The Minnesota Twins have MLB’s second-best record over the past two-plus seasons (trailing only the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers), earning a pair of division titles over that span. They’ve scored the third-most runs in baseball and rank fourth in OPS, with a reputation as one of the most devastating offensive teams in the game. But maybe the most incredible part of the Twins’ recent run is that they’ve done it all with center fielder Byron Buxton playing fewer than 60 percent of the team’s scheduled games.
Buxton has had superstar potential ever since he was taken second overall in the 2012 draft and was named Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect before the 2014 season. But aside from an electric 2017 season at age 23, one of the fastest players in baseball has struggled to stay healthy long enough to reach his full potential. Only time will tell if that changes in 2021 — but in the first few weeks of the season at least, Buxton has tantalized everyone again with flashes of the stellar player Minnesota has been hoping he would become for years.
So far this year, Buxton is putting up a collection of totally silly, video-game stats: He’s hitting .481 with a 1.734 OPS, five home runs, nine RBIs and 1.1 wins above replacement1 already in just eight games. In the last category, Buxton currently ranks as the third-most valuable player in all of baseball through two weeks of play:
The speedy Buxton is off to a very fast start this year
MLB wins above replacement leaders, 2021 season
|Wins Above Replacement|
|Ronald Acuña Jr.||ATL||RF||1.15||0.00||1.15|
Surely those numbers will regress to the mean as the season goes on — or do we really think Buxton will keep playing at a pace of 20.5 WAR per 162 games? — but there are plenty of good things happening under the surface to suggest that he can continue enjoying a monster season. Here are the Statcast categories in which Buxton ranks among at least the 98th percentile of all hitters right now:
- Average exit velocity (98th)
- Barrel rate (100th)
- Hard-hit ball rate (98th)
- Expected batting average (100th)
- Expected slugging percentage (100th)
- Expected wOBA (100th)
- Sprint speed (99th)
Buxton also ranks among the top third of hitters in avoiding strikeouts and swings-and-misses, and he remains one of the finest defensive center fielders in the game by several metrics. By the same tracking data, Buxton does have a legitimate hole in his approach at the plate — chasing 44 percent of pitches outside the strike zone (the league average is 30 percent). He also ranks among the bottom half of hitters in walk rate, despite a massive improvement over last year (when he drew a base on balls just twice in 135 plate appearances). But altogether, Buxton’s statistical profile represents an extremely unusual blend of power and speed. Since 2015, the dawn of the Statcast era, only two other players2 had at least 150 plate appearances per 162 team games and ranked in the 98th percentile or higher in both average exit velocity and sprint speed in the same season.
Buxton’s development into a star-level player isn’t entirely new this year, either. Although it flew somewhat under the radar in a COVID-19 shortened schedule, Buxton played at a 4.4-WAR pace last season (per 162 team games), which would have edged out his career-high output from 2017. He still missed time to injury, including the concussion-like symptoms that kept Buxton out of the starting lineup in an elimination game against the Houston Astros.3 But he hit well (.844 OPS) when he played, and he fielded at an elite level in center. In many ways, this hot 2021 start is the continuation of Buxton’s bounceback after injuries marred his 2018 and 2019 campaigns.
And if the Twins were already among the best teams in baseball with him playing only intermittently, how scary could they be with a healthy Buxton? We’re getting some clues early on. Though they’re in a tie for first place in the AL Central at just 5-4, the Twins rank third overall in runs per game, putting 6.11 on the board per contest, and they rank fourth in team ERA with a little help from Buxton’s glove in center. The club’s Achilles’ heel has been horrendous luck in extra-inning games; three of the Twins’ four losses have come after nine innings, the most of any team this year.
According to the underlying stats, however, the Twins have played like a dominant team so far, with Buxton’s MVP-level play leading the way. If he can stay on the field for anything close to a full season — a big “if,” granted — Buxton could finally put together the type of year experts have been envisioning for him since he turned pro.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.