Three Swings to Stardom: The Byron Buxton Story

Three Swings to Stardom: The Byron Buxton Story

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Monday, 28 August 2017
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With his last three swings in Toronto on Sunday, Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton likely erased any doubts of his ability to hit Major League pitching — the final step in securing his place amongst the stars of Major League Baseball. New Twins’ president Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have little reason to worry about signing Buxton to a long-term deal as early as this offseason, and that’s not an overreaction to Sunday’s three swings.

The Three Swings

Falvey and Levine can probably stop worrying about Buxton’s bat. Baseball Prospectus editor Aaron Gleeman’s “life is devoted to posting positive Byron Buxton stats,” and he couldn’t keep up with Buxton on Sunday.

You don’t need stats to see that Buxton has “turned a corner” as they say. Even ignoring those last three swings you can find an at-bat that proves Buxton’s progress. His first plate appearance of the game came with two outs in the first inning with runners on first and second. Resisting his younger self, he didn’t try to pull a fastball that was on the outer half of the strike zone despite it being elevated. Instead, he drove a hot grounder up the middle for a single that scored the first run — the perfect approach given the situation and pitch. That might say more about his progression at the plate than the three swings.

In the top of the fourth, though, again with two outs and a runner on third, Buxton banged a hanging breaking ball into the Toronto bullpen in left center, reminiscent of Kirby Puckett.

On the very next pitch he saw to lead off the top of the seventh, Buxton attacked a changeup left up that started outside and tailed back over the outer half of the strike zone. His timing was perfect because he’s no longer worried about being late on a fastball. In fact, he wants to be late on a fastball because it puts him in a better position to punish offspeed mistakes, which are harder for pitchers to locate. So instead of fouling the ball down the third baseline, he deposited the changeup into the second deck of left field seats.

And on the very next pitch he saw, Buxton bent his knees to reach a 91-mile-per-hour fastball at the bottom of the inside corner and drove a line drive home run down the third baseline. The swing actually reminded me of Reggie Jackson, who is the only other MLB player of which I know who’s homered with three consecutive swings.

Buxton’s final swing on the fastball down and in was the swing of an evolved hitter. It didn’t look like Buxton was looking fastball all the way. It looked like he reacted to the fastball and trusted the quickness of his hands. It’s another hole Buxton seems to have closed in his swing, so if pitchers are going to pitch him inside, they’re going to have to get him swinging at pitches off the plate inside.

In three swings baseball fans got a glimpse of a star being born. It took the nebula that is “The Twins Way” more than 850 MLB plate appearances, multiple swing alterations, injuries and demotions to produce Buxton the star, but Buxton’s explosion was blinding and so beautiful it probably brought grown men to tears.

Mr. September?

This isn’t the first time Buxton’s offered a glimpse of his potential at the plate. The kid figured out big-league pitching at the end of last season, too, posting a .936 OPS in September of 2016. Trout’s OPS over the same stretch was .962.

If Buxton repeats his success from last September, the Twins will make the playoffs. They’ve gained some ground on the Angels and Mariners, sitting alone in the second Wild Card spot with a 1.5-game cushion and have two fewer losses than the four teams chasing them. And while the Twins have relied on a slew of young players (Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco) to remain in the driver’s seat, it’s been Buxton who’s contributed the most over the course of the year, and it’s not even close.

Buxton’s WAA (wins above average) of 3.0 is 1.8 better than Brian Dozier’s and 2.1 wins better than Miguel Sano’s. The second most valuable Twins player this season has been Ervin Santana, worth 2.3 wins above average. So Buxton should at the very least be Falvey and Levine’s top priority whenever they do decide to start offering contract extensions. But waiting until after next season would be a mistake for more than one reason.

Why Not Wait?

Falvey and Levine could end up paying Buxton a little more than a half million dollars next season, but fear of Buxton competing for the Most Valuable Player Award next year should be taken pretty seriously. What little money the Twins might save in 2018 won’t be more than what can be saved by signing an employee to a long-term contract in an industry that only sees salaries increase.

Last year was the 14th consecutive season of revenue growth for MLB — a record of nearly $10 billion. Those long, slow games have really cut into the bottom line, eh Commissioner Manfred? Despite those long, slow games and people cutting cable at record rates, MLB seems to be doing just fine thanks to the live streaming market. I’m pretty sure MLB was the first major sports league to debut live streaming in 2002, which has allowed them to work out the many kinks that were present even when I watched my first game on MLB.TV in 2006. The streaming service is so valuable that Disney bought a majority stake in it to include with ESPN’s streaming service expected to launch sometime next year.

