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The Curious Case of Byron Buxton

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Zack profiles the speedy outfielder.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

We were so excited about Byron Buxton because he was a consensus No. 1 overall prospect for several years with a 70-grade hit tool, 60-grade power tool, and 80-grade speed. The last prospects graded this highly were Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. You can’t miss, right? Let’s recall why we were so excited about him.

2012 – As an 18-year-old, he stole 11 bases and hit five homers while batting .248 across 48 games of rookie ball.

2013 – Across Class A/A+, he hit .334 with 12 homers and stole 55 bases across 448 at bats. He struck out under 20% of the time.

2014 – After just been called up to Double-A, Buxton was lost for the season due to a concussion suffered in a collision in the outfield. Before being called up, he had 124 at bats in A+ and struck out 25% of the time, amassing four homers and six steals.

2015 – In 237 at bats, he hit 12 homers and went 20/22 on the basepaths while striking out about 20% of the time. He was promoted to Triple-A and only spent 13 games there, batting .400. Those who drafted him at his ADP of 355 were happy when made his MLB debut that year earlier than anticipated. However, he batted .209 in a late season call-up, striking out nearly 32% of the time. He did not live up to his ADP.

2016 – Despite his struggles, fantasy managers expected improvement as he had an ADP of 214. He continued to struggle with a .225 average and struck out 36% of the time. He was demoted midseason and did not live up to his ADP. He was a liability, in fact. But, back down at Triple-A, he tore it up—batting over .300 with 11 homers and seven steals in 190 at-bats.

2017 – Despite his MLB struggles, fantasy managers expected improvement as his ADP rose again to 171, ignited by how he finished last season in the minors. In the first half he slashed .216/.288/.306 with a 34% strikeout rate, again earning him a well-deserved demotion. After being recalled, he slashed .300/.347/.546, while going a perfect 13-of-13 on the bases and hitting 11 homers in 57 games. He did live up to his ADP of 171 if you drafted him and held him on your bench for two thirds of the season.

2018 - We were pumped (based on his 2nd half) about projecting a .300-30-30 player with upside. We pushed to the back of our minds that he still struck out over 30% of the time in the second half of 2017 and drafted him with an ADP of 60. Given the scarcity of steals, he was going in Rounds 3 or 4 of roto leagues in some cases. We all know how that turned out— a .156 batting average and a demotion.

This brings us to this year, where he has an ADP of slightly over 200. Simply put, is it worth the price to draft Byron Buxton? I asked myself the same question last season and the year prior.

So what does Buxton have going for him?

1. Given the state of the Twins lineup, he should get another opportunity to show that he can perform.

2. He is still only 25 years old on Opening Day.

3. He is an elite defender and has elite speed. According to Baseball Savant, he has the fastest sprint speed in every year from 2015-2018 with the exception of placing second in 2017 to Victor Robles. He is faster than Billy Hamilton. He led in “outs above average” in 2017, winning a Gold Glove.

The more specific question is, can Byron Buxton reduce his strikeouts and hit for a higher average? We know that if he gets on base at a reasonable clip, he can steal and likely score a lot of runs. Can Buxton get on base more by improving his plate discipline?

Plate Discipline

Buxton’s walk percentage hovered around 10% in the minors and his strikeout rate hovered around 20%. Both steadily trended more unfavorably as he worked his way up the minors. He strikes out at a clip of about 30% in the Majors.

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Player K% in 2018 K% in 2017
Player K% in 2018 K% in 2017
Buxton 29.80% 29.40%
Baez 25.90% 28.30%
Acuna 25.30% 24.8% (AAA)
Story 25.60% 34.40%

Buxton’s upside and profile are comparable to the above players. They have enormous upside, but the underlying metrics indicate a higher degree of volatility. If these studs can survive on a 25% strikeout rate, Buxton should not be crippled by a 30% strikeout rate. Or should he?

Let’s look at the impact of improved plate discipline on Buxton’s batting average, assuming a generous .350 BABIP (.320 career MLB BABIP).

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Season Actual K% Actual Batting Avg Adjusted K% Presumed BABIP Adjusted Avg.
Season Actual K% Actual Batting Avg Adjusted K% Presumed BABIP Adjusted Avg.
2018 29.80% 0.156 25.00% 0.35 0.173
2017 29.40% 0.253 25.00% 0.35 0.268
2016 35.60% 0.225 25.00% 0.35 0.262
2015 31.90% 0.209 25.00% 0.35 0.233

This shows that even with an acceptable strikeout rate, Buxton’s batting average would still be very detrimental in two of the four seasons and about neutral the other two seasons. So let’s start making excuses:

2015 he was a rookie.

2016 saw an abnormally high strikeout rate which when normalized, presents a neutral average.

2017 was heavily weighted by a poor first half and in the second half, he showed his true colors.

2018 he had a BABIP of .226 which is abnormally low for a player with his speed.

Buxton, over the course of his career has a Zone % of 48.7%, which is high. This means he’s seeing a fair amount of hittable pitches. His O-Swing % is a little below average at 33.4%, but he’s not reaching for a crippling amount of balls out of the zone (data from Pitch Info).

