It’s been more than five years since Twins center fielder Byron Buxton was MLB’s top-ranked prospect. A five-tool stud, he was projected for superstardom. It hasn’t happened yet, but we might be witnessing the long-awaited breakout.
Michael Brantley (.554) and Juan Soto (.553) are sixth and seventh, respectively. These are some of the best hitters in baseball, and Buxton is right there with them.
Buxton, 27, has had his share of hot streaks in the past, times when we thought he was starting to live up to his potential, but he’s never had a stretch as good as this in his Major League career, which dates back to 2015.
Injuries remain a concern for a player who has made nine trips to the injured list in his big league career, but here’s why Buxton’s early performance could be the start of something special.
He’s whiffing less than ever
Besides injuries, strikeouts have been Buxton’s biggest bugaboo as a big leaguer. He went down on strikes nearly 30% of the time in his first six seasons. He’s been known to expand the zone, and he’s been known to come up empty quite a bit.
While Buxton is still chasing pitches outside the zone a lot in 2021, he’s doing a better job of getting his bat on the pitches he should hit.
From 2015-20, Buxton had a 20.9% whiff rate on pitches in the strike zone. He’s lowered that to 14.3% this season, and his expected batting average (.556) and expected slugging percentage (1.476) on in-zone pitches both lead the Majors (minimum 10 plate appearances ending on in-zone pitches).
Buxton’s overall whiff rate is 22.2%, meanwhile, more than eight percentage points lower than his figure from his first six seasons.
With fewer swings and misses, Buxton is getting into two-strike counts less frequently. When he does get into two-strike counts, he’s not wilting like he did in the past.
All told, Buxton has struck out five times in his first 31 plate appearances, a 16.1% K-rate, and he’s even drawn two walks, as many as he had all of last season.
He’s hitting the ball harder than ever
Buxton’s place on the xwOBA leaderboard is a strong hint that he’s making quality contact, but the extent to which he’s mashing baseballs is worth noting.
Seriously, this dude is locked in. Four of the 15 hardest batted balls in Buxton’s career have come this season. His 451-foot, 114.1-mph homer on April 6 against the Tigers is the hardest ball he’s ever hit, and his 113.6-mph single against the Mariners four days later is tied for second.
Buxton has 22 batted balls on the season and 16 were hit hard (95+ mph exit velocity). His 72.7% hard-hit rate was the third highest among MLB qualifiers entering Monday’s games. And he’s making his hard contact count. He already has seven barrels — batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in extra-base hits — one of the highest totals in MLB.
Granted, Buxton showed the ability to drive the ball before this season, ranking in the 89th percentile in hard-hit rate and the 88th percentile in barrel rate in 2020, so this isn’t entirely new.
But with a much greater tendency to whiff last season, his rate of hard-hit balls on a per-swing basis was 16.2%. In 2021, that number is 29.6%.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Buxton’s breakout at the plate is that his other tools, which have kept his value afloat this whole time, are still there.
There aren’t many players who combine elite power and speed. As MLB.com’s Sarah Langs pointed out Monday, Buxton, Trout and Ronald Acuña Jr. are the only players who are in the 95th percentile or better in both hard-hit rate and Sprint Speed.
Acuña and Fernando Tatis Jr. were the only such players in 2020. (Trout was close, with a 97th percentile hard-hit rate and a 94th percentile Sprint Speed.)
If Buxton can keep hitting like this, we could be looking at a legitimate contender for the American League MVP Award. That’s the ceiling here. It’s been his ceiling since he was a prospect. And he’s closer than ever to reaching it.