The Good and Bad of Byron Buxton

Buxton's 2019 season may look strong upon first glance, but there are some red flags that you should know before you draft him.

We are well into draft season in 2020, and with that being said, I’ve begun evaluating more and more players as I begin to debate my draft strategies and what type of team I would like to have in my leagues. There are so many intriguing options, especially when it comes to the outfield, as there are too many players that I would like to roster for too few spots.

Byron Buxton is among the intriguing options, and I have considered him many times during my mock and actual drafts that have already taken place to this point. He’s not going to cost a fortune in terms of draft price, and he has the potential to pay huge dividends should this finally be the season in which he lasts the entire year. As I evaluated him this preseason, I remembered more and more why we loved Buxton so much as a prospect. It’s hard to believe that this is already going to be the sixth major league season that he’ll be a part of, as it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since he was being drafted and was a consensus top prospect. You know about the profile: speed, defense, and a bat that hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations quite yet but has shown flashes of the player we want him to be at the plate.

2019 was representative of Buxton’s major league career so far, with five separate trips to the injured list as he played in just 87 games, but also with his trademark 100th-percentile sprint speed and 97th-percentile defense as measured by Outs Above Average per Statcast. He also showed a flash of his offensive potential, as he set a new career high in slugging percentage and isolated power. Sure, his walk rate wasn’t great, but he did manage a 111 wRC+ in about a half-season which, when combined with his extraordinary speed and defense, was good enough for 2.7 fWAR. Now imagine if he did that for a full season, and you can see why he is an extremely intriguing option going into drafts. It seems as if I’m not the only one thinking this as his ADP has risen pretty hard recently. Take a look at how his ADP has been trending in 12-teamers per the NFBC:

Byron Buxton ADP by Time Frame

While I do think Buxton could be a juicy option in this range, I’m not quite sure that this jump is justified. Don’t get me wrong, Buxton did a lot of good things in 2019 that should raise his floor as a hitter, but as I looked deeper into his batting profile from a season ago, I’m not sure that I still feel so comfortable with his batting profile enough to draft him ahead of some of the other quality outfield options in this range. While Buxton did improve upon a number of things in 2019 at the plate, I think he still needs some further improvement on those improvements, along with him finally staying healthy for a full season for him to become an all-around contributor in 2020.

 

The Good

 

Let’s start with the good from Buxton’s 2019. He did make a lot of improvements that certainly look good, and would have a lot of people optimistic. Most of his improvements can be found from his Statcast profile. He set a lot of new career highs in several important Statcast metrics. First and foremost, his average exit velocity reached a new high at 89.3 mph, and when looking at all hitters with a minimum of 200 batted ball events, Buxton ends up in a group with several key names such as Alex Bregman, Jose Ramirez, and Gleyber Torres. While this is good to see, you could maybe take this with a grain of salt, as he only had 295 plate appearances in 2019, so it’s possible he wouldn’t have sustained that over the course of a full season. With that being said, it’s definitely good to see Buxton’s average exit velocity spike as it did in 2019, as he was usually below average in this department in years past:

Byron Buxton Average Exit Velocity by Season

After being mainly below-average in terms of average exit velocity in years past, Buxton began hitting the ball as hard as ever last season. He finally was able to become above-average in this department, and much better than he was in 2017 when he played the most games in any season of his career.

Additionally, Buxton also made some improvements in the plate discipline department. His strikeout rate dropped to a career-low at 23.1%, down from the range of nearly 30% or higher from earlier in his career, and 23.1% is a rate that is much more in line with the league average of 21.7%. After this being perhaps the biggest on-field weakness of his career, it is a nice sight to see this number drop down into a more desirable range. While Buxton may never be a hitter that runs a low strikeout rate, cutting down on his whiffs allows him to put more balls in play, where he, in theory, will be able to take advantage of his blazing speed. He managed to lower his strikeout rate by improving in several key plate-discipline metrics:

Byron Buxton – Plate Discipline Improvements

Buxton’s swing rate the past five seasons has continually trended up, as well as his swing rate on pitches inside the strike zone. That has also come with more contact on pitches in the zone, a figure that at 81.0% is coming pretty close to the league average of 82.9%, as well as fewer whiffs, which have been trending down since 2016. While I doubt that Buxton’s whiff troubles will ever fully go away, these are encouraging signs, because Buxton is a player who should have one of the biggest advantages in the sport by putting the ball in a play at a high rate. While he still needs to improve further, this is without a doubt a positive improvement from where he was previously.

