year should be to avoid yet another sluggish start.
Forward Progress Overall
When looking at his overall numbers since debuting in 2015, it’s important to note that Buxton’s production has generally improved as his playing time increased. Here’s a quick look at how his plate appearances, home runs, stolen bases, walk rate (BB%), strikeout rate (K%), wRC+ and fWAR have been trending during the past three years.
The progress in some categories looks meager, but for a young player like Buxton, virtually all of the stats highlighted above are moving in the right direction with each passing year. While that’d be good news on its own, once again remembering that he’s not even 25 yet makes his future awfully promising.
When we dig a little deeper into each of these performances, though, we can see one glaring similarity the young outfielder would probably like to change in 2018.
A Recurring Theme
Getting any season off to a solid start doesn’t guarantee a successful year, but there’s no ballplayer on this planet that wouldn’t take some initial positive momentum. As for Buxton, almost anything would be an improvement over some of the starts he’s dealt with in recent years.
The sample sizes will vary from year to year, but let’s check out how each of his first three seasons look when we split them out by half. Below is his debut season of 2015.
Here’s how things shook out in 2016 (mostly engineered by an impressive month of September).
And interestingly enough, here’s how the trend continued in 2017.
The overall production in the first half of play hasn’t gotten drastically better over the years, but his second-half performances sure have. If Buxton’s spot in the lineup wasn’t a such a black hole to start each of these seasons — really, mostly 2016 and 2017 — we’d be looking at his overall numbers very differently.
(Most) Peripherals to Back it Up
When trying to find an explanation behind such drastic differences in production, it’s always helpful to take a closer look at a player’s peripherals. In this case, it was easy to see how Buxton got himself on track via his batted-ball profile — outside of 2016, there were sizable changes in just about every category.
This past season is a perfect example since it’s been his biggest (and most prolonged) turnaround — his line-drive rate (21.7% to 25.0%), fly-ball rate (36.9% to 39.3%) and hard-hit rate (25.3% to 30.2%) all increased from the first half to the second half, while his ground-ball rate (41.4% to 35.7%) and soft-hit rate (22.4% to 13.4%) both decreased.
It’s also worth noting that Buxton began using the entire field more frequently. He went from being a mostly pull hitter (54.7% first-half pull rate) to spreading the ball all over — his pull rate went down to 38.9% in the second half. Most of this difference went to hitting the ball up the middle, a rate that jumped just over 10 percentage points during these two time periods.
The goal is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to achieve. Is Buxton just going to be a slow starter in the big leagues? It’s possible, but there’s a lot more certainly around his role entering 2018 than ever before in his MLB career, so this year will make for an interesting case study.
A huge plus is that Buxton’s defense doesn’t slump when his bat does — his 24 Defensive Runs Saved finished second among all outfielders last year (Mookie Betts had 31), while his 9.9 Ultimate Zone Rating finished fifth. Even when he does struggle with the bat, he’ll still be an asset to the club and a pitching staff that ranked better than just eight others in terms of fWAR.
Is this the year we finally see Buxton put it all together from start to finish at the plate? He’s been moving in the right direction for it to happen, but time will tell. What we do know is that if he begins the year in a deep slump, there’s a good chance he’ll break out of it in a big way.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at FanDuel Insider, numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s a lover of all baseball, especially the Mets.