Byron Buxton's Breakout Season Is Finally in Full Swing

Healthy and armed with a level swing plane, the 27-year-old Buxton has soared to a scorching start to the year.
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There’s an old, long-debunked fallacy about aging curves with baseball players that more or less follows that 27 is the magical age when many players “break out” because they're at their physical peaks. Players generally peak in their late twenties, though the myth around the specific age of 27 tends to get people excited about talented players approaching that prophesied number.

One player cannot outweigh stringent statistical analysis, yet we’re nearly a month into the season and these two things are true: Byron Buxton is 27 years old, and Byron Buxton is absolutely raking.

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It’s been nine years since he was taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, seven years since he was tabbed as the best prospect in baseball and six years since his big-league debut, but Buxton finally has the look of a player who’s figured it all out. His wide array of skills was on full display against Cleveland on Wednesday, when he went 5-for-5 with a home run, a stolen base and one of the most highlight-worthy infield singles you’ll ever see.

The performance was just the latest in what’s been a scorching start for Buxton, who raised his slash line to .438/.471/.938 with a league-leading eight home runs. Despite a lengthy injury history, his tools have not diminished in the slightest. Through Wednesday, Buxton ranks in the 94th percentile or better in average exit velocity (94.9 miles per hour), hard-hit rate (64.4%), barrel rate (24.4%) and average sprint speed (28.9 feet per second).

Buxton entered this season with 1,504 career major league plate appearances that produced a substandard .238/.289/.430 slash line, for an 87 wRC+. So why is he suddenly looking like the superstar talent many expected to see for much of the past decade?

The most obvious and critical reason is health. Buxton has dealt with a litany of injuries during his professional career that have hampered his production and kept him off the field for long stretches. He’s already missed six games this year with nagging maladies, but so far none have appeared to have any lingering effects when he’s been in the lineup.

Beyond avoiding injuries, Buxton’s been able to tap into his immense potential by seemingly altering his approach at the plate. He’s always been able to hit the ball hard, and despite never hitting more than 12 home runs in any minor league season, he projected to develop into a true power-speed threat at the major league level.

Whether this came as a result of Buxton and the Twins trying to unlock that power too soon or simply a young player facing big-league pitching for the first time (perhaps both), Buxton struggled to find his stride in the batters’ box before this season. There was always some swing-and-miss concern to his game after he posted a 21.8% strikeout rate in the minors, but Buxton had a hard time making contact out of the gates. He whiffed 31.7% of the time from 2015-18, and his career strikeout rate heading into this season was 29.5%.

But the strikeouts were just one piece of the puzzle. A look at Buxton’s average launch angle suggests that there was a deliberate attempt made to lift the ball in the air more often. His fly ball rate was 41.9% from 2015-19, then ballooned to 51.0% in 2020 with an average launch angle of 23.6—eighth-highest among players with at least 50 batted balls and ahead of plodding sluggers like Adam Duvall, Edwin Encarnación and teammate Miguel Sanó.

That type of approach could theoretically lead to more homers, but it clearly had an adverse effect on Buxton’s timing and negated the benefit of his speed. Whether by design or not, Buxton has lowered his average launch angle dramatically this season—ironic considering he's now tied for the MLB lead in home runs.

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A year after ranking near the top of the league in average launch angle, Buxton now checks in below the league average at 9.8 degrees. The result has been an uptick in ground balls and line drives, which has led to a lot more success on balls in play. Buxton has a .476 BABIP that is certain to regress, yet his batting average floor has elevated considerably given his avoidance of fly outs and a slashing of his strikeout rate to 20.6% so far this year.

If he sticks with this approach, Buxton likely won’t retain the league lead in home runs. His home run/fly ball rate is a ludicrous 47.1%, unsustainable even if he keeps making such hard contact. Yet this continued game plan will also yield Buxton his most successful offensive season of his career, and rank him among the game’s most exciting and productive everyday players.

It might feel like this breakout is a long time coming, but Buxton’s inability to get consistent, healthy playing time to start his career clearly hindered his development. Thankfully, it has not derailed his talent. There might not be anything magical about age 27, but for a player who debuted at 21 and has flashed brilliance ever since, watching Buxton’s ascension to stardom feels no less enchanting.

Quick Hits:

• Brewers pitcher Zack Godley was charged with an error on this play, for reasons that remain unclear.

• It was another rough day for the Cubs, who lost 10–0 against Atlanta. But the North Siders delivered perhaps the team’s highlight of the season, when Anthony Rizzo came in to pitch and struck out reigning National League MVP Freddie Freeman on what was classified as a 61-mph curveball.

• What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? We may never know, since Marlins first baseman Jesús Aguilar opted against running into Brewers first baseman Daniel Vogelbach on this ground out.

• Mets ace Jacob deGrom continued his masterful start to the season by silencing the hot-hitting Red Sox, allowing one run on three hits with nine strikeouts in six innings. But like an old familiar song, the Mets failed to provide any run support in what ended up a 1–0 defeat. The silence that you’re hearing is not, in fact, a deafening roar—it’s just the Mets’ offense.

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