A healthy Byron Buxton is a nightmare for pitchers and hitters alike
By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Sitting here two weeks into the season, I’m ready to once again ask the question that so many fans and media have wondered at various points over the past half-decade or so: Is the full-blown Byron Buxton breakout finally upon us?
Going into Wednesday’s games, Buxton sat alone atop the WAR leaderboards at both FanGraphs and baseball-reference, just a smidge ahead of two gentlemen you are likely quite familiar with: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Trout.
Buxton will be out of the lineup Thursday, and for most players, this kind of news would be hardly worth a mention. Hamstring tightness is awfully common for big-leaguers over the course of 162-game seasons.
But anyone who has followed Buxton’s career knows it would be all too naive to pretend this news doesn’t feel all too familiar. Somewhat incredibly, his lengthy record of stints on the injured list doesn’t include a single hamstring-related one, arguably making this latest injury pause all the eerier.
For the 27-year-old Buxton, each injury scare has started to feel like he is flying too close to the sun, too close to fulfilling the prophecy of his prospect days that he could become one of the game’s truly elite players – only to be restrained by the misfortune of his own health and his inability to stay on the field long enough to prove it.
But enough about the injuries. They're an undeniable part of the Buxton story, but injuries don't have to be the story if his game continues to progress at the supersonic pace he has displayed so far this season. We’ll cautiously take the Twins at their word and believe this hamstring issue a minor one.
Let’s instead talk about why I’m so excited about the latest and greatest version of Byron Buxton.
What did we know for sure about Buxton heading into this season?
He’s really, truly, spectacularly fast. His career average of 30.6 feet/sec sprint speed is second only to that of Tim Locastro in MLB in the Statcast Era, and it is absolutely breathtaking to watch him run, whether that be on the bases …
... or in the outfield, where he has established himself as one of the — if not the — best defensive center fielders in baseball. The jaw-dropping plays began long before he was in Minnesota, with one particular catch with the Low-A Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2013:
The acrobatics only continued once he reached the big leagues:
His arm isn’t bad, either:
We also knew that Buxton began to level up his offensive game significantly in 2019 and 2020, with an .833 OPS in 126 games in those two seasons, a far cry from the .672 OPS he posted in his first four seasons combined. Even merely above-average offensive production from a player with Buxton’s defensive ability is worthy of down-ballot MVP consideration. What he has shown so far in 2021, however, might propel him closer to the MVP conversation and not just garner a few spare ninth-place votes.
Buxton’s five home runs through his first nine games are impressive by any measure, but especially considering he has never gotten off to a start such as this in any other season, with just one home run in 75 career April games before 2021.
Let’s take a closer look at his five dingers:
Dinger No. 1: Opening Day vs. Milwaukee
What better way to start your season than by hitting the longest homer of your career? That’s right: In his fourth plate appearance of the year, after two strikeouts and a walk, the first ball Buxton put in play in 2021 went a whopping 456 feet, topping his previous career best of 454 set in 2019 vs. Cleveland. OK, Mr. Buxton, you have my attention.
Dinger No. 2: No more no-no
Amidst a tremendous pitching duel between José Berríos and Corbin Burnes, Buxton stole the show. In his third at-bat against Burnes (who, by the way, is really, really, really good), Buxton took a perfectly executed 96 mph cutter and calmly deposited it beyond the right-center field fence as if that isn’t the most ridiculous athletic feat you’ve ever seen. No-no over. Twins lead. Ho-hum.
The level of pure hitting acumen that this kind of swing requires is not something even the biggest of Buxton fans could have ever expected from him. And yet ... there it is. He just did it. I watched it with my own eyes, and you did, too. Spectacular.
Dinger No. 3: Going deep in Detroit
Three days later in Detroit, Buxton unloaded on a ball to left field for a game-tying homer that clocked in at 451 feet and a preposterous 114.1 mph exit velocity, making it the hardest-hit home run of his 56 career long balls. That’s right: Two of his first three home runs in 2021 were personal bests!
Dinger No. 4: Legendary launch angle
It’s one thing to hit the ball hard, but you’ve got to have some special kind of juice to hit it that hard at that steep of an angle. That’s certainly not your average moonshot, and the fact that Buxton can do something that basically only Pete Alonso and Bryce Harper have done should start to give you a sense of the kind of power we’re talking about.
Dinger No. 5: Just a really sweet dinger
All right, there’s no extra level to this dinger (though it was the fifth-hardest-hit HR of his career). It’s just a wonderfully majestic tater – and the bullpen was loving it (look closely!).
To recap: Of Buxton’s five home runs so far this season, four of them were among the eight hardest-hit homers of his career, and the fifth one was one of the most impressive pieces of hitting you might see all season.
Is that good?
With these five swings, the presumed ceiling on Buxton’s power has seemingly been shattered. His newfound ability to hit the ball extremely hard more consistently – combined with the elite athleticism he already possessed – has put him into, shall we say, decent company:
I know, I know – it’s a small sample, and Buxton is not a perfect player by any means. For him to truly ascend to the tippy-top tier of Acuña Jr./Trout/etc., there are improvements that must be made. His glaring weakness remains his inability to draw walks at even an average rate, let alone an elite one like Trout's. He also doesn’t swipe as many bags as you would expect for someone with his elite speed, while Acuña seems prepared to challenge for a 40/40 season.
But Buxton’s overall game continues to develop at an exhilarating pace, and he isn't even 28 years old. If this kind of power really is here to stay, you won’t be watching Twins games just to see if Buxton makes a crazy catch in center field. You’ll be tuning in for his at-bats to see if he hits one 450-plus feet.
Because yeah, he can do that, too.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He lives in Maryland but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn't get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter at @j_shusterman_.