Despite the emphatic statement he made in spring training, by the end of May Buxton did an about-face and decided that the leg kick wasn’t him anymore. The early season struggles and unsightly lack of contact sent him scrambling for an alternative.
For a stretch, Buxton retained his open stance set-up (something he had in high school but the Twins eliminated in the minors) but refrained from lifting his front leg. Everything about that swing screamed out that it was an unnatural abomination. His body looked like it wanted to lift the front leg but the foot was cemented to its spot in the batters’ box.
Not long after that, Buxton modified his set-up to close his front side, allowing him some ability to cover the entire zone, and made the swing look a tad more natural in the process but with the same glued front foot.
What was surprising is that no one from the media nor the Twins seemed to address this. Perhaps it goes back to not caring what the pilot is doing. Either way, it took almost a month of watching on a daily basis before the Twins made a public acknowledgement of what was happening.
The goal, as explained on the Fox Sports North broadcast, was to make more and better contact. By stripping away the excess movements, the Twins believed he could be a more productive hitter. And this isn’t the first time the organization attempted to do so.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Bert Blyleven said. “It’s the same thing Tom Brunansky tried to get Buxton to do but when Buxton was sent down he went back to the high leg kick and hit well.”
Blyleven went on to suggest that Buxton should look to his manager, Paul Molitor, and his swing for inspiration. To Blyleven, Molitor’s minimalist, handsy swing should be the template for Buxton going forward.
Here’s the thing: I thought I sort of, kind of get what the Twins are doing. They need Buxton’s defense in center. He’s a lifesaver for the pitching staff. You can’t replace one of the game’s best defenders that easily and you also can’t keep having an automatic out in the lineup either. You have to make concessions. They would temporarily reduce his movements in order to try to get something salvageable out of his bat and bridge him until the offseason where he can work on perfecting his swing. However, the more it is discussed, the more it sounds like the Twins’ long-term vision is to keep Buxton grounded.
On Wednesday, 1500ESPN.com’s Jake Depue spoke to the center fielder who elaborated on what he was trying to accomplish with the swing:
“[The goal is] putting the ball in play more,” Buxton said. “Putting it on the ground more to get it out of the air. With the leg kick I was more fly ball oriented. It didn’t give me a chance to get on base. Now putting it on the ground I at least have the chance of beating it out or them rushing the throw and making an error.”
As we have come to learn about baseball, extra base hits are in the air and ground balls are simply long bunts. That is reason enough to focus on elevating the ball but now data shows that MLB’s ball -- intentionally or not -- is juiced. Hitters should take advantage of the added distance the balls provides.
What’s more, the fact that Buxton is in the batter’s box looking to make enough contact that an infielder makes an error is beyond the pale. For starters, the fielding percentage (a dubious stat in its own right but that’s for another time) is over 98%. While the odds may increase based on his speed, the notion that the upside of your plate appearance is maybe the shortstop will bobble this one is absurd. Second, there are five bodies in the infield looking to knock down any grounder that comes their way. Teams use computing power to set up shifts which increase their odds of stopping those worm-burners from scooting through the infield. Why in the name of all that is holy would you want to construct your game around ground balls?
Before readers start getting upset and bringing their pitchforks out at the Twins’ staff, two things: First, Buxton has actually shown signs of improvements when it comes to contact rate and the type of contact. The ground ball rate, which spiked dramatically the first two weeks with the new swing, has started to drop as well.
His numbers in this stretch certainly don’t reflect success -- he is still striking out a ton and not reaching base -- but he’s starting to see positives from this approach.
Second, it should be known that the Twins’ coaches are not actively trying to change their hitters into ground ball machines wholesale. For example, earlier this month the Star Tribune’s Phil Miller detailed that the Twins coaching staff was encouraging utility infielder Ehire Adrianza to switch to a leg kick from a double-toe tap:
“I’m seeing the ball better, I’m recognizing pitches better. I don’t have to rush my swing like I was before,” he said. “Rudy [Hernandez] and James [Rowson] said, ‘Don’t be afraid. You can be a better hitter. You can hit doubles and homers.’ ”
So, no, the Minnesota Twins do not have an evil plan to convert every hitter into Ben Revere. That said, it is frustrating to see a hitter with promise who has had previous success with one type of swing to have it reduced to such a level where they are hoping to beat out infield hits or incite errors. Buxton was once a five-tool player and there is an on-going effort to strip him of one.
Baseball swing mechanics are not like ballroom dancing where if you follow step-by-step instructions, you can master the practice. With a swing, there’s a mental side of the game, a level of comfort each hitter needs in order to execute. And when it came to the toe tap mechanics the Twins outfitted him with in the minor leagues, Buxton acknowledged he was never truly comfortable with the motions. When he reflected back this spring on his success at the end last year, Buxton said he drew upon his carefree high school playing days as a motivating factor:
“In high school, you just go up there and say, ‘All right, I’m about to see how far I can hit it.’ I knew high school was where I had fun. That’s where most kids start to realize what they want to do. I just went back to the moment when I was in high school.”
That is a far superior mindset to have compared to just looking to get on base. Step into the box trying to see how far or how hard you can hit it. It shouldn’t matter what timing mechanism Buxton ultimately uses. There are players who have success with a leg kick, toe tap, no stride, leg glide, etc, etc. The endgame for Buxton should be getting him comfortable again in his own body and that does not seem to be happening with the current version.
Think you could write a story like this? Twins Daily wants you to develop your voice, find an audience, and will pay you to do it. Just fill out this form.