Going to WAR with Byron Buxton and the Great Center Fielders of Twins Past
Image courtesy of © Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY SportsThis naturally leads one to wonder just how great Buxton could become. Obviously, steering clear of injuries and staying off the IL will be crucial for Buxton to reach his ceiling. The injury-plagued disaster of 2018 may have caused some Twins fans to sour on Buxton, but he has bounced back strongly in 2019. The expectations for Buxton have always been sky high as he was the number one overall prospect in baseball and made his major league debut at the age of 21. If he does stay fairly healthy throughout his career he could easily become one of if not the best Twins center fielder of all-time.
It is obviously premature, but let’s take a look at how Buxton stacks up against three Twins greats (according to WAR) and how his future might project if he follows a similar trajectory.
According to Baseball Reference, the three Twins center fielders with the highest WAR in their Twins career are Kirby Puckett, Torii Hunter, and Denard Span. Let’s take a closer look at their Twins careers and compare them with Buxton. For this exercise I am using Baseball Reference’s WAR.
Career with the Twins:
To no one’s surprise Kirby Puckett is the Twin’s leader in WAR by a large margin. Even though his career was cut short by injury, he also played the most games as a Twin of this group. For this reason, I calculated WAR per game and the results are fairly interesting. The fact that Denard Span leads this group is somewhat surprising. Span only played five seasons with the Twins and didn’t play the majority of his games in center field until his third season due to playing alongside Carlos Gomez, but he was a really good player for Minnesota. Also of interest is the fact that Buxton has the second highest single-season WAR total and it came at the age of 23! Buxton is having a similar season in 2019 and if he can come back healthy he has a chance to come close to that mark again.
Although Buxton’s career Twins WAR per game compares nicely to the greats and even bests Hunter (by a significant margin); it may be better to look at the players’ careers through age 25 to get a better idea of where Buxton fits in.
Though Age 25 Season:
Suddenly Buxton’s numbers are looking really good. He already leads the group in total WAR and is sure to accumulate more through the remainder of 2019. His 2017 season is also the best single season of the group and in WAR per game he now trails only Span (who started his career with a bang, putting up a 4.3 and 3.8 WAR in his first two seasons).
Span is a bit of an interesting case as his first two seasons were the best two year stretch of his career (his .390 OBP during that time made him an ideal lead-off hitter). Although Span was the 20th overall pick in the 2002 draft he really didn’t break out in the minors until his final year (2008) when he was repeating AAA (he was called up after 40 games). Span was a good prospect but he was never the elite prospect that Buxton was and Buxton certainly has a much higher ceiling. It’s possible that Span was overachieving in those first couple of seasons but his career serves as a precautionary tale for ominous reasons that we will come to later.
That fact that Buxton has put up better numbers than Puckett and Hunter up to this point in his career is certainly encouraging. Hunter is similar to Span in that he was the Twins 20th overall pick in 1993 and wasn’t overly impressive in the minors. Early in his major league career he was shuffled back and forth between the majors and minors, but he was called up for good after crushing AAA to the tune of a 1.130 OPS in 2000. Of the four players, Hunter certainly had the slowest start to his career with a .0136 WAR per game. Fortunately, things turned around for Hunter in his age 25 season as he put up a 4.7 WAR (his best as a Twin). Buxton has had his ups and downs but it is important to remember that Torii Hunter had much greater struggles early in his career.
Puckett was the third overall pick of the now-extinct January draft. Unlike the others, he played college ball and was 22 years of age when he began his minor league career. However, Puckett was a quick study and debuted with the Twins as a 24 year old. Puckett’s first two seasons with the Twins weren’t overly impressive as he hadn’t found his power stroke yet (His OPS+ was only 86 but he the little speedster did steal 35 bases in those first two years!). Of course, great things were to come.
Projecting how Buxton’s career with the Twins will end up is naturally highly speculative. We do know that Buxton is under team control for three more seasons, so let’s take a look at how the others stacked up for their age 26-28 seasons.
Age 26-28 Seasons:
I think this Puckett kid might be pretty good. In three seasons Puckett slashed .339/.369 /.539, good for a .908 OPS and a 142 OPS+. Puckett flexed some muscle as well as he was good for 83 dingers in those three years. Can we hope for the same with Buxton? Buxton reportedly hit the weights hard this off season, adding 21 pounds of muscle and currently holds a career high .490 slugging percentage, so he is trending in the right direction. Puckett helped the Twins win their first World Series in 1987 and followed that up with his finest season in 1988 with a 7.8 WAR.
Hunter built upon his breakout in 2001 and had three solid seasons from 2002-2004. He played in his first all-star game in 2002 (famously robbing Barry Bonds of a homerun) and put up a .859 OPS. Hunter greatly improved, but his WAR per game during this stretch was only .001 better than Buxton’s early career WAR as a younger player.
Span’s career got off to a much hotter start than the others, but he did come down to earth a bit in the next leg of his career. From 2010-2012, Span hit for just a .702 OPS with a 94 OPS+. His OBP dropped from .390 in his first two seasons to .334 for his next three, taking away some of his luster as a leadoff hitter. Most relevant to Buxton, Span suffered a severe concussion in 2011 and was only able to play in 70 games. This would not be the last concussion of Span’s career. He did come back with his best year of the three in 2012, when he slashed .283/.342/.395 for an OPS+ of 104, but once again he was hampered by injuries and played just 128 games.
