Sports

[Crosses Fingers] Byron Buxton Is Doing the Damn Thing

Byron Buxton is the fastest player in baseball. Jose Siri or Tyler Wade may occasionally get off the line quicker, but according to Baseball Savant, no one was faster over distances of 75 feet or more last year.

What does this prove? Among other things, that no one can outrun the cruel vicissitudes of fortune.

Buxton’s career has been like a David Leitch adaptation of a Graham Greene novel: The travails of one person, beset and besieged by forces outside his control or even comprehension, but with big explosions and impressive stunts. When Buxton is healthy, he’s the most exciting ballplayer conceivable. His speed grants him the ability to shut down center field from gap to gap, climb walls to rob home runs, and circle the bases in less time than it takes some hitters to adjust their batting gloves.

He’d be one of the most entertaining players in the league if he were a mediocre slap hitter. Ozzie Smith won the hearts of a nation—to say nothing of selection to 15 All-Star Games and the Hall of Fame—on speed, defense, and charisma while going literal years between home runs. But Buxton can also do this:

On Sunday, with the Twins down 4-3 to the White Sox in the bottom of the 10th inning, Buxton stepped to the plate. And just after the Bally Sports camera panned to massive Twins sluggers Carlos Correa and Miguel Sanó in the dugout, Buxton cranked a ball 469 feet for a walk-off home run. Putting the ball in the second deck isn’t easy anywhere—and doing it on a cold, overcast day at cavernous Target Field off all-world closer Liam Hendriks is an even more difficult task. But it was the lean, 190-pound Buxton—not Correa or Sanó or Gary Sánchez or any of Minnesota’s beefy middle-of-the-order bats—who hit the longest walk-off home run ever recorded by Statcast.

As newer and shinier superstars have emerged in the past five years, the former no. 2 overall pick has become something of a forgotten man. But when he’s on the field, Buxton is one of the best players in the world, and in the short glimpse we’ve had of him in 2022, he’s been better than ever before. The only thing separating Buxton from the true greats has been his inability to stay in the lineup.

In 11 games this season, Buxton has six home runs and a .854 OPS … oh, sorry, a .854 slugging percentage. This is a tiny sample, sure, but we know what Buxton can do. Through the past four seasons, he’s hit .281/.326/.596, with an OPS+ of 145, and this includes a season when he walked 1.5 percent of the time and posted an OBP of .267. Buxton’s production in that span, averaged over 162 games, would total up to 39 home runs and 21 stolen bases (at an 84 percent success rate). He also had 10.8 bWAR in those seasons. Ten Point Eight bWAR.

Keen observers, though, will notice that Buxton didn’t play 162 games in each of those seasons, or even get close. Since 2019, Buxton has played in just 197 games total, and batted just 725 times, which is one more plate appearance than Marcus Semien recorded in 2021 alone.

Part of what makes Buxton such a fascinating player is that there is no projection or guesswork involved in figuring out whether he’ll become an impact player. He is an impact player, in every facet of the game and in every second he’s healthy enough to stand on an MLB diamond. The term “five-tool player” often gets stretched a bit to describe individuals who don’t have a glaring weakness; Buxton is a five-tool player whose arm and power are strengths, and his speed and glove are among the best in the game. And Buxton’s one deficiency, plate discipline, only makes him more likable. What use is a walk to a player who can run like Buxton? He performs the exciting parts of the game—baserunning, defense, throwing, hitting for power—as well as anyone in the world. Having a Juan Soto–like gift for strike zone judgment would only make his game seem less dynamic.

All of this is stuff we’ve known for years. Once upon a time, Is This Byron Buxton’s Breakout Year? made up a significant percentage of The Ringer’s baseball coverage. Here’s how I put Buxton’s big issue in March 2018, months after he won a Gold Glove and played a still-career-high 140 games: “Buxton’s ability to move his body at extremely high speeds sometimes interacted with an inability or unwillingness to slow down or stop when confronted with a stationary obstacle, which slowed down his development.”

Almost exactly a year before, Ben Lindbergh wrote about Buxton as a potential breakout player, with the caveat that lists of such players are usually “a mix of players who’ve either already broken out or who’ve been about to break out for so long no one would be shocked to see it happen. Byron Buxton probably belongs in both categories, which makes him a breakout king this spring.”

This, again, in March 2017, which is so far in the past Wander Franco was a 16-year-old amateur and Shohei Ohtani was still relatively unknown to American sports fans. That’s how long Buxton has been poised for a breakout. But Buxton retains an air of mystery because of his Daniel Day-Lewis–like ability to disappear for years on end, show up for a brief, spectacular performance, and then creep back into the ether as suddenly as he arrived. He’s been doing this since he first arrived in the majors in 2015, and he’s still, somehow, only 28 years old.

But unlike an actor, baseball players generally don’t want to keep the audience wanting more. This offseason, Buxton and the Twins achieved a seemingly impossible task: Crafting a sensible contract extension for an in-his-prime MVP-caliber player who’d played in less than 40 percent of his team’s games through the previous four seasons. In the next seven years, Buxton is guaranteed $100 million—a lower average annual value than Hendriks, a reliever, is getting on his current deal with the White Sox. But because of unprecedented $11 million a year in incentives linked to playing time and award voting, Buxton could almost double his money if he can stay on the field.

And in the first three weeks of his deal, we’ve gotten the full Buxton experience: two multi-homer games, including the one in which he walked a Hendriks fastball halfway to the Mississippi River; a four-hit outing the day before; and a couple of plays in the outfield that look like those frisbee long tosses when a dude chucks the disc across a soccer field and runs it down before it lands. It’s also worth mentioning that while Buxton has played 11 games this year, the Twins have played 17, with their star center fielder sitting with, at one time or another, illness, a hamstring injury, and patellar tendinitis. Are we seeing what Buxton is capable of when he’s healthy? Not really, because he hasn’t actually been healthy.

Just about every great baseball player, except I suppose Cal Ripken Jr. and Nolan Ryan, has had his career somehow limited or truncated by injury. Baseball might look like a lot of standing around, but it’s a tough job to do every day for 15 or 20 years. It’s just a matter of degree. Buxton has already lost a big chunk of his career to injuries; the question now is whether he can avoid or play through them reliably enough to put together that one transcendent MVP campaign.

In the past 10 years, both Mookie Betts and Mike Trout have produced 10-win seasons while playing fewer than 140 games. Larry Walker struggled through nagging injuries but produced enough when healthy to make the Hall of Fame. So did Joe DiMaggio, who was always fighting through some bone spur or sore joint. But none of those players have lost as much playing time as Buxton.

One of the best examples of a great talent cut down by injury is Pete Reiser, Duke Snider’s immediate predecessor as center fielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Reiser was MVP runner-up at age 22, his first full MLB season, in which he hit .343/.406/.558 and led the NL in runs, doubles, triples, batting average, and slugging percentage. But Reiser’s prime was doughnut-holed by World War II, as well as his proclivity for Kool-Aid Man–ing himself into the outfield fence at Ebbets Field. But even this great historical unfortunate managed to play 100 games in a season four times, something Buxton has managed only once.

As much as fans of web gems and giant homers might hope for Buxton to appear at the park one day with adamantium bones, we know the deal by now. He’s among the easiest ballplayers of his generation to enjoy and appreciate. So do so while you can, and hope this good fortune lasts the whole year.


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