ZiPS Time Warp: What Could a Healthy Byron Buxton Do?Baseball 

ZiPS Time Warp: What Could a Healthy Byron Buxton Do?

Byron Buxton
Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, Byron Buxton seems to find another gear. With the exception of his abbreviated 2018 (94 plate appearances in the majors), Buxton’s OPS has increased every single season compared to the year before. In 2022, partly thanks to becoming a fastball-crushing machine since the start of last year, he’s continued this pattern, hitting .278/.342/.722 in 79 plate appearances (all stats are through Monday’s action). He’s even tied for the league lead in home runs with nine, especially impressive given that he’s missed more than a third of Minnesota’s games.

It’s that last fact that is troubling, as Buxton’s career has been hampered by an unfortunate inability to stay healthy. And it hasn’t been one, consistent problem that keeps him out of games but rather a succession of nagging ones, with each season bringing a mystery grab bag of misfortune. This year, it’s been a sore knee from a slide, a hand contusion, and a hip problem. Last year, it was a hip, a hamstring, and a broken hand. Before 2021, he missed time due to a concussion, a sore left shoulder, a sprained left foot, a torn labrum, another concussion, a hit by a pitch to the wrist, a different strain to the same wrist, a broken toe, serious migraines after an outfield wall collision, a strained groin, and a sprained knee — and that doesn’t count the myriad day-to-day issues.

The last time Buxton played even 100 games in a season was in 2017 (while there were only 60 games in 2020, he still missed a third of them). I was born in 1978; growing up, Eric Davis was the five-tool, mega-skilled exemplar of the dynamic superstar who couldn’t stay healthy, but even he still managed to get into 130 games a year during his 1986–90 peak. Buxton debuted almost seven years ago, in June 2015, and barely has three years’ worth of playing time in the majors to go along with another half-season in the minors due to Minnesota’s early proclivity for demoting him every time he fell into a slump.

It’s hard to state with any kind of certainty how his development has been hindered by his injuries, but the Buxton we’ve gotten has still had a dynamite career. As his offense has continually improved, his top-tier defense in center has remained. Looking at center fielders with at least 1,000 plate appearances through age 28, he ranks very highly per 600 plate appearances:

Top Center Fielders Through Age 28 per 600 PA

By my count, 10 of those 20 are Hall of Famers, with Trout a lock (and in my opinion, Lofton and Jones should have already been inducted). All but two of the others had long, illustrious careers, with one outlier being Kauff, who was banned by commissioner Landis after being arrested (and quickly acquitted) for car theft and for links to the Black Sox. The other, Reiser, is the one who makes me wince. He was injury-prone and had a penchant for crashing into walls, most notably in 1947, when he suffered a particularly bad concussion. He was also a phenomenally talented young player, almost winning the sabermetric Triple Crown (BA/OBP/SLG) in 1942; he was a .322/.382/.496 hitter by the time he headed off to World War II at 23.

For a healthy player of Buxton’s talents and performance, the seven-year, $100 million contract extension he signed back in November would seem like an almost a ludicrous underpay. But ZiPS projected Buxton at seven years and $124 million because it expected him to average under 300 plate appearances per year over the new deal. And unfortunately, missing a lot of time due to injury does predict future playing time missed to injury.

Since it isn’t one event that has prevented Buxton from reaching his potential, we’re going to have to give the ZiPS Time Machine a heavy workload as it jumps into recent history to prevent his injuries. As we’re using fictional technology anyway, I’m also assuming we can magically force the Twins not to demote him, so I started by adding translations of his minor league performances beginning in 2015. Then, for every trip to the IL, I inserted projections from the point at which he missed time. Once Buxton hit 140 games in any given season (52 for 2020 and 25 for this year), I stopped adding any additional projections, as I don’t want to be too greedy. I then ran his rest-of-career projection starting from Tuesday morning:

ZiPS Time Warp – Byron Buxton

ZiPS doesn’t assume that this healthier Buxton will continue to play 140 games forever, giving him the usual decline path we’ve come to expect throughout his 30s; it only has him playing 140 games in one additional season past this year. But with around 8,000 plate appearances, this healthier Buxton gets within shouting distance of Hall of Fame territory, hitting nearly 400 homers and finishing with 55 WAR.

Does that get him into Cooperstown? That’s a tricky question. Andruw Jones, another star in center field with a shortened career, has numbers that are a bit better, but his most recent Hall vote tally was 41% in his fifth season on the ballot. That said, he may make the Hall, and if he doesn’t get there on the BBWAA ballot, I would guess that he’d fare better with future voters than today’s.

There are reasons to think Buxton could be even better than this, too. Without the constant missed time, would he have better plate discipline than he does today? Would he have figured fastballs out faster? Would his Gold Glove in center field be even more valuable metal? These things are difficult to pinpoint, but the possibility at least exists.

When healthy, Buxton has been one of the best center fielders around. If fortune smiles on him and we get a healthier version of him in his next seven years than his first seven, he and the Twins — and baseball fans — will benefit immensely.

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