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Re-opening the WAR debate

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The (Temporary) Luxury Of The Best Defender On Earth

Everyone around here knew it already, but now, Byron Buxton has the hardware and national recognition to firmly solidify his rep. Not only did he win a Gold Glove (which was never in doubt), he took home every other award you can think of: Platinum Glove, Overall Defensive Player of the Year, Fielding Bible, you name it.

Fans, peers, analysts and metrics all seem to agree: Buxton is the most valuable defender in baseball. Maybe one of the best to come along in some time.
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel, USA Today
It'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.

Attached Image: agingcurve.png


The specific skill we're discussing here is defense, and there is mounting evidence that it has its own aging curve, which skews younger.

Attached Image: defensecurve.png


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.

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15 Comments

Buzzkill...In related news, every cute kitten will die someday.

 

I'd like to win a playoff game soon.Then we can go from there.Let's get some pitchers.Do this.

    • Seth Stohs, Mike Frasier Law, notoriousgod71 and 2 others like this

I'm glad that Nick wrote this, really. Because I'd been thinking about it during the season, while everyone was talking like "nothing but raindrops" is just who Buxton is, and what we can expect him to be for the next 10 years. He probably won't sustain that level of defense for too long, though. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a notable drop-off even next year.

 

I mean, Torii Hunter in 2001 might've been even better than Buxton last season; his 22.2 Def WARwas almost double what Buxton posted in 2017. He came close to that just one more time (2003) in his career.

 

I expect Buxton to be pretty good next year, still, but "nothing but raindrops" may be just a memory, soon.

Buxton is defensively awesome, absolutely.He had the most DRS of any CF and the 2nd most of any OF.I love watching him play D,but I still think the best defender in the game this year was Andrelton Simmons.Probably the best defensive SS since Ozzie Smith.

 

I'm glad that Nick wrote this, really. Because I'd been thinking about it during the season, while everyone was talking like "nothing but raindrops" is just who Buxton is, and what we can expect him to be for the next 10 years. He probably won't sustain that level of defense for too long, though. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a notable drop-off even next year.

 

I mean, Torii Hunter in 2001 might've been even better than Buxton last season; his 22.2 Def WARwas almost double what Buxton posted in 2017. He came close to that just one more time (2003) in his career.

 

I expect Buxton to be pretty good next year, still, but "nothing but raindrops" may be just a memory, soon.

I believe Buxton this year was better than we ever saw from Hunter, who was certainly an awesome defender himself.

    • Dantes929, caninatl04 and MN_ExPat like this

Yes, as is said in the OP, defense peaks earlier, but his speed is so ridiculous that even as he starts to slow, he'll still be like a blur out there.His routes might get even better as his experience builds which would help offset the loss of speed.

    • Oldgoat_MN, gagu, MN_ExPat and 1 other like this

2017 might've been Buxton's peak. Maybe he has another decent year, hits a few more walls and his D fades early, like Junior Griffey. Or maybe his career tracks two of my favorite defensive CF, Devon White and Andruw Jones, who had 7-9 years of elite defense. Of the current players, Pillar and Kiermaier are still plenty good defenders at 27-28 years old.

 

I have no idea which way it will go. I'll just enjoy it while it lasts.

    • Jerr likes this

I don't remember Griffey Jr's defense failing until he was in his late 20s/early 30s.So like 9, 10 years of awesome.My memory must be failing me. 

    • caninatl04 and MN_ExPat like this
This makes you think about the calculus around “readiness” for a major league promotion for defense-first guys. The process seems to largely focus on offense today, assuming the defense will be there when the offense finally comes around. Perhaps some of those guy’s maximum MLB values start earlier. It’s incredible what an elite defense can do for a pitching staff and a team even if not obvious looking at the typical stats. A good defensive catcher and full year of Buxton made a huge difference. Imagine an elite SS to go with this group.
    • Tom Froemming likes this

I like what Jimmer said about Buxton gaining experience and taking better routes to balls, and perhaps not quite being so eager to slam dance with the outfield walls so often. What he might lose in speed he can somewhat compensate for with experience and knowledge. In the meantime, let's enjoy such marvelous fielding. I hope there is no noticeable drop-off anytime soon.

    • jimmer likes this
While watching Buxton this season was just a joy, I expect it to remain so for years to come. Surely he will slow as he ages. I’d hope we get two more seasons before that happens. But as Jimmer pointed out, experience helps prolong a great athletes window of elite level play. So, while he will inevitably slow as he ages, my hope is that barring injury that Buxton can remain an elite defender from somewhere between ages 29-31 and will probably still be very good after that. Finger crossed.
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Brock Beauchamp
Nov 13 2017 07:52 AM

 

I believe Buxton this year was better than we ever saw from Hunter, who was certainly an awesome defender himself.

Agreed. I watched Hunter a lot and he was a fantastic centerfielder but didn't have the speed of Buxton, nothing close to it.

 

And I don't trust defensive metrics from that time in baseball, especially the outliers (I still have difficulty believing many of the outliers in the modern game).

Remember, Buxton has an older brother who is still faster than him. He still has some years of elite speed in him. Not to compare him to Bolt, but that guy has been winning sprints into his 30s.

    • jbissell, Oldgoat_MN, jimmer and 1 other like this
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Tom Froemming
Nov 13 2017 10:02 AM

 

It’s incredible what an elite defense can do for a pitching staff and a team even if not obvious looking at the typical stats. A good defensive catcher and full year of Buxton made a huge difference. Imagine an elite SS to go with this group.

This is an idea I've seen presented a few times now and it makes a ton of sense. Nothing against Polanco, he showed a massive improvement defensively, but it is fun to think about what could be with another stud defender at short.

    • TL likes this

 

This is an idea I've seen presented a few times now and it makes a ton of sense. Nothing against Polanco, he showed a massive improvement defensively, but it is fun to think about what could be with another stud defender at short.

Same could be said for rushing top power pitchers before they blow their arms out. 

    • notoriousgod71 likes this

Buxton, the CF in the 2017 All Statcast team.

 

We didn't even have Sprint Speed or Outs Above Average last year, and Buxton's speed was such that he still made the 2016 version of this team. He's the only repeat player this year, because our new tools have put his skills into much clearer focus. His 30.2 feet-per-second Sprint Speed is tops in the big leagues, just ahead of Billy Hamilton. His +24 OAA mark is also the best, well ahead of Ender Inciarte's +19. And in August, he broke his own home-to-home record by circling the bases in just 13.85 seconds, a new mark. It says here that won't be his last.

 

http://m.mlb.com/new...opicId=27118122

 


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