However, he has the 51st worst Z-Contact rate (contact rate with pitches inside the strike zone) out of 287 qualifiers (minimum 1000 PA) since 2015 at 82.8% which is bad. The following is what I believe to be a complete list of players that will likely have a 75% draft % or higher in a 2019 standard league and have a worse Z-Contact rate than Buxton:

- Joey Gallo (by far the worst at 71.6%)

- Khris Davis

- Miguel Sano

- Cody Bellinger

- Kyle Schwarber

- Javier Baez

- Aaron Judge

- Willson Contreras

- Freddie Freeman (due to his 171 K 2016)

- Eddie Rosario

- Paul Goldschmidt

- George Springer

- Giancarlo Stanton

- Josh Donaldson

- Jonathan Villar

You will notice that the clear majority of these players have a similar profile. Despite some of these players being among the league leaders in walks, they all strike out a lot. But, when they hit the ball, they hit it hard. They are hackers. If healthy, everyone on this list is a threat to 30-40 homers with the exception of the catcher and Villar. And yes, Chris Davis is also on this list.

Given how poorly Buxton has performed to date and his career .672 OPS, I am not satisfied that if Buxton merely improved his plate discipline he would be relevant in mixed leagues.

Batted Ball Data

Buxton led the MLB in infield hit % in 2017 with 13.9% (trailed by Trevor Story in 2nd). In 2015 and 2016 in the MLB his infield hit percentage was 20.6% and 15.0%. Both marks would have led the majors if he had qualifying at-bats. Interesting to note, that in 2018, Story and Baez ranked first and fourth, respectively in infield hit %. In the minor leagues, if Buxton hit over .300 in any stint at any level, his BABIP was north of .400—apart from when he hit .305 in Triple-A in 2016 (BABIP of .382). His line drive percentage has, in fact, improved in the majors (14%, 22%, 23%, and 23% sequentially in his 4 partial seasons). Compare that to the minors where he floated between 16-19% or worse, which is below average. I cannot find something within Buxton’s batted ball data to suggest he should be getting on more. Let’s look at what happens when he does make contact.

Statcast

Let’s look at his best season, the 2017 season (note this includes his poor first half and his great second half):

- Average exit velocity – 85.0mph (rank: 274)

- Barrels/PA – 3.5 (rank: 204)

- Hard hit % - 32.3% (rank: 207)

These are not comforting metrics. However, he holds the 2nd highest max exit velocity (110.9 mph) of all those with an average exit velocity of 85.0 mph or lower. He is only behind Roberto Perez, the catcher for the Indians on this one. So, you could argue that he and Roberto Perez are the two players with the most untapped upside. Insert shrug emoji. However, even with the stellar second half, these metrics are not an extreme outlier from his two other terrible seasons after his first call-up.

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Avg Exit Vel Barrels Hard Hit
Avg Exit Vel Barrels Hard Hit
85.7 1.1 27
85 3.5 32.3
85.8 3 31.6

Let’s compare this to Ronald Acuna’s rookie season.

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Avg Exit Vel Barrels Hard Hit
Avg Exit Vel Barrels Hard Hit
90.8 8.6 46.6

Now, let’s now look at the 2017 season metrics of a couple players that were able to improve significantly in 2018 and one who was not:

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2017 Avg Exit Vel Barrels Hard Hit
2017 Avg Exit Vel Barrels Hard Hit
Trevor Story 88.9 5.5 38.3
Javier Baez 86.9 5.5 34.8
Greg Bird 89.7 5.3 41.1

Let’s now look at the 2018 Season metrics to see if we would have predicted improvement:

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2018 Avg Exit Vel Barrels Hard Hit
2018 Avg Exit Vel Barrels Hard Hit
Trevor Story 90.7 8.4 45.6
Javier Baez 89.6 8.7 43.2
Greg Bird 86.9 6.8 33.3

In both cases of Story and Baez, you can see improvement in these metrics. Buxton’s metrics are static and pale in comparison to Story and Baez in their breakouts or prior. It’s also worse than Greg Bird when he hit below .200 both years.

The assessment here is that Buxton needs to get better at hitting baseballs.

So what is Buxton’s upside?

Given his batted ball profile and plate discipline, it looks like he will be a liability in the batting average department unless something changes. This year, I would predict his reasonable upside across a full season would be 18 homers and 30 stolen bases. That is good! I also believe that he will struggle to contribute positively in the other three categories, especially if your league measures OBP instead of AVG. Over the course of his MLB career he paced to be a 16 HR player across 600 plate appearances. Getting those plate appearances are no certainty, as he will not be given a starting job on a silver platter. Also, he has missed significant time on two occasions in his career due to injury as a result of the style of his defensive play.

Overall, if Buxton improves at hitting baseballs hard, one could expect him to return value as a hybrid version of Joey Gallo and Jonathan Villar. I do not believe he has the upside to be Ronald Acuna, let alone Mike Trout. His downside (as we’ve seen) is irrelevant and potentially a grenade that deteriorates your ratios. Buxton is truly boom-or-bust.

His risk-reward profile and assessing what to invest on draft day is one of the reasons fantasy baseball is such a dynamic game.

If I had to rank him among prospects in a dynasty league, he would still fall somewhere between No. 30-60, because with prospects I tend to value based on upside.