The leaders of the Minnesota Twins, from my perspective, have been very careful to not talk in concrete terms about their “window.” On the outside, we talk all the time about windows to win. What’s the window with Mike Zimmer’s defense; and is it time to bet big on a QB? What’s the Karl-Anthony Towns window at Target Center, and which free agency class is the right one to target?
With the Twins it was a little murkier. Because while some of us might have said two years ago that this ought to be the Byron Buxton And Miguel Sanó Window, last summer’s results severely downgraded the certainty of that scenario.
When you hear Thad Levine talk publicly about this concept, he uses phrases like “winning cycle.” The first phase is building a base of a club that can be postseason relevant. Then it’s division relevance you’re after, once you’ve succeeded in being a team that can bank on October. And the final phase in the winning cycle, of course, would be to win it all, although not every team that is a contender with a capital “C” is going to win a World Series.
The Twins hit this winter with relative caution — small bets on Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Blake Parker, Martin Pérez and a moderate, short-term bet on Nelson Cruz. Whether or not the club would frame it this way, part of the reason for not getting hyper-aggressive was the volatility of the roster, and specifically the high-variance of Buxton and Sanó.
We still don’t know what the Twins have in Sanó. But already it’s plain to see, only 20 games into the season, that the Twins have much more than a washout in Buxton. We’ve seen these glimpses before, so let’s wait to call him a superstar. At a minimum, though, it’s looking like the Twins have a very good everyday player in centerfield. That might read like a comic understatement a few months from now, we’ll see.
This column presents 5 thoughts on the early returns from Byron Buxton, version 2019.
With 20 games ticked off the Twins’ schedule (fully 12% of a Major League season), it’s high time to start making sweeping generalizations on our observations.
It would be one thing if Buxton fluked his way into this extra-base lead. These doubles, though, are not the little skippers that tuck themselves inside the first-base bag, or get lodged in some side wall padding, allowing baseball’s best runner to sneak into second base. He’s hitting rockets to left field right now, and winds up on second base, which for Buxton is scoring position on a sacrifice fly. From my recollection, only one of those doubles was a gift, on a ball that was lost in the sun. (Not literally; a fielder lost sight of the ball off Buxton’s bat when he was looking upward with the sun in his eyes.)
It’s a great sign for the Twins simply that Buxton has 12 hits in the 18 games he’s played. Even better that 72% of those hits are for extra bases. There’s a stat! (Buxton also has a triple; and the home runs will come, I’m sure.)
We joke that Buxton also should get credited with a double every time he singles or walks with less than two outs. The net result is the same, typically. After all, a walk and a stolen base counts just the same in terms of creating runs for your team, right? Example: In Philadelphia when Buxton singled and then stole second base with the pitcher’s spot at the plate. He moved to third base on a pitcher-hitter groundout to short and then scored on a wild pitch.
Or take Sunday’s game against the Orioles, when Buxton led off the inning with a double against Dylan Bundy. He hit a liner to left field and galloped into second base. Then Jorge Polanco lined out to the outfield, and Buxton tagged up to advance to third base. I don’t know off hand how many big leaguers could successfully tag up in that spot but it’s something less than 100 percent. Then with a plus-plus runner on third base and less than two outs, you can pretty much count on Willians Astudillo to make contact and drive a pitch to the outfield. With Buxton running there was never a doubt that the shallow lineout would plate a run.
You already know about the blazing speed and defense. In a way it feels cheap to include this in a column about his offensive breakout. But it’s important because it gives context to Buxton’s stardom.
Monday night Buxton was caught stealing second base by Astros battery mates Chris Devenski and Robinson Chirinos. It was almost unbelievable. It halted, suddenly, Buxton’s franchise-record streak for consecutive stolen bases at 33.
Actually, if you want to be a Buxton booster – and clearly, we do – you’d point out that the last time that he was thrown out stealing a bag was not by getting beat by the throw, it was from oversliding the base. May 23 of 2017, the previous time Buxton was nabbed on the bases with attempted robbery, he had the bag taken and then slid a bit too far in Baltimore, and was tagged out.
If you count him safe there, give him another stolen base, and then another six more before you find a caught stealing on his ledger. Forty bags taken consecutively.
The point is: Buxton used to be so fast he could outrun mistakes or late jumps or bad reads on the bases. Now those don’t happen often. He’s somehow refined an area that already was considered a strength.
Buxton has hit 19 baseballs this season that left his bat at more than 100 miles per hour. And again, we’re 20 games into the young season.
Twins hitting coach James Rowson told me in spring training that one of the first things he’s looking for during batting practice to determine if a hitter is having a good day is: how often is he controlling the barrel in exactly the way he wants to? It’s one of the reasons we marvel at hitters like Christian Yelich, Mike Trout and Nelson Cruz. To that end, Buxton still has work to do. Nobody said it’s a finished process. Only that it’s extremely encouraging to see these early results.
The Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario era has begun for the Twins. If you weren’t sure this winter if it was time to go, it looks like we can answer that question now. It’s go time.
We’ll see what’s ahead for Sanó. J.O. Berríos is off to a nice start as the ace of the rotation. After the winter upgrades I looked at this club as capable of mid-80’s for wins. That was with the high degree of uncertainty surrounding a few players, especially Buxton. Conservatively I guess I thought he’d add two wins to the cause, knowing there was margin for error on either side for that to be wrong. If instead he’s more like a 5- or a 6-win player over the course of a season, then maybe this is a 90-win team after all. And 90-win teams are within their rights to ship out prospects ahead of the deadline to add a top-quality arm or two and mess around with the idea of being a dangerous club come October.
It seems jarring to say the fate of a team could swing that much on the shoulders of just one player. But then again, these are Byron Buxton’s shoulders we’re talking about here.