There’s no denying that Byron Buxton is off to a sizzling start this season. But I was curious — what’s it like to watch his development up close? What’s it like to be his teammate?
So I asked some of the pitchers who get the benefit of his defense behind them, and lo and behold, the response was universally positive, as was that of manager Rocco Baldelli, who was a well-regarded center fielder in his day as well.
Reliever Trevor May
Brandon Warne: What’s it like playing with Byron Buxton this year?
TM: “Really exciting.”
BW: He’s always had the tools and he’s coming into his own offensively, but at this point defensively, you almost have to feel like he’ll just go get anything hit out toward him when you’re on the mound, right?
TM: “I’ve been saying this for years — since we were in the AFL together in 2013 — that he’s one of the most, if not the most impressive athletes I’ve ever seen. It’s just about getting a comfort level for him. He’s always here to learn.
“I think the last few years, he’s absorbed 100 percent of the information given to him and tried to put everything into his game. Now, I think he’s been around enough and was frustrated enough last year to buy into needing to figure out what he needs to do, and maybe ignoring some things that aren’t going to help him as much.
“I just think he’s a good guy who likes to work hard and is supposed to be Byron Buxton. For a long tim,e he’s had a lot of people yelling in his ear; he’s found a way to filter it out and be himself. I knew it was inevitable. He was going to be given the opportunity, he just had to do it. It looks like he is.
BW: You’re pretty close out there in the bullpen to watch him play defense. How exciting is it to have a front-row seat?
TM: “When the ball disappears behind the wall — and we know it’s catchable — it’s going to be caught. It’s almost like it’s so expected it’s not as exciting anymore for us. It’s still exciting for the fans, but we just know. But as a fan of the Twins or of just baseball in general, watching him play on a day-to-day basis is a lot of fun. I think he’s just getting started here.
“Obviously a healthy Byron Buxton — no nagging nothing or nothing he has to work on constantly on a daily basis, he can just go play — he’s going to be a guy people talk about and have to plan for in both the batter’s box and the outfield.
Reliever Trevor Hildenberger
BW: What’s it like playing with Buxton this year?
TH: “It’s fun to watch him be who he’s capable of being. He’s comfortable at the plate, he’s doing his thing on defense of course and he’s perfect on the bases. It’s just fun to have that kind of catalyst and spark anywhere in your lineup and in center field.”
BW: How nice is it to know you’ll never face him as long as you’re wearing a TC cap?
TH: “It’s nice. Whenever he makes a nice play, Rog and I always look at each other and say ‘That guy is on our team!’ We don’t have to face him, and he’s not robbing our hitters of hits. That’s nice.”
BW: You’ve allowed more fly balls this year; what’s it been like to have opposing batters hit them to center with Buxton on your side?
TH: “Yeah, he’s going to make all the routine plays and most of the spectacular ones too. It’s nice to have him around.”
BW: Has his personality changed at all?
TH: “He’s super even-keeled. He’s very emotionally intelligent and gets locked into the game and gets really competitive. It really brings out the best in him.”
Reliever Taylor Rogers
BW: What’s it like playing with Buxton this year?
TR: “Same as every year. It’s awesome. He’s a great person and a great teammate. As a pitcher, having him in the outfield is a really nice asset.”
BW: If you give up a fly ball to center, can you almost put your head down and he’ll chase it down?
TR: “Pretty much every time.”
BW: Has he been any different this year with the hot start at the plate?
TR: “He’s the same guy.”
BW: Nothing has changed at all?
TR: “No. There’s nothing different this year at all.”
Reliever Ryne Harper
BW: What’s it like to be teammates with Buxton this year?
RH: “Oh, wow. He’s awesome. I played with him a little bit in Rochester last year. I was like, ‘Man, this guy is awesome.’ He’s such a nice, genuine guy who has his teammates’ backs. He’s awesome, man.”
BW: If you get a ball hit to center it’s a pretty comfortable experience, isn’t it?
RH: “Oh yeah. He’s the best center fielder in the league if you ask me. There’s a lot of good ones out there, but he’s unbelievable, as anyone who has watched us can tell when they see him. You just let ‘em hit it and he’ll go get it.”
BW: Have you noticed any personality changes in Buxton from last season?
RH: “I just met him last year. I played with him for about two months last season. He’s the same person now as he was then. He was confident then, and he’s just as confident now. He does everything for the team defensively and offensively. He’s just unbelievable.”
Starter Jake Odorizzi
BW: What’s it like this year being teammates with Buxton?
JO: “I want to say this the best way possible. I know he had a very frustrating year last year. I was really looking forward to watching him out there every day, making the kinds of plays he’s going to make. Obviously, he’ll help me out tremendously, too.”