Note that each player’s best season in this frame came in their age 28 season. This makes sense as a player should be coming into his prime at that age and will not yet have lost a step to the detriment of their defense. If the Twins are unable or unwilling to extend Buxton (they clearly upset Buxton by not calling his up in September last year), his age 28 season will be his final year of arbitration. It will be interesting to see how or if being in a contract year will affect Buxton.
This leaves us with the question of what Buxton’s potential final years with the Twin’s will be like. Since he is already performing at the level that Hunter and Span did during their age 26-28 seasons is it safe to assume that Buxton will be better?
Although it may be a fruitless exercise, let’s take a look at what Buxton’s numbers may look like if he has a similar rate of improvement (in Puckett and Hunter’s case) or regression (in Span’s case) as our “greats.”
First, let’s look at the player’s rate of change between the seasons up to age 25 and their age 26-28 seasons:
Now let’s project those “growth rates” to Buxton with some arbitrary amounts of games played.
Buxton Projections for Age 26-28 Seasons:
We can safely disregard the 162 games a year projections as Buxton will get days off even if he stays 100% healthy (we can dream right?). I think averaging somewhere around the 140 mark is possible for Buxton. With the exclusion of last season Buxton has played in around 140 games a year when you factor in both his minor and major league games thus far (since his MLB debut season). If Buxton stays healthy for the remainder of the season he will come close to that mark again.
If Buxton improves at a Puckett or Hunter-like rate and plays in the neighborhood of 140 games a year we are looking at a 6 WAR a year player. As we’ve seen, Buxton has already had a 5 WAR season in 2017 and is on a similar pace this year. It seems within reason that a mostly healthy Buxton could challenge the 17.7 WAR that Puckett put up in his ’86-’88 seasons. This would also edge him ahead of Hunter on the Twin’s career WAR list.
As crazy as it sounds, over the next three seasons, Buxton could be even better than Puckett. He is far and away the best defensive center fielder of the group and his defense is unlikely to significantly decline over the next three years. Buxton certainly has the potential to become a better offensive player, and if he does he will be an MVP-caliber player.
Now let’s get really speculative and look at what Buxton’s career could look like. First, let’s take a look at the career totals of all four players.
Obviously, Puckett and Hunter went on to have great careers. Hunter was able to remain a good player for a long time. He played 19 seasons and was an all-star as recently as 2013. Puckett’s career was cut short by a career ending injury at age 35, but he managed to lead the Twins to two World Series victories, is a MLB hall of famer, and is undoubtedly the best a Twins center fielder of all time. He will always be fondly remembered by Twins fans for his heroics in the ’91 World Series and his legendary status is firmly implanted in Twins history.
Span’s career is another story. He certainly had a respectable career and some good years after being traded to Washington (for the recently retired Alex Meyer) after five seasons with the Twins. However, his best years were early in his career with the Twins and injuries took their toll on Span. Span suffered another concussion in 2014 and battled some other injuries throughout his career, reducing both his time and the field and presumably his effectiveness as a player. His career WAR per game is still in the same neighborhood as Hunter’s but he was unable to accumulate as many games and the course of Span’s career went in the opposite direction of Hunter’s.
Injuries are a serious concern for Buxton as well. In his AA debut back in August of 2014, Buxton collided with another outfielder leaving him unconscious on the outfield grass for ten minutes and ending his season. Buxton is returning from another IL stint with “concussion like symptoms” after hitting his head on the turf while making a great diving catch. Buxton has also had his share of less career-threatening injuries including thumb, wrist, toe, and migraines (along with numerous scrapes and bruises due to collisions with the wall).
Buxton’s aggressive all-out effort on defense is a big part of what makes him so great. However, if Buxton is to stay on the field he may need to dial it back a bit. Manager Rocky Baldelli could be instrumental in keeping Buxton healthy. As a former center fielder that had his own career cut short by injury, Baldelli should take great care with Buxton. Baldelli has prioritized giving his players regular rest and the Twins have been extra cautious in making sure injured players are healthy before sending them back onto the field. With innovative player management and a little luck hopefully Buxton will be able to stay relatively healthy throughout his MLB career.
Without further ado, I give you Buxton’s career projections.
Buxton is unlikely to reach the number of games played that Hunter did and also is unlikely to improve at Hunter’s rate (because of Hunter’s much slower start), so 90 career WAR seems overly optimistic at a minimum and possibly ludicrous. Improving at the Puckett rate definitely seems like the best case scenario for Buxton (though he could conceivably play in 1,500 more games, it will require good overall health) and would make him a potential Hall of Famer with over 60 WAR. Regressing at the rate that Span did also seems highly unlikely. For Buxton to accumulate only 13 more WAR for his career would be a massive disappointment, to say the least (injuries would have to take a heavy toll).
As a final step, let’s combine these projections and see what we get.
There you have it. Buxton is able to finish his career playing at a Puckett-like WAR per game level and slightly edges out Puckett in games played, giving him the highest career WAR of the group. This seems possible as speedy players and/or elite defenders tend to accumulate a lot of WAR (some examples: Kenny Lofton 68.3, Ricky Henderson 111.2!, Tim Raines 69.4) Needless to say a lot would have to go right for Buxton to reach these levels. Continued improvement, good year-to-year health, and overall longevity will be paramount to Buxton reaching these projections. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best!
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