“He’s The Best Player In The World”
Fair Play, South Carolina
May 9, 2022
From the NYT: The Byron Buxton Experience is finally happening for the Minnesota Twins and the team could not be happier. A little caution along the way can’t hurt.
BALTIMORE — This is the Byron Buxton Experience, condensed into a four-game series last week between the Minnesota Twins and the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.
On Monday, Buxton led off first base when Luis Arraez scorched a ground ball to first. The Orioles’ Ryan Mountcastle stepped on the bag, looked to second for a double play — and gave up. No chance. Buxton was already sliding in.
“It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen,” Mountcastle said. “I was like: ‘Did he steal right there?’ I was in shock. I just sort of held onto the ball like, ‘Uhhh, OK, I don’t know what just happened.’ But he’s just that fast.”
Carlos Correa then singled to drive in Buxton with the winning run. The next night they combined for a stylish double play: Buxton tracked down a fly ball at the center field warning track and fired to Correa, who flipped to second to catch a runner trying to tag up. The Twins won again.
In the third game, Buxton did not play and the Twins lost. He was healthy, but the Twins build in off days to keep him fresh for the long season.
In the fourth game, Buxton returned to the lineup. The Twins lost again, but Buxton drove in all three of their runs. In the fifth inning, he swung with a 3-0 count and launched a 452-foot home run to the back of the upper bullpen.
So there you had it: speed, defense, power — and caution. Buxton at his best is breathtaking to watch. The Twins want to see him as much as possible.
“He’s the best player in the world, no doubt about it,” said Correa, the shortstop who left Houston to sign a three-year, $105.3 million contract with the Twins in spring training.
“Speaking about talent, he’s the best. He’s got to stay on the field and show it, but I know talent when I see it. Playing in the same division with Mike Trout, playing with great players on the Astros — nobody has more talent than him. Nobody hits the ball farther. Nobody plays better defense. Nobody throws harder. Nobody runs faster. So when you talk about talent and you talk about tools, this is the most gifted out of all of them out there.”
Buxton is also the best overall hitter, Correa insisted, and he could have cited traditional statistics: Through Friday, Buxton was tied for the major league lead in homers, with nine, while hitting .290. His combined on-base and slugging percentage was 1.109.
Instead, Correa mentioned Weighted Runs Created Plus, a metric that measures overall runs created, accounting for ballpark factors. Buxton leads in that category over the last two seasons, with 181, according to Fangraphs. He trails only Mike Trout and Juan Soto since 2020.
To find Buxton on those leaderboards, though, you have to adjust the thresholds for playing time. Since making his debut in 2015 — three years after the Twins drafted him second overall, just behind Correa — Buxton has missed time with injuries to his left thumb, groin, left great toe, left wrist, right wrist, left shoulder, right hip and left hand. He has also lost time to migraines and a concussion. He left Saturday’s win over Oakland with soreness in his hip.
When people call him injury-prone, Buxton said, he does not care. When they call him the best player in the world, it lands a little nicer but makes the same impact.
“That doesn’t matter to me, either,” Buxton said. “For me to do that, I’ve got to go out there and prove that. I know I haven’t played enough games, but I know I can be that, which is fun to me. That’s what keeps me on my toes — something’s always gonna happen. There’s that anxiousness. For me that’s a challenge, and I like challenges.”
As a free agent last off-season, his challenge was to find a way to stay in Minnesota. Both parties hoped to continue the relationship; when Buxton was drafted out of Appling County High School in Baxley, Ga., he told his parents that he wanted to spend his entire career with one team. But his profile was a puzzle.
When Buxton plays, the team is a juggernaut. Since 2019 (through Friday), the Twins were 96-110 without Buxton. In that same time frame, they were 130-75 with him — a .634 winning percentage, better than the best team in Minnesota history, the 1965 pennant winners (.630). That kind of impact demanded a big payday, but the health history demanded prudence.
“We tried to find the intersection between the two, and it took years — in some ways, really, at least two years,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ president of baseball operations. “We were looking for comparables, and we couldn’t really find any. But he really did want to be here, and I do think that stood out.”
Just before the lockout, Buxton signed a seven-year, $100 million contract, with a full no-trade clause for the first five years and a bonus structure that could earn him an extra $10.5 million each season for reaching the maximum levels: 625 plate appearances and a first-place finish in the Most Valuable Player Award voting. It just might happen.
“He can do everything as good as the best player,” said Justin Morneau, now a Twins broadcaster, who won the American League M.V.P. as their first baseman in 2006. “When you’re on the field, even as an athlete you can look around and go: That guy’s better than everyone else.”
Manager Rocco Baldelli bats Buxton leadoff for a fundamental reason: He wants his best player to get the most chances to hit. Buxton rarely steals bases, largely because he is often in scoring position already. Since 2019, he has 116 extra-base hits and just 113 combined singles and walks, leaning into his identity as a hitter.
“I played against him in high-A, and I’ve just never seen someone run that fast in my life,” said David Popkins, a Twins’ hitting coach. “Back then he was a completely different hitter, just kind of putting it in play and running and using his speed. But this version of him is insane.”
This version, Buxton said, is authentically him. For years he tried too hard to be a pleaser, diligently applying suggestions from every coach who saw him. Through his first four major league seasons he hit .230 with a .387 slugging percentage, much happier in the field than at the plate.
“I was defensive-oriented to where I would rather play 27 outs for the Twins and 27 outs for whoever we were playing,” Buxton said. “Like, I would rather play defense rather than go to the plate, and it was all because I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a routine. I didn’t have something that was me.”
With help from the former Twins hitting coach James Rowson, Buxton learned to simplify his mechanical cues and trust his instincts as a hitter. He does not take many pitches because he knows he can barrel up almost anything near the strike zone.
“And that’s what makes it really fun again, because I don’t go up there thinking about what you’re going to do to me,” Buxton said. “I’m an attack-first guy.”
The Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, who led Minnesota to its only two championships, in 1987 and 1991, hit with an exaggerated leg kick. Buxton barely lifts his foot off the dirt, generating force from the ground and transferring it up through the bat. It is a subtle skill, but Popkins said it makes Buxton the most incredible hitter he has ever seen.
“He’s always just there waiting for you, like, ‘Whatever you do, I’m in the ground, so good luck,’” Popkins said. “He’ll leave the ground just a little bit for a step, but it’s early and he’s always in there, and you just see both feet gripping. It’s like his feet are hands; they grab the ground and just torque it.”
As wondrous as he is in the batters’ box, Buxton said he still gets his biggest thrill from defense. Taking away a hit, he said, is a way to shift the momentum of a game, to lift the pitcher and the all fielders.
Buxton did a lot of that in 2017, when Wilson named him the top overall defensive player he led the Twins to the playoffs. That was his only season with 100 games played, though, a reminder of the fragility of greatness.
Some of Buxton’s subsequent injuries have been unavoidable — a collision with the center field wall that hurt his shoulder, a foul ball that broke his toe, an errant pitch that broke his wrist. His luck is due to turn, and the Twins want to keep him on the field by getting him off it now and then. They will enjoy the show, however long the running time lasts.
“I think we’ve kind of come up with the philosophy around here of: just appreciate it for what it is,” Morneau said. “We don’t know what the future is going to be. Just look out there today and watch him run down a ball in the gap and appreciate that. Watch him turn a single into a double like nobody else can do and appreciate that. You hope that he’s going to stay healthy, but nobody knows what’s going to happen. So just watch and appreciate the most electric player in the game today.”