A year after hitting .253/.314/.413 with 16 homers and receiving MVP votes, Byron Buxton is being tested. He’s still practicing wizardry in the outfield and Mario-warping between the bases, but he’s still feeling pain because of a hairline fracture in his toe, which has held him to 19 games this season, and is still scuffling at the plate.
He’s hitting .156/.194/.203 this season, and manager Paul Molitor gave him Saturday off to try and “reset” mentally. Molitor said he talked to his 24 year old star, hoping to get him back to where he was in the last half of last season, when he hit .300/.347/.546, including a monster .324/.354/.619 August, when he hit eight of his 16 home runs.
“Just kinda tried to get a feel of where he was at, and I tried to affirm him about his ability to hit,” said Molitor, who hit .306/.369/.448 in his major league career.
Buxton has dealt with multiple ailments this season. Not only has the hairline fracture on his toe kept him out of games, but migraine headaches have as well. Plus, nobody likes to play baseball in the snow, especially a guy from Baxley, Ga.
“You can go through a guy’s resume and see who’s traditionally a slow starter,” said Molitor of Buxton, who has hit .162/.237/.227 in March and April throughout his career. “It’s usually weather related.”
Buxton says the hairline fracture in his toe is still giving him trouble, although he’s determined to play through it.
“No,” Buxton said definitively, when asked if the pain in his toe has died down. “It’s broken and it’s not going to feel any better. [But] I’m over it.”
Molitor says he talked with Buxton about his approach at the plate during his rest day.
“He knows that when he puts too much pressure on himself and tries to do too much, over-thinks his at-bats,” he struggles, said Molitor. “I know that he’s mindful of what he’s trying to do, but executing it and falling behind a lot of counts — it seems like every time he’s up there, he’s behind in one way or another, either he fouls the ball off or he takes a good pitch.”
“It’s more of a me getting counts to be aggressive on,” said Buxton. “I’m more of an attacker than more of a person to be patient. I’m just trying to get a good pitch to hit early in the zone.
“Lately, I’ve just been missing my pitches. But that comes with timing and me getting at-bats. I’m not really dwelling on it.”
Molitor says that Buxton has to temper his attacking instincts so that he can find himself in better counts.
“It’s just hard to explain why when you’re going well, you’re getting better counts,” he says. “You talk to anybody who goes through a seven-, 10-day stretch up here, they’re gonna tell you, ‘I feel like I’m always hitting in the hole.’
“I always think, oh, it’s a hitter’s count? I don’t want to swing at a pitch that’s a pitcher’s pitch, even if it might be a strike. And if guys are doing that, then it’s gonna be a little uphill.”
Molitor added that pitch recognition is the focus for Buxton right now.
“But, like I said, I think it’s important, with what he can do, he’s gotta make sure that he owns something early — not be in between,” he said. “Not worry about the slider, or the fastball in on his hands — just commit to something and try to stay with it. If you’re looking for a fastball in, don’t swing at a slider away early in the count. Just try to be able to execute what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Buxton says that he focuses on certain pitches that have given him trouble or he’d like to do more with, rather than reviewing his entire at-bats.
“Especially right now when I’m not where I want to be, looking at at-bats when you’re not in your zone where you’re comfortable or [have the] feeling that you want to have at the plate” is counterproductive, he said. “Once I get back I’m fine. I’m confident. I’m comfortable. Just gotta keep it in perspective, slow it back down and do what I do.”
Before the season, Twins hitting coach James Rowson said that he wanted to get Buxton to focus on the process more than the results and try to establish a good feeling at the plate more than anything.
“One thing he deserves so much credit for, through this process of learning at the major-league level, he was able to stay not [as] result-oriented,” Rowson said. “The results were if he had a good feeling coming back from that specific at-bat, so that lineout was a great feeling for him. He started to get that feeling that he was in a strong position to hit.”
Buxton says that once he gets on a roll, the good feelings come back.
“I’m just trying to get back there,” he said. “Think I’m pushing it a little bit, pressing. That’s just more of me trying to do a little bit more than what I’m capable of doing. I’ve got to stay within myself and just play my game. I know my game is enough — just leave it at that.”
“Sometimes the feel can come back with a swing or two,” added Molitor. “The big thing is, we’ve got to where he’s putting himself in a good position while he’s recognizing the pitches. Not guessing and pre-determined swing.”
Last year Buxton was instructed to try and hit line drives over the second baseman’s head. The idea was to stay on the ball longer and drive it to the opposite field.
“You watch his batting practice and I think he’s really trying to get that feel of staying up through the middle and the other way, just to stay on pitches a little bit better,” said Molitor.
“It’s just, in the game, he still seems like he’s a little quick to make a decision, which means he’s not having great recognition. You don’t see a lot of balls going that direction in the game — I think he’s hit only one ball to the right side since he’s been back.”
Buxton is a career .205/.262/.308 hitter in the first half of the season but has hit .262/.318/.489 after the All-Star Break. Things look bad right now, but with the day off on Saturday, Buxton feels like he can get back on track.
“It was good,” he said. “It cleared my mind a little bit more. Once you clear your mind, that’s when things start feeling like it’s changing a little bit.”