With Byron Buxton patrolling center field, the Minnesota Twins have that rarest of baseball superheroes — an individual player who can single-handedly take over a game and will his team to victory. The Chicago White Sox felt the full force of Buxton’s powers last weekend: On Saturday, Buxton went 4-for-4 with a home run, two RBIs and three runs scored in a 9-2 win, and the next day he clobbered two more homers (including a 469-foot walk-off blast in the bottom of the 10th that turned a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 Minnesota victory).
When Buxton is feeling good, he is a legitimate MVP candidate and perhaps the best non-pitcher in the league, better even than candidates such as Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Fernando Tatís Jr., Juan Soto or Ronald Acuña Jr. But the question of whether Buxton can actually stay healthy enough to realize that potential hangs over his career more than maybe any other player in MLB history.
Over the past three seasons, here is Buxton’s stat line for every 162 games he plays:
|Stats Per 162 Games Played|
There’s a reason why Buxton is getting buzz for having 10-WAR potential this year. Since the end of Barry Bonds’s ludicrous heyday, only two players have had at least 10 WAR in a season — Trout (10.3 WAR in 2012) and Betts (10.6 WAR in 2018). Buxton has shown he has the talent to join that select group, with 10.1 WAR per 162 games played since 2020 and a prorated pace of 9.8 WAR in 2022. (Yes, I realize it is ridiculously early.) Meanwhile, only 35 seasons in MLB history have ever seen a player hit .285 or better with 50 or more home runs, which Buxton’s recent per-162 line suggests is also possible if he stays unhurt for a whole season.
But the odds of that are, sadly, quite low. Over the course of his career, Buxton has played 505 of a possible 1,050 games, a 48.1 percent rate of being on the field — meaning if you randomly selected a Twins game to watch since Buxton debuted in 2015, you would have a better chance of not seeing Buxton play than witnessing his magic at work. The laundry list of injuries Buxton has suffered is long and varied, and they’ve taken place in all different phases of the game: at the plate, running the bases, playing the outfield, you name it. Short of bundling him in Bubble Wrap — or, more seriously, sacrificing his elite defense by playing him at designated hitter — there isn’t an easy way to keep Buxton available for every game.
Because of this, you could make the case that Buxton is the best player to be this fragile — or, if you’d prefer, the most fragile player this great — in baseball history. Among batters with at least 500 career games played since 1901, only two have averaged at least 5.0 WAR per 162 games in the games they played while also playing fewer than 50 percent of possible games: Buxton, and turn-of-the-20th-century outfielder Mike Donlin, who missed four full seasons and 57 percent of all possible games during his post-1900 career because of alcoholism, incarceration and an acting career of mixed success.
|Player||From||To||Games||WAR||WAR/162||Possible Gms||% Played|
Buxton’s case has gotten even more extreme in recent seasons, as his share of possible games played has dropped to 46.7 percent since 2020, even as his WAR per 162 rose to the 10.1 mark in the games he did actually play. He’s the ultimate weapon, but one Minnesota has only sporadically been able to deploy. And without a doubt, the Twins will need Buxton in the lineup if they are to bounce back from last year’s 73-win debacle.
Perhaps the cruelest irony of Buxton’s brittleness is that few players have ever exerted more demonstrable influence on their team’s record when they play versus when they don’t. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan recently noted, Minnesota has played at a 101-win pace over the past few years with Buxton, and a 75-win pace without him:
Over the entire course of Buxton’s career, the Twins are 281-224 in Buxton’s 505 total games played, good for a .556 winning percentage. Since the Twins have a perfectly .500 record of 525-525 overall since 2015, that means Minnesota’s record in games without Buxton is 244-301, or a .448 winning percentage — a gap of 10.9 percentage points with Buxton versus without him.
While it’s not exactly on the same level as Gil Hodges — whose Dodgers (and Mets) went 1,233-831 (.597) in games he played and 298-426 (.412) in games he didn’t play, a gap of 18.6 percentage points1 — it’s still a massive effect, the equivalent of a 17.6-win swing in a 162-game season. Although Buxton isn’t personally responsible for all of that differential by himself, his healthier years have generally synced up with the Twins’ better seasons, and his more injury-riddled campaigns are associated with Minnesota struggling.
And so, as usual, Buxton’s health is one of the biggest factors of the season — one that could determine the AL Central, and maybe even the MVP race. He already missed a few games in mid-April with a knee injury, although mercifully there was no serious damage, and he returned to the lineup quickly, just in time to inflict all that devastation upon the White Sox. If Buxton defies his history and manages to keep the injury bug at bay, that kind of performance could become the rule in Minnesota this year, rather than the between-injuries exception it has usually been over Buxton’s career to date.
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