So the biggest reason to sign Buxton long-term this offseason is because it’s unlikely he’s less valuable next year. If he stays on the field, he can only improve, and even if he doesn’t improve, arbitrated salaries most certainly will improve for players — every year — until Manfred ruins the game by starting extra innings with a runner on base. At this point, it would be more of a surprise for Buxton to regress than progress.

Joe Mauer was also in Buxton’s boat. If you ask just a few Twins fans the biggest mistake the organization has ever made, it won’t take long for you to hear someone complain about Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million contract. But the mistake in signing Mauer long-term when the Twins did was not a failure to predict injury. You can’t predict that one too many foul tips to the head will alter your best hitter’s vision and force him to change positions.

You can predict a player’s prime, though, and Terry Ryan didn’t do Bill Smith any favors by extending Mauer for four years prior to the 2007 season. Mauer was coming off his first All-Star appearance at age 23 — just his second full season after the knee injury. While Ryan bought out Mauer’s arbitration years for $33 million, why he didn’t sign Mauer through his prime is mind-boggling. Sure he’s a catcher that’s had a knee injury, but he caught over 1,000 innings the previous season and won the batting title — as a catcher!

Mauer’s monstrous contract isn’t Bill Smith’s fault; it’s Ryan’s. That 2007 extension should have been for at least six years, making Mauer a candidate for an extension in 2011, an injury-plagued season, or a free agent after a rebound season in 2012 that saw him finish 19th in the MVP voting. Instead, Smith was forced to act after Mauer’s MVP season in 2009 to avoid losing the league’s best player to free agency after the 2010 season. That would have been a hell of a trade chip, though, huh?

Waiting for an up-and-coming player to prove his worth always costs more because you’re paying for past success instead of potential success. Offering arbitration to an All-Star-caliber player is like writing an IOU that changes in value but always comes due, and generally at a higher rate than the original figure.

What if Buxton Gets Hurt?

That’s the big worry isn’t it? There’s nothing worse than signing a player to a long-term contract only to see said player get hurt and get paid the same amount to be a lesser version of the man who earned the contract.

Buxton’s injury probability is likely higher than average due to his propensity to go all-out all the time. But only injury history, not injury probability, should influence contract negotiations, and Buxton’s injury history isn’t worrisome.

Remember that collision that left him concussed in 2014? Twins fans everywhere gasped in collective fear and concern for their top prospect. Twins fans know better than most what blows to the head can do to careers. But Buxton came back two months later and collected 15 hits in 13 games of Arizona Fall League action. And while the next concussion will be invariably worse, it’s not as though Buxton is running into outfield walls at the rate Joe Mauer was taking foul tips off the head. Besides, Buxton’s legs are his most valuable asset to the Twins, and those have managed to stay out of harm’s way for the most part (knock on wood).

What’s Buxton Worth?

If Buxton ends up carrying the Twins into the playoffs he will have earned a long-term contract, especially if Sano can only provide designated hitting services the rest of the season due to his shin injury. Buxton wasn’t an All-Star this year, and while Sano was, the Minnesota Twins center fielder has been more valuable than the slugging third baseman, and any other Twin for that matter.

Buxton has been flying under the radar because of his well-documented struggles finding his swing. Given Sunday’s three swings, that won’t be the case much longer. Buxton is probably going to win the American League Gold Glove in center field this year and maybe for the next 10 years. Even before he was hitting, Buxton was contributing more than the slugging Sano thanks to his speed and defense. His 23 defensive runs saved so far is best amongst fielders let alone center fielders. But now he’s starting to figure it out at the plate, culminating in the first two- and three-homer game of his young career on Sunday.

Buxton’s 3.8 WAR was fifth amongst all MLB center fielders entering Sunday’s game and more than a win better than Sano’s 2.5 WAR thus far. After Sunday, Buxton’s WAR improved by half a win (4.3) — third amongst MLB center fielders, behind Charlie Blackmon (4.8) and Mike Trout (5.4).

What Would Buxton Cost?

While Buxton is looking like a player who can carry the Twins into the playoffs, he’s still not Trout, but he deserves the same treatment when it comes to his contract. If the Twins were to sign Buxton to a six-year deal like the Angels did Trout, Buxton would hit free agency for the first time at 29. Trout will be just 28 when he hits free agency for the first time.

