When Byron Buxton made his Major League debut in 2015 I was maybe more nervous than I've ever been before a meaningless June game in all of my fandom. In a way, it was more fun with Buxton as a mythical figure in the minor leagues. Before he played a game for the Twins, he had no faults, he was the perfect ballplayer. Now that he was on the big league club, stats would be counted and we would see if he was really worth the hype. Things hit a snag at the beginning when he struck out in his first at-bat. They continued to snag when he hit .209 his rookie year. And then .225 in 2016. Or when he started his junior campaign by going 4-for-49. Gradually, things turned around. The turning around became less gradual in July and August. Here's a look at why.
Early in the season, Buxton's name was synonymous with strikeouts. In April he struck out in over a third of his at-bats, at a 37% clip. Compare that to now, he struck out 22.9% of the time in July and is on a similar pace this month at 23.3%. A lot of this credit goes to hitting coach James Rowson. Rowson's helped Buxton simplify his approach at the plate and he looks much more comfortable as a result. Check out his swing in his first career AB in 2015 and compare it to how it looked in June of 2016 and his RBI single yesterday. His swing's gotten shorter and quicker in the last two seasons. The changes have paid off. Buxton's barreling up the ball with much more regularity, increasing his line drive percentage from 16 in April to almost 30 this month.
No matter how much his hitting improves, Buxton's biggest asset always has and always will be his speed, which is why it was frustrating to see him wasting much of it in 2015 and 2016. In those two years. He hit fly balls roughly 43 percent of the time. On top of that, he struck out at a rate between 30 and 35 percent. So that's over 70 percent of the time he wasn't able to utilize the most dangerous aspect of his game. There's quite a difference this season. He's fly balls 35 percent of the time total, and in August that number's dropped to 30.
By putting the ball on the ground more often, Buxton's helping the team in ways he doesn't get credit with in the box score. With Buxton running, any bobble on a grounder means he gets on base. Sometimes a fielder will try to move too quickly and make an error just because of Buxton's speed.
It's been tough to watch Buxton play the last two years, but it looks like he's finally putting it all together. He might not be Mike Trout, he's not winning any MVPs at age 23, but he's getting there. At the very least, he's Jason Heyward, a great fielder who can't quite hit well enough. But if these last two months are any indication, he's turned a corner and the sky's the limit.