The Minnesota Twins were making a late push in Tuesday afternoon’s game against the Detroit Tigers, down two runs, with two outs, and runners on first and second, the former No. 1 overall prospect in baseball Bryon Buxton was due up at the plate.
If someone had told Twins executives that Buxton would be the man at the plate in a potential game-winning scenario back in 2014, they would’ve been ecstatic. However, it’s 2017 and Buxton has done almost nothing other than strike out, having already gone down on strikes twice earlier that day. Instead, Max Kepler batted in his place, officially signaling the first of white flags the Twins have waved in the Byron Buxton era in Minnesota, and honestly it should’ve come sooner.
Buxton was labeled a savior the day the Twins selected him with the 2nd overall pick in 2012, seen as a five-tool player that could not only flash some leather in centerfield alongside his dazzling speed that had executives crowning him the future league leader in stolen bases before he’d even finished his senior year in high school, but it was also thought he could grow into more power at the plate.
The now 23-year-old looked like the perfect player to build a franchise around, and that is exactly what the Twins needed him to become. The pressure has been high since day one, and thus far, Buxton has resembled a balloon left in the cold, people what it should look like but something is keeping it from achieving it’s potential.
In Buxton’s case, it’s his atrocious strikeout rate.
The disappointing outfielder has looked lost at the plate to start 2017, already strikeout 17 times this season, giving him a 56.7 K%. This all comes after he finished 2016 strong, slashing .287/.357/.653 in the month of September. However, his strikeout woes continued to follow him, as he still managed to strikeout 34% of the time during that small moment of glimmering progress.
It’s become obvious that Buxton needs to cut down on the strikeouts to find success in the major leagues, however, striking out doesn’t mean you can’t still be an effective hitter, ala the current reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant. While the Cubs super-star 3rd baseman is not striking out nearly as much as Buxton, 22% compared to Buxton’s 35.6% last season, Bryant is still going down on strikes more than the average MLB hitter.
His 2016 numbers were actually an improvement from his 2015 numbers when he struck out 30% of the time, meaning Bryant has been making the adjustments needed to be successful in the league, so the question is what does Buxton need to change to get his career back on track?
Devan Fink at Beyond The Box Score said he has narrowed it down to two main issues for Buxton: his lack of plate discipline and weakness to make contact with pitches located in the bottom corners of the strike zone.
Pitchers are currently bombarding the lower portion of the strike zone against Buxton, especially when they are ahead in the count, as they exploit the Twins centerfielder and his inability to do anything but whiff at pitches in either corner of the plate. Over his entire career, Buxton has played victim to pitchers attacking him either low and away or low and in 13% of the time, compared to the normal 6% of the time the average major leaguer.
Now, it’s important to note that the entire MLB struggles to make contact in spots like this, but with Buxton’s lack of plate discipline it’s killing any chance he has to see pitches deep in counts located anywhere else.
According to Fangraphs, Buxton swung and missed on pitches outside of the zone 33.2% of the time, which was the 2nd worst in the majors last season. Along with this, he seems to generate awful contact at the plate when he does connect, only registering a 67.9% contact rate. So, Buxton essentially swings and misses at everything, and when he is making contact he’s picking the wrong pitch to swing at. But, even when he is picking pitches to swing at in the zone, he is struggling to do anything with those pitches.
Another part of the puzzle is Buxton’s problems with off-speed pitches, showing almost zero patience against any breaking ball. Brooks Baseball has change-ups as the pitch that causes the young outfielder the most issues, whiffing on the pitch 27.7% of the time, but he still misses fastballs 10.6 percent of the time, which is still not great.
Buxton, while still a young player, should be starting to recognize those pitches at this point and the fact that he is currently in the worst stretch of his career, albeit being teams have only played a week of games, is telling. Until he can prove he can stop whiffing in more than half his at bats, Buxton is going to continue to resemble that deflating balloon.
His potential while immense, means nothing unless he can make the necessary adjustments at the plate and learning to hit breaking balls and off-speed pitches, otherwise Buxton will continue to be pinch-hit for in crucial moments, instead of creating the iconic memories the Twins anticipated a half decade ago.
All stats were current as of 4:30 p.m. on 4/12/17.