Some comments made by Twins center fielder Byron Buxton during the road trip to Fenway Park last week sent the blogosphere/Twittersphere into a tizzy. Buxton, who has hit just .209/.283/.303 this season coming into Thursday night’s game against the Orioles, told Jake Depue of 1500ESPN that he had scorned the leg kick he used to start the season in order to put the ball in play more — including more balls hit on the ground.
“[The goal is] putting the ball in play more,” Buxton told Depue. “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.”
It’s not hard to read what Buxton said and be immediately discouraged. There’s a reason why the catchphrase among hitters is “Elevate and celebrate.” It’s not exactly earth-shattering science, either; hit the ball on the ground, and you limit yourself to singles and lots of outs. Hit it in the air, and you’re open to not only singles, but extra-base hits of all shapes and sizes.
So to hear what Buxton said and not immediately think that he was moving away from his strength and ceiling for the false security of the “safety” of his speed is totally understandable.
But according to hitting coach James Rowson, the fears are also unfounded.
Make no mistake about it: the Twins are in no way trying to get Buxton to be a slap-happy, beat-it-into-the-ground-and-beat-the-throw kind of hitter.
“Absolutely not,” Rowson said of the seemingly prevalent thought that the Twins wanted Buxton to hit the ball into the ground and use his speed as his primary offensive weapon. “Absolutely not. Here’s the deal: I clearly do not want Byron Buxton to hit the ball on the ground and run. (laughs) That is not in the plan. Without a doubt, he’s has a chance to be a dynamic player in this league for years to come and he has the ability to drive the baseball.”
Rowson added that he was encouraged by Buxton’s progress even as recently as Thursday night, as the youngster absolutely peppered some balls on the way to a 2-for-4 night — his second multi-hit game in a row and third over his last six games.
“Just last night he hit three balls over 100 mph, which shows you that he’s hitting baseballs hard in the last few days,” Rowson said. “It’s starting to come along. No, the goal is not to hit balls on the ground. The goal is going to be to use the whole field and hit balls hard.”
It’s not as easy as just saying it though, Rowson said. “But, there is a process to get to that,” he added. “Going through that process, at times, there are days where you are going to focus on making sure keeping our swing level enough to make sure we’re not hitting balls way up in the air with a popup mentality. But we’re going to get balls to get on a line with backspin, and ultimately we’ll get to those angles and he’ll get to those angles, but it’ll be through whichever thought process works for him. It’s hard to say that; over time and over his own work, he’ll establish that on his own.”
Rowson wanted to be clear that he understood the connotation of hitting the ball on the ground is bad, but he also added that sometimes you have to work on a different process on the way to the desired result.
“Here’s the deal: I clearly do not want Byron Buxton to hit the ball on the ground and run.That is not in the plan. Without a doubt, he’s has a chance to be a dynamic player in this league for years to come and he has the ability to drive the baseball”
“It seems like when you talk about groundballs, there’s almost this negative connotation that goes with it,” Rowson said. “But in actuality, there shouldn’t be. Looking at launch angle now, there’s also an angle up there if you get too high, where you won’t be successful either. They’re going to be fly balls and popups. There’s a limit on everything. There’s a limit on the fly balls and on the ground balls. At the end of the day, what it comes down to is what thought for that particular player creates the right angle that the ball comes off the bat, or whether it comes off at a certain type of exit velocity or angle. It’s whatever thought helps the hitter.”
Rowson added that some of the greatest hitters of all-time might have stated that their desire was to stay on the top-half of the ball, even though the results showed otherwise.
“We’ve heard hitters over the years give us so many different thoughts,” Rowson said. “Some guys would say for years that they were trying to get on top of the baseball. There are guys who have hit a lot of home runs and are in the record books, but in their mind, their thought process was to get on top of the baseball. Now it’s kind of changed to saying “I want to try to get the ball in the air and create a certain launch angle or degree.” If it produces the right result, then the thought is the right. What you’re trying to find whatever thought works for that hitter and you stick with it. So if a guy thinks “Man, I’m getting a few more groundballs but I’m feeling like the ball is coming off my bat better and I’m starting to create better contact” then that’s the thought you stick with.” It’s really hitter-specific.”
Again, it comes back to process over results in Rowson’s eyes.
“Without a doubt,” Rowson said of the idea of process over results, and putting the hitter into a productive mindset. “That’s what you’re looking for. Nowadays we talk about Josh Donaldson a lot just because we know his swing has been the poster child of like launch angle and things of that nature. My thought would be if I were his hitting coach, I would tell him exactly what he thinks, because that works for him. It’d be crazy to tell him anything different. At the same time, if I were Chipper Jones’ hitting coach, I’d tell him exactly what he thought, because he put numbers up and his balls did get in the air and he was able to hit home runs. Whether you do what you think you do, at the end of the day it’s whatever thought creates the best swing for you.”
It’s worth questioning if the process is working based on Buxton’s numbers, but Rowson insists that’s the case.
“I think the last few days have been really, really promising,” Rowson said. “There’s a comfort level that comes with this. He’s starting to now get very comfortable with what he’s doing. I think if you look through the course of the year, it’s very eye-opening. He’s gone from early in the year with a leg lift to where we are now. But if you kind of go through the season, you’ll see periods where his mechanics and setup and things have changed over the course of the season, which shows there’s a process involved. He’s slowly just kind of moving along throughout the process. I can tell you now he’s getting close.”
It’s not just about the balls Buxton is hitting, though. He’s doing a nice job of that, but he’s also going through a better selection process at the plate, Rowson says.
“Yesterday was promising, with the three balls hit over 100 mph” Rowson reiterated. “There were some tough breaking balls down. He had a couple walks against Kansas City. Some of those ones down, you could see Salvy (Perez) looking to go down to the ground on some, and he laid off those balls which tells you his scouting report was that he’d swing at that pitch. He’s done a nice job to put himself in a position to now lay off that pitch. So there’s a lot of promising things that he’s starting to do. A lot of that comes through his hard work and the comfort that he’s starting to feel in the swing he’s taking.”
So is it tough for Rowson to see such a talented young hitter who works hard struggle like Buxton has to this point? Not really, he says.
“I’m excited for him,” Rowson said. “I guess that would be the way to say it. There are many players who come to this league, and sometimes I hesitate to call them struggles, but I guess it’s another way of saying they have tough times. But you’re getting stronger. Buck is a battler. He’s battled through this the entire season, but he’s gotten stronger. He’s learned a lot about himself; he’s learned a lot about his swing. There’s never been a time where he didn’t want to get in there and work. It’s exciting the closer you get to start to see this thing come to life for him. I think it’s going to be something that again lasts and will be his for his entire career and it’ll be fun to watch.”
So what’s the endgame for Buxton? “For me, at the end of the day, Buck’s going to be a guy who can use the entire field and hit balls hard wherever he hits them throughout the field,” Rowson concluded.
“I think that’s going to be his best bet; to hit the ball hard and use the whole field.”