The American League wild card race is an unholy mess. Seven teams—nearly half the league—are within 3 1/2 games of the second spot, four of them have records that are below .500 and two more have a negative run differential. Leading the pack is the Minnesota Twins, last year's doormats, who are vying to become the first team to make the playoffs after losing at least 100 games the year before, and at the center of it all is Byron Buxton, the former top prospect who at age 23 is finally making good.
Two years ago, the Twins appeared to be emerging from the doldrums. After four straight seasons with at least 92 losses, they went 83–79 under first-year manager Paul Molitor and finished second in the AL Central. Last year, they backslid in gruesome fashion, going an MLB-worst 59–103. This year, by taking advantage of the Indians' slow start, they climbed atop the division in early May and held a share of the lead for more than a month. A long stretch of bad baseball—18-27 from June 11 through July 31—knocked them below .500, and as the trade deadline approached, the new regime of chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine started to sell. A team that didn't seem to have much pitching to spare dealt away both Jaime Garcia (to the Yankees) and Brandon Kintzler (to the Nationals); the former had been acquired from the Braves less than a week earlier and made just one start while the latter had just earned All-Star honors in his first full season as a closer.
A funny thing happened as the calendar flipped to August. Taking advantage of a soft schedule (18 of 28 games against sub-.500 teams and eight of the 10 others at home), the Twins have gone 18–10 for a .643 winning percentage and a +46 run differential, both good for third in the league (they're still 26 runs in the red overall). Their offense has bashed out an AL-high 5.75 runs per game while their pitching staff and defense has held opponents to 4.11 runs per game.
Perhaps no player has made a bigger contribution to that turnaround than Buxton, who spent the first half of the season playing spectacular defense while disappointing on offense. When he went on the disabled list due to a groin strain on July 15, he was hitting just .218/.292/.311, and that came at the end of a six-game, 10-for-21 hot streak that raised his OPS from .552 to .604. Since returning, he's hit a sizzling .327/.358/.634 with eight homers—one of them the fastest inside-the-park homer of the Statcast era—and eight steals. In a 7–2 victory on Sunday against the Blue Jays in Toronto, he went 4-for-5 with three home runs, making him the 10th player this season and the second for the Twins (after Eddie Rosario on June 13 against the Mariners) to hit the trifecta.
That was just two days after he did this in center:
Buxton’s spectacular play on both sides of the ball is a welcome sight for the Twins. The second overall pick of the 2012 draft out of Appling County High in Baxley, Ga., Buxton was the consensus top prospect in the game heading into the 2014 season; Baseball Prospectus and MLB Pipeline had him first the following year as well, with Baseball America and ESPN ranking him second behind Kris Bryant, and all four outlets had him second behind Corey Seager last year. Bouncing up and down between Triple A Rochester and majors from June 14, 2015 through last season, he hit just .220/.274/.398 in 469 plate appearances, occasionally dazzling on defense or the basepaths but largely looking overmatched at the plate; he struck out in 34.5% of the time while walking just 6.2%. Even those meager number might have overstated his progress, as he hit .287/.357/.653 with nine of his season's 10 homers in September 2016 after carrying a .562 OPS to the minors in early August.
Buxton's September 2016 surge was initially attributed to a new leg kick at the start of his swing, but he has continued tinkering this year and has further simplified his mechanics while becoming more selective and making more consistent, harder contact. His hard hit percentage has risen from 25.3% before the All-Star break to 29.3% since, while his soft hit percentage has fallen from 22.4% to 11.0%.
While Buxton's overall offensive line (.249/.310/402/89 OPS+) hardly looks exceptional and is in fact one point of OPS+ below last year, he's cut his strikeout rate to 28.4% while boosting his walk rate to 7.8%—still not great, but a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, the rest of his game has taken off, bolstering his value considerably. He's 24-for-25 in stolen base attempts and is seven runs above average in Baseball-Reference's baserunning component of WAR, tied with Mookie Betts for the AL lead. His 23 Defensive Runs Saved is tops among centerfielders in either league, and his 4.3 WAR leads all Twins players.
Buxton hasn’t carried the Twins back into contention by himself. Among Twins hitters, shortstop Jorge Polanco has been the hottest this month, batting .387/.424/.720 with 17 extra-base hits, and Brian Dozier (.299/.400/.589 with nine homers), Rosario (.298/.333/.558 with seven homers) and Joe Mauer (.340/.396/.450) have been particularly productive as well. They've helped pick up the slack for Miguel Sano, the team leader in homers (28) and OPS+ (129) who's been out since August 19 due to a stress reaction in his left shin. He has yet to resume baseball activities and has no timetable for his return.
On the other side of the ball, a pitching staff whose 4.75 rotation ERA ranks 10th in the league and whose 4.56 bullpen ERA ranks 13th has been much better at both ends in August, with respective ERAs of 4.11 and 3.45. Staff ace Ervin Santana has delivered a 2.95 ERA and 3.38 FIP in six starts, while Kyle Gibson, who was lit for a 6.08 ERA in 18 starts through July, has pitched to a 3.90 ERA and 3.49 FIP in five starts. Somehow, 44-year-old scrapheap pickup Bartolo Colon has outpitched his peripherals, posting a 3.21 ERA in August despite a 5.89 FIP and 2.1 HR/9 in his five turns. Jose Berrios and most of the five (!) other starters the team has used this month have struggled, but the makeshift unit has nonetheless turned in nine quality starts in their last 13 games. In the bullpen, Matt Belisle has converted five out of six save chances since taking over from Kintzler, and rookie Trevor Hildenberger has pitched his way into setup duty while posting a 15/1 K/BB ratio in 12 1/3 August innings.
Via the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, which account for remaining schedule and projections for available players, the Twins now have a 40.0% chance of claiming a wild card spot, more than double the odds of any of the six other AL wild card contenders besides the Yankees (the Angels, at 19.6%, are next). That's mostly due to the continued softness of their schedule. The team's average opponent winning percentage of .477 (equivalent to a 62-68 record) is the AL's second lowest. At Target Field, where they're just 32–35, they play host to the Blue Jays, White Sox, Tigers, Royals and Padres, none of whom have winning records, while the only .500 or better teams they face on the road the rest of the way are the Indians and Yankees, who own a 2 1/2 game lead on them for the top wild card spot.
All of that suggests it's hardly out of the question for the Twins to return to the postseason for the first time since 2010. If they do, they'll make history, becoming the first team to make the playoffs in the year after losing at least 100 games. Like Buxton, the player at the center of their latest run, that will certainly be something to see.