Speaking of balls in play, Buxton also made positive improvements in his distribution of batted balls. Take a look at his career batted-ball distribution:

Byron Buxton – Career Batted-Ball Distribution

After consistently running groundball rates over 40%, Buxton cut his rate down drastically in 2019, trading those grounders for more fly balls and line drives, as he set new career highs in line-drive and fly-ball rate. For some additional context, I took a look at each hitter’s fly balls and line drives as a percentage of their batted ball events per Statcast. Out of all players with at least 200 batted ball events in 2019, Buxton had 55.83% of his batted balls end up as either fly balls or line drives, which places him 43rd out of 282 hitters, or in the top 15%. Some hitters with a similar rate to Buxton in this department include Matt Olson (56.36%), Bryce Harper (55.89%), Eugenio Suarez (55.61%), and Gary Sanchez (55.51%), which looks like some pretty good company to keep.

The punchline to all of this is that by cutting down tremendously on his ground ball rate, his launch angle ended up in a much more desirable spot. While average launch angle isn’t everything on its own, as I’ll show later on, a quick look at Buxton’s launch angle will show it in a good spot at 19.5 degrees on average. When filtering down to look again only at hitters with at least 200 batted-ball events, Buxton’s 19.5-degree launch angle was the 12th-highest in baseball in 2019, and the highest of the entire record-breaking offense of the Minnesota Twins from a season ago.

So with a bunch of new career-bests in strikeout rate, exit velocity, launch angle, and flyball and line-drive rates, also with some positive improvements on the plate discipline side, all Buxton needs to do now is to just stay healthy and he’ll finally be that superstar that he was expected to be, right? Well, not quite. A lot of these improvements look good if you just look at his Statcast player pages, and compare them to league averages, which is essentially what I just did. If you look at Buxton’s Statcast profile yourself, you’ll see that despite these improvements, Statcast wasn’t necessarily a big fan of his offense in 2019. His .513 slugging mark is 80 points higher than his expected mark of .433. His perfectly fine .340 wOBA is outpacing his .309 expected one. I’m sure that his speed bought him a few more extra bases on some batted balls that were marked for singles, and that’s part of the reason why his expected slugging trails his actual one, but are those batted balls enough to explain such a drastic difference between his actual and expected slugging? I’m not so sure about that, and looking deeper I can see why Statcast maybe isn’t the biggest fan, and I’ll go through some of those reasons now.

 

The Bad

 

Let’s start with some of the side effects of the really high launch angle that Buxton has. Unless a hitter is able to replicate a 19.5-degree launch angle very consistently, a super high average launch angle like that is going to lead to a lot of popups. For Buxton, it looks like raising his launch angle to such an extreme level has really led to a popup problem. While Buxton has over the course of his career had a higher popup rate than the league average, that may have just been more so a result of a lot of weaker contact, than as a side effect of his launch angle. In 2019, Buxton’s 14.6% popup rate was more than double the league average and was the seventh-highest rate among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances in 2019. While power hitters like Edwin Encarnacion and Willie Calhoun, who are ahead of Buxton in terms of popup rate, may be able to get away with this because they hit for so much power, I’m not sure that Buxton can, as he isn’t necessarily what I would call a home run hitter.

But the main downside of hitting this many pop-ups for Buxton is that it negates nearly all of the positive steps taken in terms of his strikeout rate. Pop-ups are essentially strikeouts, in that they are automatic outs. So while Buxton’s strikeout rate decreased to a much more favorable 23.1%, if you add back in his pop-ups, his strikeout rate is essentially a whopping 37.7%. To amplify this further, I calculated the strikeout and pop-up rates for each hitter with at least 250 plate appearances in 2019 to create an appropriately named “Auto-Out%” metric. Buxton’s 37.7% mark checks in at the 36th highest out of 321 hitters. There aren’t many great hitters at the top of this list, with the major exceptions being Joey Gallo, Gary Sanchez, and Buxton’s teammate Miguel Sano, with the top of the list being populated by hitters such as Mike Zunino, Wil Myers, and Chris Davis. One particular oddity is that Buxton’s 23.1% strikeout rate is actually the lowest of any hitter in the top 50 in this leaderboard. So, an optimist may say that this won’t be much of an issue if he manages to get his pop-up issues in line. While they aren’t wrong, I’ll play devil’s advocate and ask: what if Buxton’s 23.1% strikeout rate ends up being the outlier for his career, and he reverts back to his previous norms of strikeout rates near-30%, and the popup issues don’t subside? That would be quite a lot of automatic outs, and outs that Buxton’s elite speed wouldn’t be able to get him out of, save for the rarest of occasions.

