- The sample size is small, but Byron Buxton's horrific start to the 2017 season is cause for legitimate concern.
In the small-sample size theater of April, it’s hard to discern meaningful results and stats from the ocean of noise created by just a few weeks’ worth of at-bats and innings. Still, there are numbers that jump out as indicative of something larger happening.
Case in point: Byron Buxton. When we last saw the former No. 1 pick and top prospect at the end of the 2016 season, he was giving Twins fans a new reason to believe that his long-awaited breakout was finally here. After struggling to a miserable .193/.247/.315 line from April through August—a stretch that included two separate month-long demotions to Triple A, one in May and another in August—Buxton put together a sterling September, hitting .287/.357/.653 with nine homers in 113 plate appearances.
Those numbers, as well as some changes to his stance and a newfound proclivity to pulling the ball, gave Buxton some helium as he went into spring training. That he spent his time in Florida hitting for power—nine doubles and a homer in 53 trips to the plate—didn’t hurt. Nor did the stories that came out during the off-season about how Buxton, who has perennially been expected to turn into an All-Star since the age of 18, seemingly found a way to shake the pressure during his strong September. “If I don’t think, I play a whole lot better,” he told MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger in March. “[Last] September, I was just loose.”
Unfortunately, whatever it was that helped Buxton get back on the path to stardom has vanished through the early going of this season. After a hitless performance against the Tigers on Tuesday afternoon, Buxton is just 2-for-29 in his first seven games. Worse, of his 30 plate appearances, 17 have ended with a strikeout—a 57% rate. Including Tuesday’s game, in which Buxton struck out in all three of his at-bats, he has now swung and missed a staggering 24.4% of the time, the second most in baseball behind the Angels’ Danny Espinosa.
This early in the year, it’s hard to tell if Buxton’s bad start is a sign of a bigger problem or just a bad stretch that happens to coincide with the beginning of the season. But as ESPN’s Sam Miller noted in this piece on Joey Votto (based on research by Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton), swing rates stabilize much more quickly than traditional rate stats—that is, they are generally more reliable in a smaller sample size. And Buxton’s swing rates are truly eye-popping, as his approach has been to take a cut at just about everything he can see: So far, he has swung at 57.7% of all pitches he’s seen, a huge jump from his excessive 2015 and '16 figures (45.4 and 46.7, respectively). Up, too, is his swing rate at outside pitches (43.3%, from 33.2 last year). And despite all the extra hacks, his contact rates have plummeted, both inside and outside of the strike zone, and his overall contact rate of 57.8% is the third-lowest mark in the league.
That inability to make contact is now a multi-year issue. Last year, Buxton had a swinging-strike rate of 15%, nearly five percent worse than league average; the season before, it was 13.5, or almost four points higher. In 2016, he made contact just 67.9% of the time he swung, over 10 points below league average—and itself a drop from his 70.4% rate in ’15. Among all hitters with at least 300 plate appearances last year (Buxton had 331), that 67.9% contact rate was ninth-worst, trailing such hackers as Ryan Howard, Chris Carter and Chris Davis.
Even in his stellar September, Buxton still had plenty of issues putting bat on ball. On the month (and including two games in October), he struck out 38 times in 113 plate appearances—a 33.6% rate that wasn’t much of an improvement from his pre-September mark of 36.7 (80 whiffs in 218 plate appearances). As you can imagine, it’s hard to be a productive major league hitter when you’re striking out that much: Of the 16 players with 300 or more plate appearances last year with a strikeout rate of 30% or higher, only half were able to post a wRC+ of 100 or better. What’s instructive about that sample of hitters is that most of those players are either traditional slugger types (Carter, Davis, Minnesota teammate Miguel Sano) or flashed serious power in abbreviated seasons (Trevor Story, Ryan Schimpf). Buxton’s .205 isolated power in 2016 wasn’t awful—it put him right in line with NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager—but it’s not high enough to make up for all the whiffs.
Buxton is swinging too often and missing too often, and just as problematic is that the few times he does make contact, he isn’t hitting the ball hard, as he has yet to put a single line drive into play this season. The problem isn’t just a heavy dose of breaking or off-speed stuff, either; at this point, pitchers are just blowing fastballs right by him. And while it’s too early to overreact to a week’s worth of action, the Twins have to be worried that so far, Buxton’s approach has been a complete mess—and that, if the slump deepens, he will once again bury himself under the kind of pressure that derailed his first two seasons in the majors.