Before beginning my examination, I present a table comparing two players. Both of them are center fielders, and both of them have their stats from 2020 (entering play Monday, 21 September) shown. Take a look.
I may have revealed with the title of this article who one of the players in the above table is. And yes, CF A is Byron Buxton. The identity of CF B, however, is likely a bit more surprising, though the gaudy defensive numbers may give it away. CF B is the much celebrated White Sox rookie Luis Robert.
At this juncture I feel compelled to clarify that the point of this exercise was not, of course, to diminish Robert. His performance this year has been remarkable, and he deserves every bit of the praise and attention that has been heaped upon him. Nor was the point to even say that Buxton is a better player than Robert, as I really am unsure which I would prefer to have on my hypothetical team going in to 2021. No, the point was simply to highlight that Buxton’s performance this season deserves the attention of the baseball world. And the way he is achieving this performance demands further attention.
As of 13 days ago, Buxton’s season was nothing to which it would be worth devoting an article. His 6 HR in 90 PA were certainly a sterling pace, but his overall wRC+ was a mere 82, almost exactly in line with his career mark entering the season. In his next 4 games, Buxton went 3 for 12 with 2 HR and a double, good for a 176 wRC+ over that span, raising his season wRC+ to 93. The next 3 games were even more torrid, with Buxton running a 429 wRC+, raising his season mark to 129, courtesy of a 6 for 12 outburst, including 4 HR, that prompted one of my fellow writers to tweet this:
And one more:
Over a span of 7 games, the former #1 overall prospect increased his wRC+ by 37 points. Even more importantly, his exit velocity on the year jumped 1.6 mph, from 89.3 to 90.9. After a less exciting weekend of play, he’s down a point, 128 now, in wRC+, and slightly lowered his EV to 90.8, yet these are still massive gains in a 9-game stretch.
That 90.8 mph average EV is important. It ranks 51st among all qualified MLB hitters, but more notably a career high for Buxton. From 2015-18, the first four seasons of his career, Buxton’s average EV sat between 86.4 and 89.5 mph. Over that same time span his average launch angle was just 15.2 degrees. When combined with his 31.7 K%, Buxton managed only a .312 wOBA (92 wRC+) and .304 xwOBA in 2017, his best offensive season.
About a half season of play in 2019 showed a marked, and likely deliberate, improvement. His EV was up to 90.1 mph and his LA to 20.4 degrees; he also slashed his K% down to 23.1, leading to career-best 111 wRC+ and .315 xwOBA marks. The manageable K% has stuck in 2020, in addition to the increased EV and a 23.5 degree LA. All of this has allowed Buxton to produce a 128 wRC+ and .362 xwOBA, making him a legitimate force at the plate, to the tune of an 10.7 Barrel/PA%, 9th in MLB.
Now, at this point in the article I must confess something. In regards to Buxton’s 2020 statline, I’ve buried the lede. The most fascinating thing about his season is not the offensive breakout itself, but the fact that he’s breaking out offensively despite having only two (2) measly walks in the season. That’s not a typo. He’s only drawn two walks! This fact pleads with someone, begging for an explanation, as to how this can possibly be. Well I’m going to venture an answer.
In 122 PA, Buxton has swung at the first pitch a whopping 50.8% of the time, up from 37.6%, his previous high, in 2019. He has 9 hits out of 18 balls put in play on these swings, including 4 of his 12 home runs and 19 total bases. It isn’t merely first pitches that Buxton is swinging at at an incredible rate. His has, in fact, the highest Swing% in MLB (minimum 100 PA), and is 2nd and 8th in O-Swing% and Z-Swing%, respectively. Compare Buxton’s swing stats in 2020 to his previous career highs.
|1st Pitch Swing%||50.8||37.6||13.2|
That last row is the most important part of the point being made. Buxton is swinging at everything, yet he’s swinging and missing slightly less than his career high. What allowed this adjustment to be made is the fact that Buxton now crushes breaking balls. With an xwOBA of .442 against them, while his Whiff% against them has dropped over 10 percentage points, he’s closed up what had been a major weakness in his offensive profile, and became able to swing far more often, knowing many more of these swings would likely be productive.
The swing-happy approach, paired with hitting balls harder and in the air, has enabled Byron Buxton to hit at a well-above average clip, despite walking at the lowest rate of any MLB player and running a BABIP 66 points below his previous career rate. He has always been an elite defender, and coupling that with his newfound prowess at the plate could allow Buxton to become one of the truly elite players in all of baseball. In parting, let present one final table of 2020 numbers extrapolated over 600 PA, one about which I need say naught.
|Ronald Acuña Jr.||7.63||6.59|