Harping in on his launch angle, one way to add more context to a hitter’s average launch angle is to consider the standard deviation of their launch angle or launch angle tightness. I went into more detail and shouted out a bunch of great research on the subject in this post, but essentially, launch angle tightness is a measure of how often a hitter will deviate from their average mark. In short, it’s been determined that the most optimal launch angle maybe around 19 degrees, which if you recall is extremely close to Buxton’s 19.5-degree launch angle. This should be good, right? Not exactly, as a launch angle of around 19 degrees is only beneficial if you can repeat it consistently, which is the purpose of launch angle tightness, and part of the reason why I love a hitter like Cavan Biggio so much. Well, when we look at the standard deviation of Buxton’s launch angle, we get a mark that was one of the worst in the game in 2019:

Ten Lowest Launch Angle Standard Deviations – 2019

Looking at all hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in 2019, a group of 355 hitters, we see that Buxton slots in as one of the ten worst hitters in terms of launch angle standard deviation, and this also perhaps explains the surge in popups, as when he strays too far in the positive direction with his launch angle, he’ll hit the ball at a launch slot that is more likely to cause pop-ups. This also perhaps explains why, despite his excellent speed, Buxton’s BABIP in 2019 was just .314, which, while above average, isn’t really anything to write home about.

Moving on, I’m going to also guess that another reason why his expected stats trail his actual ones is that despite him improving his batted-ball distribution and hitting fewer groundballs and more line drives and fly balls, his contact quality still was not that great. While his barrel rate of 8.3% is yet another career high that he posted in 2019, and above the 6.3% league average, that rate isn’t really in line with what you would expect from a hitter with a .513 slugging percentage. Consider the following two graphs which compares each hitter’s barrel rate with their slugging (in the first graph) or their expected slugging (in the second graph) with a smoothing line that is included to show a trend:

Buxton is the point in red on both graphs, and you can see that he stands out in terms of where the smoothing line would expect him to be in terms of how his barrel rate relates to his slugging but is more in line with his xSLG. This would leave me to believe that despite Buxton’s new career highs in both slugging and barrel rate, he was actually more deserving of a slugging mark that was closer to his .433 xSLG.

Another metric that I love using to evaluate power is average fly-ball distance. After all, what good is it to hit a lot of fly balls if they aren’t going anywhere? Buxton was hitting more fly balls than ever in 2019, so let’s evaluate how he hit them.

In 2019, Buxton hit his fly balls at an average distance of 317 feet. This placed him 230th out of 320 hitters, again with at least 250 plate appearances. This isn’t exactly great news, and unless he’s playing the majority of his games at somewhere such as Yankee Stadium and can take advantage of a short porch as Brett Gardner (average fly ball distance of 315 feet) can, this wouldn’t give me much belief that Buxton will be much of a home run threat. Compare this to a hitter like Yandy Diaz as an example. Diaz is a hitter who doesn’t hit many fly balls, but when he does, he absolutely clobbers them to a tune of a 341 feet average distance and one of the best marks in terms of exit velocity on line drives and fly balls. I would personally rather have the outstanding contact quality from Diaz hoping that he can hit more of those optimal batted-ball types rather than a hitter like Buxton, who despite already showing he can hit more of the desired batted-ball types, doesn’t really get the results that we would hope for on them.

 

The Verdict

 

All in all, Buxton set new career bests in several categories in 2019 and made several improvements that certainly look good on paper and add to more of the intrigue around him going into the 2020 season. However, a deeper look into his profile shows that there is still a lot more progress to be made if he’s going to truly live up to his potential. I feel like for Buxton to truly live up to the hype he needs to stay healthy first of all, which is always going to be his biggest question mark, but he’ll also have to further improve upon his improvements from the 2019 season in order for him to be a more well-rounded contributor.

The risk-reward is definitely there with Buxton. This is a player who can be a 20-20 contributor this season, which is extremely valuable. I feel like that risk-reward will always be there though, because there is still so much mystery surrounding Buxton, and I just don’t believe that we can expect a full season from Buxton until he actually does it. It is worth noting that at the time of writing, Buxton has still yet to appear in a spring training game, as he is still on the road to recovery from offseason labrum surgery, yet his ADP is still climbing. This season could very well be the year that he finally booms and ends up being one of the biggest bargains from draft season, and I would love it to be, but based on what I’ve seen from diving in deep to some of his numbers, I just don’t see that boom coming this season, barring more improvement.

Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Rick Orengo (@OneFiddyOne on Twitter and Instagram)

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at the University at Albany and graduated in May 2019. He is a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees and can always be found talking baseball on Twitter @Wallach18

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