Despite some early struggles, Twins' Byron Buxton having a fast impact
MINNEAPOLIS—Five days into his major league career Twins phenom Byron Buxton has hosted two news conferences, flaunted cartoon speed, struck out six times and been center stage for a pair of victory parties.
So far baseball’s latest emerging prospect is a .125-hitting pitchers’ play toy. Despite going 0-for-3 on a sun-splashed afternoon at Target Field on Thursday, there was was no reason for Buxton to mope. Instead, he and his two-tone fade were right in the middle of a flash mob that swarmed designated hitter Kennys Vargas after the slugger vanquished the St. Louis Cardinals with a ninth-inning, two-run, walk-off homer.
After dropping his bat, helmet and another hitless performance in the on-deck circle Buxton fronted the on-field celebration as the Twins’ second straight home win over MLB’s best team hastened another clubhouse dance-off.
Veteran Torii Hunter’s madcap creation unleashes smoke machines, laser lights and a disco ball to showcase players summoned to strut on tabletops as teammates and electro house music roar.
The rookie centerfielder boogied leadoff after his Minnesota debut Tuesday despite an overmatched night at the plate that included two ghastly strikeouts before a welcoming crowd of 34,381.
“They got me good," Buxton said about his postgame initiation. "It was pretty epic."
It sure beat the usual high-five receiving lines and scant customers of the Double A Southern League, from where Buxton was promoted last Saturday when the slumping Twins were suddenly short two outfielders in Texas.
“He was like, ‘This is how you guys party when you win?’" said the 39-year-old Hunter. “I said there ain’t no trophies for failure. When you win it’s a celebration. When you lose, be quiet.”
Nobody is giving Buxton the silent treatment. Not the Minnesota media, which chronicled the ascension and injury woes of 2012's No. 2 overall draft pick as if he was already on the big-league roster. And certainly not downtrodden Twins fans. Coarsened by four consecutive seasons of 90-plus losses they yearned for the five-tool prodigy even as Minnesota snuck into first place in the American League Central this spring before backsliding in June.
“If you’re not excited to have him here you don’t have a soul,” said Hunter.
Such hyperbole usually is reserved for Buxton’s mythic quickness, which has been on display when he's chasing fly balls, beating out grounders and stalking third base before he has even crossed second. After going 0-for-4 with a run scored in his debut on Sunday in Arlington, Buxton legged out a triple for his first-big league hit on Monday in St. Louis. The righthanded hitting Buxton zoomed to third base in 10.7 seconds despite stumbling around second. MLB Network noted that two noted speedsters, Reds centerfielder Billy Hamilton and former outfielder Deion Sanders, once tripled in 10.5 seconds, although each started from the lefthanded batter’s box and ultimately slid into third.
Buxton’s most electrifying moment before his new home fans came on Wednesday, when he ran down a drive by the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter to deep left-centerfield that seemed destined for extra bases.
Success at the plate has been more elusive. On Wednesday, Buxton struck out twice against St. Louis righthander Carlos Martinez, who buckled Buxton with one 0-2 breaking ball and left him flailing at another he would not have touched with an oar.
Those were unforgiving lessons for a 21-year-old who leapfrogged Triple A. "Has it been tougher than I expected? Most definitely," Buxton said. "It’s just inexperience. I’ve got to do a better job recognizing certain pitches and counts to attack. The more pitches I see I’ll be able to hit up here."
He certainly didn't have much trouble hitting in the minors. He batted .296 with an .866 OPS, 27 home runs and 92 stolen bases in his three-plus seasons in Minnesota's farm system, and he was leading the Southern League with 12 triples and had stolen 20 bases in 22 attempts when he was promoted to the majors.
“It’s a fine line between trying to overwhelm and analyze every at bat a young player takes,” said Twins first-year manager Paul Molitor, who only needed 67 minor-league games before launching his Hall of Fame career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1978.
“I think he’s very good at figuring out things from at bats regardless of consequences or outcomes. As he plays here, we’re just going to not fear being aggressive. He’s going to have to battle with two strikes now. It’s probably one of the last things that come for the development of major-league hitters, becoming a two-strike hitter.”
Buxton might have arrived in Minnesota in 2014 if Baseball America’s 2013 minor league player of the year could have stayed healthy. He missed six weeks with a left wrist injury after diving for a ball during a spring training game. Four days after returning to the lineup he re-injured the same wrist sliding into a base, which sidelined him for two more months.
On Aug. 12 he was promoted to Double A. The next day Buxton collided violently with teammate Mike Kvasnicka while pursuing a fly ball at full speed. He was unconscious on the field for more than 10 minutes after suffering a concussion that ended his season after just 31 games.
But he managed to stay healthy this season, and after hitting .370 in June he was ready for a promotion when the Twins found themselves desperate for outfield help. Hunter was suspended two games after being ejected for arguing balls and strikes and then ripping off his jersey and firing it at plate umpire Mark Ripperger in a June 10 loss to the Royals. The following night in Texas, Aaron Hicks, Minnesota’s onetime future centerfielder who has failed to fulfill expectations, injured his throwing elbow and landed on the disabled list.
Both injuries came in the midst of a 3-9 skid that dropped the Twins out of first place, but it created an opportunity for the Twins to reach out to Buxton and recalibrate their season. Since his arrival Minnesota has won three of five and remains tied for the AL's first wild-card.
"I hope it’s the start of something big,” said general manager Terry Ryan. “But people have to be productive. You don’t just give out jobs. He has to take the opportunity just like anybody that comes up. Usually the bat’s the separator on people that stay or go. He’s got plenty of leash.”
Buxton joins Cubs rookies Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, the Rangers' Joey Gallo, the Astros' Carlos Correa and the Indians' Francisco Lindor as the latest top 10 prospect to reach the majors this season. Even he admitted being "shocked" by the swiftness of his ascent, but he was adamant that it was the beginning of his big-league career, not merely a sneak preview.
“I’m not really trying to come up here to get sent back down," he said. "I’m up here to help us produce runs and win any way I can.”
Brian Murphy is a sports enterprise reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Follow him on Twitter: @murphPPress