Buxton’s arbitration years aren’t going to be cheap and will only get more expensive with every season that passes. He’ll likely enter arbitration after next season as the most valuable arbitration-eligible player on the field — physically and fiscally. When considering what Buxton could earn in 2018, Marcell Ozuna is Buxton’s most comparable contemporary (5.0 WAR this year). The two-time All-Star is making $3.5 million in this his first year of arbitration, which is probably a bit less than Buxton would demand.

So if Buxton makes the same Ozuna made in his final year of team control ($.57 million) and the same Ozuna’s making in his first arbitration year, that’s $4.07 million over the next two years. Call it $5 million just for sake of inflation. In Buxton’s second year of arbitration eligibility, he could be making Charlie Blackmon money ($7.3 million). In his final arbitration year, Lorenzo Cain’s $11 million salary doesn’t seem unreasonable, but Cain’s not being paid via arbitration.

Bryce Harper is making $13.625 million in what would have been his second season of arbitration eligibility, which is also a problematic comparison since the Nationals bought out his remaining arbitration years. Still, if Buxton is better than Cain (and he is), it’s not unfeasible that in his third season of arbitration eligibility, Buxton could get what Harper got in his second year. Add it all up and it’s nearly $26 million to buyout Buxton’s arbitration years. He would be 27 years old — right in the middle of his prime — with another one or two years of peak performance left. So what would Buxton’s prime years cost the Twins?

To give you an idea of how much contracts for baseball players have increased in just the last 15 years or so (and how little the dollar’s value has increased), Torii Hunter signed his four-year, $32 million contract with the Twins after the 2002 season. He had just won his second Gold Glove and finished sixth in the MVP voting. That’s not out of Buxton’s realm of potential. In 2017 dollars, Hunter’s contract is worth just just over $37 million over four years. So despite Hunter being the most obvious Buxton comparison, the massive increase in MLB revenues via television and live streaming deals makes a more contemporary example necessary.

Christian Yelich got seven years and nearly $50 million from Miami before the 2015 season. Buxton will get more.

Enter Trout — arguably the best all-around player of all time, so far. In no way am I implying that Buxton is the next best all-around player of all time, but Trout is the best example of a player who shares Buxton’s diverse skill set playing a position of scarcity, and the average salary from Trout’s six-year, $144.5 million deal signed in 2014 is probably close to what Buxton can expect over his prime given inflation. That’s roughly $24 million annually, or $1 million more per year than Mauer makes — at least through next year.

Falvey and Levine have all or part of Mauer’s contract coming off the books after next season, and they’ll need at least half of it to pay Buxton. A potential six-year deal for Buxton comes to $74 million, or $12.33 million per year. Adding another year or option likely lifts the contract over $100 million in total. Falvey and Levine will likely load most of the money on the back end of the contract to allow more flexibility in free agency the next few seasons.

There will be plenty of money left over for Sano with Ervin Santana’s contract expiring after next season (assuming the Twins don’t pick up his 2019 club option), and Glen Perkins likely entering free agency or retirement after this season. Brian Dozier could even free up a few million dollars for Falvey and Levine, which they’ll likely need to retain Max Kepler and Eddie Rosario.

Why Buxton Deserves to be Paid

Despite being rushed to the majors, and despite starting his career 2-for-22, and despite the changes to his swing, the demotions and the injuries, Buxton’s weathered the storm rather impressively for being just 23 years old. While Buxton didn’t take to the big leagues like Trout, Harper or even Mauer, he’ll be even better for it. All the failures of his young career culminated in the superstar we saw born on Sunday. Those three swings wouldn’t have been possible without the many failures experienced along the way.

When Buxton was truly struggling to make contact at the plate, I never saw a look of despair in him, and that’s what it takes to be a superstar in the big leagues. All the tools in the world can’t help the player who’s discouraged by a seemingly endless streak of failure. Buxton deserves to be paid because he’s paid the price to become his team’s best player and proven his dedication to his craft.

The way Buxton has dealt with failure should earn him the respect of his teammates and better allow him to lead his team. He’s shown the ability to lift his team with his speed, his glove, his emotion and now his bat. He has become the new face of the Twins and should be paid like the new face of the Twins.

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Anthony Varriano is a news editor at GCNLive.com, editor of GoGonzoJournal.com, and founder and editor of FoulPlaybyPlay.com. He has been blogging about the Minnesota Twins since 2009 and hosts a live, uncensored, commercial-free play-by-play broadcast during select Twins games.

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