The (Temporary) Luxury Of The Best Defender On Earth
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA TodayIt's safe to say nobody recognizes and appreciates Buxton's defensive impact more than Minnesota pitchers. Reaction shots of them exhaling with nervous chuckles, after spinning around to watch him take away extra-base hits in the outfield, became 2017 Twins canon.
The pitching staff stands to benefit greatly from Buxton's prowess in center once again in 2018. And he will hopefully continue to be an asset out there for many years to come. But historical data suggests that his window for providing maximum value is fleeting.
The Prime Directive
It is generally accepted that a typical baseball player's "prime" falls somewhere in the age 25-29 range. Buxton, who turns 24 in December, is just entering that spectrum. But those prime production models tend to focus on offense.
The specific skill we're discussing here is defense, and there is mounting evidence that it has its own aging curve, which skews younger.
In Buck's particular case, that effect could be magnified.
His ability to track down seemingly unreachable drives owes to virtually unparalleled speed. As Mike Petriello wrote this summer following a deep Statcast analysis: "We're adding more data points to what we were pretty sure we already knew: Speed peaks early."
There is a good chance we are right now seeing the pinnacle of Buxton's impact in the outfield. At a certain point, his range will gradually begin to diminish. (Or maybe he'll become a little more discretionary about throwing his body into the wall.) Ideally, it'll be offset and then some by fulfillment of his potential at the plate.
The upshot is that there's no reason to think the center fielder won't continue to play at this Herculean level for a couple more years, changing games on a regular basis by catching balls no one else can.
Viewing things from this perspective brings about a number of offseason ripples, and might help the Twins take advantage of some market inefficiencies. For example:
Fly ball pitchers are more appealing. All other things being equal, most front offices will – smartly – target ground ball pitchers, because they tend to be a safer profile. The Twins don't need to worry about this as much, so they can prioritize other strengths.
The Twins have a great selling point for pitchers looking to recoup value. Last week we looked at some potential free-agent bargains that might be trying to boost their stock on one-year deals. The Twins can make a strong pitch to any of them by citing the positive influence Buxton's presence will have on their numbers.
"Win now" urgency increases? The championship blueprint involves situating your efforts so everything aligns with the collective high point of your central building blocks. Bring in the right complementary pieces while that core group is peaking, and you have a World Series recipe. That's basically what we just saw the Astros do.
It's quite possible that Buxton, the centerpiece of Minnesota's plan, will never deliver more all-around value than over these next one or two seasons while his greatest strength is at its strongest.
Just another wrinkle to keep in mind as this offseason gets going, and as we look ahead to the coming years.
- Oldgoat_MN and Tom Froemming like this