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Meet the Latest Version Of Byron Buxton

The former top prospect has been up and down (mostly down) in MLB so far, but is on fire in September. Has he made real improvements?

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins Photo by Marilyn Indahl/Getty Images

If you’ve been following baseball the last three years or so, you’ve probably heard of Byron Buxton. He was the top prospect in all of baseball on many lists for multiple years in a row. He was billed as the next Mike Trout. He pairs 80 grade speed with 70 grade fielding and a projected 60 hit/60 game power profile.

Buxton debuted in 2015, coming straight from AA to the majors. He struggled mightily, posting a 0.209/0.250/0.326 batting line. His 32% K% did much of the damage to his batting stats. He bounced between AAA and the majors for most of 2015.

The top prospect shine had not completely left him starting 2016, though. He was still just 22 and only had 138 major league PA. However, he struggled again and bounced between AAA and MLB again. His AAA numbers this season are fantastic: 0.305/0.359/0.558. However, he still carries a 28% K%, which is not good in AAA. His continued success at the AAA level, combined with roster expansion, brought him back up to the big club on September 1.

Here’s a table contrasting his MLB numbers in 2016 before September 1 and after (all Sept. stats in this post are through 9/9):

HR AVG OBP SLG K% BB% BABIP
Pre 9/1 1 0.193 0.247 0.315 36.70% 6% 0.311
Post 9/1 5 0.433 0.452 1.067 25.80% 3.20% 0.471

His batting outcomes could not be more different. Look at that power surge! Yes, a large part of this might be BABIP-driven, but he is hitting the ball hard and he is very fast, so his “real” BABIP might be 0.340 or so. That’s still way less than the 0.471 he has in September, but it’s still important to keep in mind. His power and BABIP will certainly come back down to earth. That’s not what I want to focus on or what I’m curious about. It’s nice to see some power from him, but what we all really care about is his plate discipline.

To that end, I present another table. This one focuses on plate discipline.

SwStr% Zone Contact % O-Contact % O-Swing % Zone%
Pre 9/1 14.60% 81.30% 48.10% 32.60% 45.40%
Post 9/1 14.90% 85.30% 54.60% 41.50% 47.50%

There is good news and bad news here. The good news is that his contact rates on pitches inside and outside the zone are up. This is further supported by the fact that pitchers are giving him slightly more pitches in the zone to hit. They are less inclined to think he will chase now, at least a little bit. The bad news is that his swinging strike rate has actually gone up and his chase rate (O-swing%) is also up. Those do not show a real improvement in discipline.

Diving a little deeper, here is his MLB career looking at whiffs per swing versus pitch type:

As you can see, he has always struggled with secondary pitches. The offspeed numbers aren’t that big of a concern because he only sees them 5-7% of the time. What is more alarming are the breaking ball numbers. For most of his career, he has whiffed on half his swings against breaking balls! Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed at all this month.

It looks like his power is up for real.

His exit velocity average against lefties is at a career high this month. Against righties, though, he is about the same.

Interestingly, his exit velocity is highest against the same breaking balls that he has such a hard time making contact with. When he does make contact against them, especially against lefties, he is crushing them this month. So, he has made improvements in quality of contact, but no real improvements in making contact.

That about sums up his September. No real improvements in plate discipline, but harder contact when he does connect. That is an improvement and something worth celebrating, but until he can make lasting changes to his contact rates, he will continue to be a disappointing fantasy tease. And that’s not even getting to his lack of steals for a guy with 80-grade speed or his awful walk rate.

I wish I had better news to report on this promising, talented, but underachieving center fielder. He has made strides in improving his contact quality, but he still has a long way to go when it comes to not being fooled at the plate. His recent surge is certainly not a bad thing, but it also doesn’t mean he has figured out MLB pitching. Tschus!