Defense? Check. Speed? Check. Offense? Buxton still adjusting
MINNEAPOLIS — Byron Buxton was viewed by many Twins fans as the savior. When the rookie center fielder struggled out of the gates, there was some hand wringing in Minnesota.
Through his first seven games, Buxton had just two hits and had struck out eight times as he attempted to adjust to major-league pitching. His early inability to adapt to the big leagues is by no means uncommon for top prospects, especially those who bypassed Triple-A en route to their debuts.
"My take is that, like any player that comes up here and wants to do well, there’s frustration," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "I don’t think it’s carried over into confidence level in terms of he thinks that any day he might go up there and get a couple hits. He’s had a lot of extended sessions trying to make adjustments. At least until we figure out where this thing’s going to go, he’s going to be out there because we need him defensively."
During that first week, Buxton never seemed to show his emotions. A quiet guy by nature, his demeanor never changed as he attempted to find hits. He talked with teammates, including veteran outfielder Torii Hunter, and put in extra work with the coaching staff to figure out ways to have better at-bats.
The work paid off Sunday as he got his first hit at Target Field. One day later, Buxton notched his first career multi-hit game â a three-hit day in a win against the Chicago White Sox. That three-hit game came in the leadoff spot, the first time Buxton had batted there after previously hitting ninth.
"Increments of improvement," Molitor said. "I think right now, at least as he’s adjusting, there’s a little more comfort — at least from my point — in facing left-handers than right-handers. . . . It’s got to feel good for him to get a multi-hit game and contribute, to get a chance to lead off and put a run on the board right in the first inning."
The biggest difference between pitchers at the Double-A and major-league levels, Buxton noted, is the offspeed pitches they’re able to throw in the majors. When Buxton was with Double-A Chattanooga, he didn’t see curveballs with as much bite or sliders with as much movement. A fastball is a fastball and any level, but it’s the breaking pitches that can truly give a batter fits at the highest level.
Buxton has experienced that first-hand. He’s been thrown a steady diet of offspeed pitches, not all of which he’s been able to lay off. He’s still chasing pitches down and off the plate, particularly against right-handers, and has now struck out in a third of his at-bats (11 strikeouts in 33 at-bats).
"Just trying to adjust to the pitching," Buxton said. "It’s a lot different than Double-A ball. I’ve just got to be patient and a more disciplined hitter and swing at good pitches."
A few of Buxton’s skills haven’t needed to adjust at this level. The most notable is his speed, which has been on display plenty. He scored from first base on a double in Texas, tallied a triple for his first career hit, and beat out an infield grounder for a base hit.
Molitor said that Twins general manager Terry Ryan told him Buxton’s time on that infield single — 3.77 seconds — was the fastest Ryan had ever clocked. Though Ryan would neither confirm nor deny that, he had plenty to say about Buxton’s quickness.
"I’ve seen faster times, but those have been on drag bunts," Ryan said. "He’s fast. You know on that 2 through 8 scale that almost all clubs use, he’s an 8 runner."
Buxton’s opportunity to get his big-league call-up came about when center fielder Aaron Hicks landed on the disabled list with a forearm injury. Hicks is likely to return within the next week or so, but Ryan said that doesn’t necessarily mean Buxton will be headed back to the minors when Hicks comes back.
For now, Buxton will have the opportunity to prove that he belongs at this level. The Twins are more than confident that the 21-year-old prospect will eventually figure out major-league pitching. Just how soon is the question.
"The defense, the arm strength, the running speed, the routes and angles and so forth have been quite good," Ryan said. "Now it’s just a matter of consistency in taking at-bats is about it."
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