Expectations for Byron Buxton have been through the roof ever since he was drafted second overall by the Minnesota Twins in the 2012 draft. As he moved relatively quickly through the minors, the hype surrounding Buxton in 2015 was similar to that of Ronald Acuna coming into 2018. Buxton had never displayed significant power in the minor leagues (but it certainly was far from non-existent), many thought it would develop in his long lean body. What was clear is that Buxton was an elite athlete with high end speed. The long term projections of 30/30, 20/40 or even 30/40 were out there. Then his call up came during the summer of 2015… It did not not go well to say the least.
Buxton would be bounced between AAA and the majors in 2016 and never really got on track. He did finish strong but then 2017 started with a thud. This time, he was not sent back down, the Twins stuck with him, mostly due to his incredible defensive work in center. He was much better in the second half going .300/.347/.546 with 11 HR and 13 steals. His final line was still not all that impressive at .253/.314./.413 with 16 HR and 29 steals. Many critics claim it was the easy schedule in the second half that propelled Buxton much like the rest of the Twins roster; others say the second half is more of what Buxton is and will be. So which is he? Can he ever reach 30/40? I’ll set the sights a little lower and see if Buxton can reach 20/40 in 2018.
Let’s start with speed. Since the Statcast era began in 2015, Buxton has recorded the fastest sprint speed in both 2016 and 2017. The guys below him are Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, and Jarrod Dyson. Ok, so those are the best base stealers in the game. There’s a lot more to stealing bases than speed, there’s: how fast the pitcher is to the plate, catcher’s pop time, arm/accuracy, and of course the jump the runner gets. Buxton hasn’t reached the stolen base totals of the others on the list but he’s clearly fast enough and in his 30 attempts last year he was caught only once! In fact, hes 41 for 46 in the majors which is an d89% success rate!
To figure out how Buxton can get to 40 steals in 2018, I averaged the stels per plate appearance for all players with a minimum of 29.5 mph sprint speed since 2015 (these are the elite speed guys). It comes out to 0.0695 steals/PA. Last year Buxton was at 0.0568 steals/PA, so he’s below the average but it’s because he didn’t attempt enough steals. He also has had below average OBP. The average OBP for all the players in my study is .320. We aren’t talking about Joey Votto here but it proves you don’t need elite on base skills to steal (of course it helps though). Buxton was below that but at .314 he should have been able to run a little more.
Next we will look into his plate appearances. He only had 511 PA in 140 games and usually batted at the bottom of the order. Now, that may not change, but I think he will play more than 140 games. If he averages 3.8 PA/game in 150 games, that’s 570 PA for 2018. Let’s assume some positive regression in terms of OBP up to a reasonable .325 and given his success rate on the base paths, he should be granted the green light. Between the additional PA, OBP, and attempts, I think he can get over 45-50 attempts. An 80% success rate at 50 attempts gets him to 40 steals on the nose. To verify, let’s check the numbers. What will his SB total be if he improves on his SB/PA to meet the average of the top speed guys we mentioned in the previous paragraph. That average of 0.0695 SB/PA puts him at 39.6 steals in 570 PA. Let’s call it 40 steals. Ok, we are half way there!
Now to the power. Well the 16 he hit in 2017 isn’t too far off of 20 and we know Buxton is already getting an additional 59 PA from our projections. At a HR every 31 PA, that gives Buxton two more HR, can we just call it 20? Not so fast, let’s take a look a little depeer into his numbers. There were improvements in both K% and BB% in 2017 for Buxton which were backed by higher contact% and SwStr%. Still his 29.4% K rate is pretty atrocious. Let’s focus on the positive, the improvement of nearly 1.5% SwStr and 5% in K% from 2016 to 2017 show growth and optimism for that of a young player. Look at Kris Bryant and George Springer, both cut their K rates from near 30% to under 20% in less than three seasons. In the second half, Buxton cut is K% to 27.6%. Do I think he can be below 25% in 2018… No. But, the 27.6% in the second half is close to what I will project for 2018.
Consider Buxton’s batted ball profile and his 1st/2nd half splits: Fly ball% increased by 3% while cutting IFFB% by 6% and Hard hit % increased by 5%. What does it all mean? Well, it partially backs his 20% HR/FB in the second half. Not only did he hit more fly balls, but he hit them at a higher quality, that combined with a decrease in K rate means more balls in play and more home runs. He did change his approach losing the leg kick and getting more contact. Check out Paul Sporer’s take on him at fangraphs. The problem is the increase in HH% went up to only 30% which is still below average. His average EV is 85 mph and his Brls/PA was a measly 3.5%. The only silver lining is that his average HR distance in 2017 was 403 feet.
Finally, the projection. I mentioned the 570 PA and the 27.6% K rate. I didn’t mention the BB rate or the FB%. His BB rate looks to go down (slightly) due to his increase in swing% and contact rate, I’l project at 7.0% down from 7.4%. I like his FB approach and based on the second half of 2017 and his minor league track record, I expect an increase to about 41% FB. Based on another slight improvement on hard contact, I can see Buxton maintaining a 14% HR/FB ratio which he achieved in 2017. After crunching the numbers, I come up with 21 home runs for Buxton and a 21/40 season!
Wow that would be a hell of a season if he could pull that off. So we proved that Buxton “could” go 20/40, the question of “will” Buxton go 20/40 is still out there. I proved he could do it if he makes positive progress in all facets of his offensive game along with health. All of that is very difficult to do. The answer to the title above for me is: no. My actual projections have him reaching the 20 HR mark but I don’t see improvements in BA, OBP and while I do see him attempting more steals, I’d expect a regression in the success rate of Buxton limiting him to around 30-32 steals in something closer to 40 attempts in 2018. That’s still a solid season but for me I need to see more improvement and consistency from Buxton in 2018 to project 20/40. The approach change and progress along with youth give me optimism for Buxton in the future. If his speed ages well, he cuts the strikeouts below 25%, and muscles up a bit more in his late 20s, I could see a 30/40 season in Buxton’s future.
For 2018, I just don’t think I’m ready to make the jump for Buxton in the top 50. Id prefer A.J Pollock or Whit Merrifield to Buxton because Buxton is likely to be a BA drain and the strikeouts mean additional risk. Plus he will end up costing you more at the draft table.