BW: Right, since you’re a fly ball guy.
JO: “Exactly, and what he’s done for the rest of the other guys too. I mean we saw the plays he made the last two days alone; it takes a special player to be able to do that and be able to get up after that when you run into the wall at full speed. For him to not hold back, I think that’s the biggest thing for an outfielder, to be full-go, full-time. He’s going to run into the fence, he’s going to get back up and he’s going to do it for you again. I’m just kind of taking it all in, I guess would be the most simple way to put it.
“From my time in Tampa, I got to play with K.K. (Kevin Kiermaier). Obviously, he’s a very good center fielder. From one to the next, both Gold Glove and Platinum Glove winners. I’m pretty spoiled. I was really looking forward to that last year, and now I get to have it this year with him being full health and the way he’s been going about things.”
BW: I don’t expect any comparisons or anything, but that level of confidence for you with both players has to be similar, right?
JO: “Absolutely. We used to say it in Tampa — before Buck was in the big leagues — that ‘if K.K. can’t catch it, nobody can.’ I think now it’s safe to say if neither of them can catch it, nobody will. The way (Buxton) covers ground out there is borderline insane. He gets up to full speed so quickly and he’s a long strider to begin with, so it just looks like he’s floating over the ground. Not just picking them up and putting them down.
“It’s just majestic, in a sense, to watch. So when he hits a ball in the gap, that’s the most fun to watch. When he hits stand-up doubles, that’s not what people normally do. They usually have to slide to get in there. I’m very blessed to be able to see him do his thing and help our team. No offense to anyone else, but I think he’s the most important player on our team.”
Starter Martin Perez
BW: What’s it like playing with Buxton this year?
MP: I think for me it means a lot, man. Every time someone hits the ball to center, and you see him running out there you know it’ll be an out. He doesn’t care if you hit it to the warning track, he’ll just go out there and get it. As a pitcher, when you see this, you get more comfortable on the mound and you just go out there and pitch. The players behind you are just going to play and they’re going to catch the ball.”
BW: Did he take things to a new level with you on Monday night?
MP: I felt like I was back with the Rangers in 2014-15 with Leonys Martin out there. When I saw Buxton going back there, I was like ‘He’s got that ball.’ When he made the play, I was like ‘Wow.’ I have to compete, because my fielders are going to compete, too.
Manager Rocco Baldelli
BW: What’s it like managing Buxton?
RB: “I think first of all just letting him know he’s going to be out there and that we 100 percent believe in him and what he does and telling him to just go do his thing on a regular basis I think probably gives him the confidence to go out there and play. There’s no guarantees or right or wrong way to handle all of that, but this is a guy we know is physically talented but we’ve also seen have success at the major-league level before.
“When you have a guy you know can do it, I think sometimes that confidence becomes the most important factor here. Anything we can do to keep that going or let him know how we feel about him, we will do. But he’s taken it upon himself in a lot of ways to work on things and focus on certain things and I think we’re seeing it out there on the field.”
Dan Hayes: He had been working on route efficiency and that sort of thing. Had you heard about that?
RB: “He pays a lot of attention to all aspects of his defensive game. I don’t think he just relies on the speed…he’s not just winging it out there. He’s spending a lot of energy and thought and time talking about things and focusing on anything he thinks he can improve on. He’s not just content with the way he’s playing. It would be easy to be content with as good as he is, but he’s not. He wants to be even better. I’m not surprised to hear that he’s always looking at those sorts of things.”
BW: You spent a lot of time with Kiermaier in Tampa; how do they compare?
RB: “There are some similarities in the desire and work ethic I think between the two players. I don’t know if you can play the position much better than those two guys do but like we’re saying, both of these guys want to be not just elite, they want to be the absolute best centerfielders that they can be. There is that desire.
“I mean there are a lot of good players in this league that do a lot of impressive things on a regular basis but to stay at that level for a long period of time and to not waver and to still continually be adding different things to your game, that’s special. That’s very special and that’s what it takes to be a star or to do things at the absolute top of the spectrum and that’s what they do.
BW: Did those players ever lean on you as someone who had been in their shoes before?
RB: “I would say when guys are at that level, some of the kind of more typical instruction doesn’t necessarily always apply to them so you end up maybe having fewer conversations but the conversations that you do have are probably more meaningful when you do have them and the things that you might talk about with them might be different than the things that you talk about with some other guys but a lot of it has more to do with maybe thought process and kind of the more mental side of the game or thinking ahead of a situation or things like that than anything else. Because they have the physical part of it down pretty well.