Measuring Defense Matters For Buxton
Image courtesy of © Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY SportsOn April 20, Buxton bottomed out at .082 on the season. He owned a .280 OPS (yes, somehow) and hitting for any sort of respectable mark looked like a longshot. Since that date, he's played in 56 games for the Twins. Over that time, he's compiled a .234/.311/.339 line equating to a .650 OPS. He has nine extra base hits, four of which have been homers. He's struck out 55 times, and drawn 19 walks. In a vacuum, that line leaves plenty to be desired. Batting at the bottom of the order and given what else he brings to the table however, Buxton is more than a valuable asset to the Twins.
Arguably the easiest thing to note when it comes to Buxton's game is speed. It's visible to the naked eye, and something that's generally accepted across the game. Recently however, Statcast introduced a sprint speed metric, that has Buxton as the second fastest player in all of baseball (thanks Billy Hamilton). When comparing to his peers, he absolutely flies, and that's apparent whether on the base paths or in the field.
Through the first half of the season, Buxton has swiped 13 stolen bases, being thrown out just once. Getting on base more would obviously produce more opportunities, but he's essentially a double when he reaches first. BsR (base runs above average) puts him at 3.8 on the season, putting him on pace to nearly double his 5.8 BsR from 2016.
It's all gravy at this point though when you look at Buxton's offensive game. His prowess on defense has become so valuable, that it all but negates the fact he's a .200 hitter. Despite being a significantly negative player offensively, the defensive ability has him grading out at 0.2 fWAR. While not being significantly above replacement level, it's that defense that helps to supplement a Twins team so desperately needing him.
Through 75 games, Buxton has been worth 16 DRS (defensive runs saved). That is the highest total in baseball for any position, in either league. He leads all centerfielders, and is 5 DRS ahead of second place Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays. A season ago, Kevin Pillar led the position at 21 DRS. When the dust settles on 2017, Buxton is paced for a 35 DRS mark. Examining a bit further, it's not hard to see why Buxton is able to save so many runs.
Range is something that is not easily quantifiable, but has begun to be measured by a few different outlets. RngR (range runs), which calculates the number of runs above average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity (per Fangraphs), has Buxton at 3.9 or third in MLB behind just Odubel Herrera and Ender Inciarte. Balls hit to the gaps at Target Field, or any outfield that Buxton patrols, simply go to die when he is after them.
Since 2015, Statcast has been tracking catch probability. With 2017 being the first season as a regular for Buxton, he's shown incredibly well on that leaderboard. 4 star catches are defined as having a less than 50% chance of being made. The Twins centerfielder leads all big leaguers with 14 such catches. He is also 14 of 15 in those opportunities, putting him at 93.3% or firstl among players with at least 10 chances. The Twins centerfielder being able to be on the right side of a coin flip 93% of the time is something any gambler would take.
That leads us to those gamblers, the Twins pitchers. Starters have fared better than relievers on the season, but that's buoyed significantly by Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana. Three Twins starters, with at least 10 starts (Gibson, Mejia, Santiago), have posted high FIP numbers. Of the group, only Gibson's ERA (6.23) is above his FIP (5.60). Both Mejia (5.86 FIP) and Santiago (6.11 FIP) have been bailed out by a defense that has taken away hits for them. In fact if you throw in Phil Hughes' 5.40 FIP across 9 starts, and Ervin Santana's 4.58 FIP across 16 starts, only Jose Berrios' 3.37 FIP across 9 starts is truly a respectable number.
Putting a bow on the discussion, and summarizing Buxton as a whole, the Twins would be far worse off without him than with him scuffling at the bottom of the lineup. Sure, there has to be hope that at his best, he's more than a .650 OPS hitter. If that's all he is however, it can't be overstated how important he is to this club. Barring Minnesota running out a rotation comprised solely of Jose Berrios or better type pitchers, they will forever need assets in the field. Building around a player like Buxton is a pretty good place to start.
Oh, and as an aside, Buxton may also be the poster boy when it comes to the value of advanced analytics. Anyone can visibly see that he's valuable defensively. Understanding just how valuable (like, the best defensive outfielder in baseball by quite a bit), is a bit easier to see with some numbers to shape the conversation.
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