Byron Buxton has proven that he will provide multiple wins above replacement, if he stays healthy and hits at an acceptably average level. The bad news is that Buxton failed to stay healthy for the latter half of 2019, limiting what could have been. The great news is that he appeared to be making major swing and philosophy adjustments that may lead to above-average offensive production going forward.
The first step was reducing his strikeout rate (K%), that allowed him to have a chance to put more balls in play. While Buxton may never have a strikeout rate below 20%, his 2019 K% of 23.1% decreased by a difference of 22% year-over-year. He also doubled his walk rate (BB%) from his disaster 2018 season, to significantly improve his BB/K ratio to 0.28.
If Buxton can continue reducing his strikeout rate (it was over 30% in his first two seasons), and keep his walk rate steady, he will have many more chances to receive more pitches and drive the ball.
Another major problem in the beginning of Buxton's career was watching too many early pitches become established in the strike zone, and he would proceed to flail at the third strike when he was in protect-mode. Pitchers threw nearly the same amount of pitches in the zone from 2018 to 2019, but Buxton continued his 4-year trend of swinging at more of these pitches (Z-Swing%).
Buxton's contact of pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%) has remained constant throughout his career at roughly 82%, but that's not a bad thing. If contact is constant, but his trend of an increasing ZSwing% continues, Buxton will continue to increase his total contact events on hittable pitches. More aggression on pitches in the zone also reduces pitcher's counts, and ultimately strikeouts. He's come a long way from watching nearly 40% of pitches in the zone go on by in 2015.
Increasing total contact on hittable pitches is swell, but the contact result is what matters in the end. Buxton's balls in play had encouraging results in 2019, establishing a career low in groundball rate (GB%) and a career high in flyball rate (FB%).
Our new savior, Josh Donaldson previously said, "...they don't pay you for groundballs. They pay you for doubles, they pay you for homers." Well said, Josh.
Buxton clearly took note of this philosophy, but how did he increase his flyball rate?
Launch angle. Buxton's average launch angle of 19.5 degrees ranked 17th among all MLB players with a minimum of 250 plate appearances, and this also led the team that set the single season home run record.
In addition to lifting the ball more often, he was also making stronger contact than ever before. Buxton set career highs in barrel rate, exit velocity, and hard hit percentage in 2019. He was also above the MLB averages in each of these metrics, becoming a below-the-radar Statcast darling.
It was an absolute shame Buxton's season ended prematurely, but his trajectory is promising if he can stay on the field. Buxton's changes - reducing his strikeout rate, increasing aggressiveness within the zone, higher launch angle, and harder contact - resulted in a 111 wRC+ for 2019. The path to becoming an above average offensive player has been a long and winding road for Buxton, but he finally arrived after trending in the correct direction for years.