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  • Quantifying Byron Buxton's Defensive Value


    Matthew Lenz

    Byron Buxton’s short four and a half year career has seen him play over just 100 games just once back in 2017. In the two years since, Buxton has only had five at-bats after July 31, most recently missing the Twins final two months of one of their best seasons in franchise history. With just three years of team control remaining and the 2020 offseason being crucial to the Twins competitive window, it’s time to consider how much the Twins should be planning their window around Buxton.

    Image courtesy of © Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    Byron Buxton, when healthy, is one of the best center fielders in the game. Baseball Savant has many metrics that can make this argument. Keeping Buxton healthy has been endlessly debated on Twitter and, without spending too much time on that, I think the answer may be found by improving his reaction time, per the graphic from Baseball Savant below.

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    I found their “jump” metric to be the most surprising. For being such a great outfielder (he was sixth in Outs Above Average among outfielders despite missing two months) he was rated as average in his “jump”, which takes into account a players reaction, burst, and route. Improving on reaction time is something much more realistic than asking him to change his instincts. Defense can be a hard thing to quantify in baseball, but using data Baseball Savant I will try to paint a picture of just how impactful Byron’s glove is in center field.

    For the majority of this exercise I will compare Buxton’s centerfield metrics to Max Kepler’s as he has the most meaningful data from the 2019 season. In 2019, the average batted ball had an average flight time of about five seconds, was hit about 65 feet away from the outfielder, and had a 97% catch probability. When looking at five second hang time data, the catch probability significantly drops from 85 feet (72.5%) to 90 feet (50.0%) and then again at 95 feet (27.8%), so this is the range I want to focus the comparison.

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    In the graphic above, I have put a black rectangle around that 85 foot to 95 foot range mentioned above. Your first reaction might be to notice that the specified range, specifically around the five second mark, doesn’t look much different. On that note, I’d remind you that Kepler had 419.0 more innings in the outfield than Buxton and thus had many more opportunities to get outs. If anything, you should compare the number of grey dots (hits) in each rectangle as well as the number of red dots (outs) to the right of the rectangle. More simply put, Buxton had three more Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in fewer innings than Kepler.

    Let’s look at the impact it had on Twins pitchers. Due to sample size, I did not include relief pitchers, and due to suspension or health issues, the only starters I decided to include were Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi. Prior to the Buxton injury on Aug. 1, Berrios and Odorizzi had a .968 and .830 OPS on line drives and fly balls hit to center field, respectively. After the Buxton injury, their OPS increased to 1.339 and 1.154, respectively.

    In short, it’s clear Buxton absence had a significant impact on their defense. With all that in mind, where do you sit on Buxton? Trade him? Buy out his arbitration years and sign him to a long-term deal? Continue playing the waiting game to see if he can stay healthy? Let’s discuss in the comments. Next week, I’ll be looking at what free agent starters we should target to compliment Buxton’s strengths.

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    As much as I love defense, the stat that is important to me is "In the two years since, Buxton has only had five at-bats after July 31".  If this next year repeats what we have seen I think we have to look at how we fill out a full year of OF play.  Jake Cave is not going to do it and I suspect the FO is looking at Lewis as a possible solution.

     

    Trade Buxton if it fixes pitching, otherwise lets get to a point with four quality OF players so that Buxton can be part of a mix and match. 

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