Over the weekend the Minnesota Twins were dealt a blow they’ve too often been a victim of this season. Byron Buxton, arguably the most important player on this club, hit the Injured List with what essentially boils down to a shoulder dislocation. The play in question was hardly an aggressive jolt to his body, but what initially resulted in a lineup scratching for soreness has turned into a month-long question mark. For Byron this theme gets examined again, and for Jake Cave the time is now.
Last season much was made of Buxton being injury prone. He dealt with migraines during an unfortunate time with the team down in Puerto Rico, and then broke a toe during a potentially unnecessary rehab stint. Minnesota rushed him back to the lineup and ultimately, he played just 28 games before being shut down (begrudgingly) in September. After a promising end to 2017, it was hardly the year anyone involved wanted.
In 2019 he’s made a couple of different appearances on the Injured List, and while frustrating, no one in the room is more disappointed than Byron himself. Concussions have been a thing for Buxton over the course of his career, and the latest one suffered while simply diving forward for a fly ball had all the parameters of a fluke. With his head and neck surging forward and his face/chin driving into the ground, the jarring movement was enough to do damage. He missed roughly two weeks before being cleared (although that was complicated by the removal of his wisdom teeth). The shoulder injury was caused when tracking down a ball in the gap. There wasn’t a significant collision with the wall, but enough pressure was forced to cause harm.
Neither of the most recent maladies would fall into the category of reckless aggression for me. Minnesota has made strides in Buxton’s positioning, and through conversation with Byron, in hopes of sparing him from unnecessary hits. Taking matters into his own hands as well, Buxton told Dan Hayes of The Athletic that he bulked up this winter in hopes of a more durable stature. In short, I’m not sure there’s much to be done here than blame bad luck.
One of the most spectacular catches Byron has ever made happened in May 2017 against the Cleveland Indians. Flying towards the right-center gap, he leapt and used the wall as a sole stopping power for his momentum. The catch was great, the fallout was not. It’s plays like this that while spectacular, Minnesota is undoubtedly trying to avoid. Byron has the ability to generate 5-star catches (per Statcast) and lead the big leagues in Outs Above Average while rarely sacrificing himself going back on the baseball. Discussion about avoiding the wall has taken place, and even with a well engrained instinct to make all sacrifices, I believe the message of availability is there.
Whenever he returns, we’ll have to hope that the hot hitting follows suit (10-26 7 XBH since his concussion return). The Twins will continue working with him to find ways to avoid preventable injury, and they’ll chalk up situations like this one, as an unfortunate result and opportunity for strengthened health. Now it’s on Jake Cave to step up.
There’s no denying that Minnesota is worth without Buxton. He patrols the outfield and allows the corners to remain strong, while giving utility players one less spot they need to key in on. Max Kepler is an above average centerfielder, but he’s not Byron, and the guys around him now must pick up the slack. So far, we haven’t seen Cave do that, but the evidence is there.
Cave is not a good centerfielder. He lacks the instincts to adequately cover so much ground at Target Field. He is a serviceable right fielder though and that’s what Minnesota needs from him for much of the next month. The defense shouldn’t be called into question as much down the line, but that bat must begin to play. Though sporadic, his 103 plate appearances have results in a paltry .198/.320/.302 slash line. He’s got just five extra-base hits and hasn’t been a shred of the .786 OPS player we saw a season ago.
Still 26-years-old and having played less than 130 big league games, Cave is continuing through an acclimation process. 2018 showed us that the ability is there, and in 48 Triple-A games this season he owns a .352/.393/.592 slash line with 29 extra-base hits (seven homers). Jake has nearly doubled his big-league walk rate this year, and he’s trimmed a bit off his strikeout rate. Whiffing the same amount but chasing a bit less, his hard-hit rate is now over 41%.
Arguably the most egregious issue Cave has dealt with this season is his launch angle. Hitting the ball harder matters little when he dropped to a 16.1% line drive rate (from 25.7%) and a 17.9% fly ball rate (from 30.6%). A 10-degree launch angle a season ago has bottomed out to the tune of a 3.7 degree mark this season. Opportunity for success lies most within addressing this problem. It will be on James Rowson to work with Cave on getting back to what he was doing last season. Lifting the ball must be a part of his game and wasting significant quality barreled balls isn’t something a fringe batter can afford.
Over the next month we’ll definitely miss Byron Buxton. We need to spend less time worrying about how to change or overhaul his play style though. This is an unfortunate situation that the Twins face, but it isn’t one that’s been created by carelessness on Buxton’s part. To mitigate the impact of his presence, or lack thereof in the lineup, it will be on Jake Cave to rectify his 2019 output and bring the numbers he’s posted in Rochester to Minnesota.