Behind the players, of course, is the newly minted hitting coach James Rowson. At the onset, Rowson’s methods and philosophies were somewhat mysterious. In spring training, players said he rarely did any tinkering or instructing, instead choosing to monitor hitters closely and learned their personalities; asking them questions about their approach rather than telling them what to do. By the end of the season, Rowson received high praise from his students.
While all the young hitters deserves some accolades, perhaps no one is as deserving for the turnaround as Byron Buxton is for his in-season adjustments.From afar, the narrative surrounding Buxton is that he jettisoned his leg kick and suddenly emerged as this elite hitter in the late throes of the season. The story sold was in the clickbait mold of BUXTON MADE THIS ONE SIMPLE CHANGE and, boom, he’s all fixed. While that is the most visually obvious change, Buxton’s journey to success is so much more complicated than that.
After splitting last season between toe tapping and leg kicking, Buxton proclaimed that he would be one hundred percent a leg kicker in 2017. This spring, with a newfound sense of clubhouse swagger, Buxton declared that the “leg kick is me now” and he is going to “stick with what I do.” In fact, one of his biggest influences, Torii Hunter, spent the offseason sending him encouraging text messages to stick with the leg kick.
There was plenty of reason for Buxton to be riding high. He absolutely tore through pitching in the final month of 2016. In September, equipped with the full throttle leg kick, he hit 9 of his 10 home runs and posted a 287/357/653 line in 113 plate appearances. He still struck out a ton, to be sure, but the hard contact was eye-opening and a tasty sample of his unfilled prospect promise.
But when the new season started, Buxton sputtered out of the chute. In April, he struck out in a whopping 37.2 percent of his plate appearances (only Colorado’s Trevor Story whiffed in more). Putting the bat on the ball proved to be a difficult task as 36.7 percent of his swings failed to even make contact. Sliders were another kind of evil. He couldn’t stop himself from contorting his body at pitches breaking over the left-handed batter’s box. He swung and missed on 28.6 percent of sliders seen.
There was no denying something was wrong with his approach, fundamentally. The Twins coaching staff, including Paul Molitor, were convinced the previous season the leg kick had to go. Bert Blyleven told broadcast viewers that former hitting coach Tom Brunansky had worked diligently in 2016 to entice Buxton of the same. In the spring, Molitor observed that he was spinning off so many pitches and believed he needed to get his legs in a better position in order to drive the ball. At one point at the end of April, Fox Sports North rolled tape of Buxton being joined by Hunter, Molitor and Rowson in the batting cage. The trio surrounded him and his batting tee and watched as he took a few swings with his leg kick. Hunter moved behind Buxton and repositioned his back leg, hoping to get him to remain on his backside more.
Buxton was at low point and needed to make some changes. In a homestand at the end of May, it started with ditching the leg kick.
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