Twins' Byron Buxton is 'the best player in the world'

BALTIMORE — That’s the Byron Buxton experience, condensed into a four-game series last week between the Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Or...

BALTIMORE — That’s the Byron Buxton experience, condensed into a four-game series last week between the Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.

On Monday, Buxton opened first base when Luis Arraez burned a fly ball to the ground first. Ryan Mountcastle of the Orioles stepped on the sack, looked for second for a double play – and gave up. No chance. Buxton was already slipping into it.

“It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen,” Mountcastle said. “I was like, ‘Did he fly right there?’ I was shocked. I just kind of held the ball like, ‘Uhhh, OK, I don’t know what just happened.’ But he’s just that fast.

Carlos Correa then opted to drive at Buxton with the winning point. The following night, they combined for a stylish double play: Buxton found a fly ball on the center field warning lane and shot Correa, who spun around in second to catch a runner trying to score. The Twins won again.

In game three, Buxton did not play and the Twins lost. He was healthy, but the Twins are accumulating days off to keep him fresh for the long season.

In Game 4, Buxton returned to the lineup. The Twins again lost, but Buxton entered all three of their races. In the fifth inning, he swung with a 3-0 count and homered 452 feet out the back of the upper bullpen.

So there you have it: speed, defense, power and caution. Buxton at its best is breathtaking to watch. The Twins want to see him as much as possible.

“He’s the best player in the world, there’s no doubt about it,” said Correa, the shortstop who left Houston to sign a three-year, $105.3 million contract with the Twins in spring training.

“Speaking of talent, he’s the best. He has to stay on the pitch and show it, but I recognize talent when I see it. Playing in the same division with Mike Trout, playing with great players on the Astros – no one has more talent than him. No one hits the ball further. No one plays better defense. Nobody throws harder. Nobody runs faster. So when you talk about talent and you talk about tools, he’s the most gifted of them all.

Buxton is also the top hitter overall, Correa insisted, and he could have cited the traditional stats: Through Friday, Buxton tied for the major league lead in homers, with nine, while hitting .290. His combined on-base and slugging percentage was 1.109.

Instead, Correa mentioned weighted runs created plus, a metric that measures all of the runs created, taking into account the approximate factors. Buxton leads in that category the past two seasons, with 181, according to Fangraphs. He has only followed Mike Trout and Juan Soto since 2020.

However, to find Buxton in these rankings, you need to adjust the playing time thresholds. Since his debut in 2015 – three years after the Twins drafted him second overall, just behind Correa – Buxton has missed time with injuries to the left thumb, groin, left big toe, left wrist, right wrist, left shoulder, right hip and left hand. He also lost time due to migraines and a concussion. He left Saturday’s win over Oakland with hip pain.

When people call him injury prone, Buxton said, he doesn’t care. When they call him the best player in the world, it lands a bit better but has the same impact.

“It doesn’t matter to me either,” Buxton said. “For me to do this, I have to go out there and prove it. I know I haven’t played enough games, but I know I can be, which amuses me. It’s what keeps me on my toes – something is always going to happen. There is this anxiety. For me, it’s a challenge and I like challenges.

As a free agent last offseason, his challenge was to find a way to stay in Minnesota. Both parties hoped to continue the relationship; When Buxton was drafted out of Appling County High School in Baxley, Georgia, he told his parents he wanted to spend his entire career with one team. But his profile was a puzzle.

When Buxton plays, the team is a behemoth. Since 2019 (through Friday), the Twins were 96-110 without Buxton. In the same span, they were 130-75 with him — a .634 winning percentage, better than the best team in Minnesota history, the 1965 pennant winners (.630). That kind of impact demanded a big payday, but the health story demanded caution.

“We tried to find the intersection between the two, and it took years — in some ways, really, at least two years,” said Derek Falvey, president of baseball operations for the Twins. “We were looking for comparables, and we couldn’t really find any. But he really wanted to be here, and I think that came through.

Just before the lockout, Buxton signed a seven-year, $100m contract, with a full no-trade clause for the first five years and a bonus structure that could earn him another $10.5m each season for reaching the maximum levels: 625 appearance plaques and a first place vote for the Most Valuable Player award. It could happen.

“He can do everything as well as the best player,” said Justin Morneau, now a broadcaster for the Twins, who won the American League MVP as a first baseman in 2006. “When you’re on the pitch, even as an athlete, you can look around and walk away: this guy is better than everyone.”

Manager Rocco Baldelli hits frontman Buxton for one basic reason: he wants his best player to have the best chance to strike. Buxton rarely steals bases, largely because he’s often already in scoring position. Since 2019, he has 116 extra hits and just 113 combined singles and walks, leaning on his batting identity.

“I played him in high-A, and I’ve never seen anyone run that fast in my life,” said David Popkins, the Twins’ batting coach. “He was a whole different hitter back then, just putting it in play, running and using his speed. But this version of him is crazy.

This version, Buxton said, is authentically him. For years, he tried too hard to be fun, diligently applying the suggestions of every trainer who saw him. In his first four major league seasons, he hit .230 with a .387 hitting percentage, much happier on the field than at the plate.

“I was oriented defensively where I would rather play 27 outs for the Twins and 27 outs for whoever we were playing against,” Buxton said. “Like, I would rather play defense than go home plate, and all because I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t have a routine. I didn’t have something that was me.

With the help of former Twins hitting coach James Rowson, Buxton learned to simplify his mechanical cues and trust his batting instincts. He doesn’t take many shots because he knows he can shoot almost anything near the strike zone.

“And that’s what makes it really fun again, because I’m not going up there thinking what you’re going to do to me,” Buxton said. “I’m an attack-first guy.”

Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, who led Minnesota to its only two championships, in 1987 and 1991, struck with an exaggerated kick. Buxton barely lifts his foot off the ground, generating force from the ground and transferring it through the bat. It’s a subtle skill, but Popkins said it made Buxton the most incredible hitter he had ever seen.

“He’s always there waiting for you, like, ‘Whatever you do, I’m in the ground, so good luck,'” Popkins said. “He’ll come off the ground just a bit for a step, but it’s early and he’s still in there, and you just see both feet gripping. It is as if his feet were hands; they grab the ground and just hug it.

As wonderful as he is in the batting box, Buxton said he always gets his biggest thrill from defense. Removing a hit, he said, is a way to change the momentum of a game, to lift the pitcher and all the defensive players.

Buxton did a lot of that in 2017, when Wilson named him the overall best defensive player as he led the Twins to the playoffs. It was his only season with 100 games played, a reminder of the fragility of greatness.

Some of Buxton’s later injuries were unavoidable – a collision with the center field wall which hurt his shoulder, a foul ball which broke his toe, an errant throw which broke his wrist . His luck is about to turn and the Twins want to keep him on the field by kicking him out once in a while. They will enjoy the show, no matter how long it is broadcast.

“I think we kind of found the philosophy here: just appreciate it for what it is,” Morneau said. “We don’t know what the future will be. Just look out there today and watch it run a ball through space and appreciate that. Watch him turn a single into a double like no one else can and enjoy it. You hope he will stay healthy, but no one knows what will happen. So watch and enjoy the most electric player in the game today.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Twins' Byron Buxton is 'the best player in the world'
Twins' Byron Buxton is 'the best player in the world'
Newsrust - US Top News
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