Byron Buxton was recently named Player of the Month Award for April after the 27-year-old slashed .426/.466/.897 with eight home runs and 14 runs batted in while continuing to be an elite defensive player in center field.
Buxton is making a strong case early in the season to be involved in the MVP conversation this year.
The most significant stat that sticks out with Buxton’s Player of the Month honors isn’t anything that he has done so far. Instead, it’s that it was the first time the honor was awarded to a Twins player since Delmon Young took it home in 2010.
And if that fact doesn’t make you feel old yet, the best comparison to Buxton’s start goes back a year further to 2009 when Joe Mauer was the American League MVP that season. Buxton’s MVP-level start should make fans better appreciate what Mauer was able to accomplish over 10 years ago.
The St. Paul native already established himself as one of the league’s best hitters. But in 2009, he took it to another level. He led all of baseball with a stat line of .365/.444/.578 in 606 plate appearances. No catcher had ever finished the season leading all three categories. Mauer also ended with 28 home runs while posting a WAR of 8.4, all of which were personal bests over his 15-season career.
It was also in 2009 when the Twins needed the MVP season from Mauer the most. The team only won 87 games and needed every one of them to force the classic “Game 163” against the Detroit Tigers to win the AL Central. Mauer put the team on his back. He led the team in WAR with more than twice as many wins as his next closest teammate.
Oh yeah, Mauer also missed the entire first month of the season on the disabled list with hip issues.
He returned on May 2, 2009 against the Kansas City Royals at the Metrodome. Mauer started his at-bat like any other, taking the first two pitches and getting ahead 2-0. He then did something he wasn’t known for — hitting the ball over the fence in left. As he rounded the bases, Twins Territory knew it was in for a special season.
That home run set the tone for the rest of his 2009 campaign. Mauer was still that contact hitter who would hit the ball in every direction, but that season also saw the “Mauer Power” on full display. He set a career-high with a .222 mark in isolated power, about 70 points higher than his closest season. He made hard contact 37.6 percent of the time, which he only topped in 2010, and made soft contact just below 6.0 percent in 2009.
Mauer wasn’t the only hitter having a great season in the American League. Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria ended the season with more home runs (33) and RBIs (113) than Mauer. But what made his run so special was that he was a dominant hitter while also playing well defensively as an everyday catcher.
Mauer led all catchers that year in home runs and isolated power, along with a wOBA of .438. The closest to the eventual MVP was Brian McCann, who only hit 21 home runs with an isolated power mark of .205 and wOBA of .359. Hitting 28 home runs doesn’t quite have the weight it used to over a decade ago for most positions, but catcher remains the exception. For reference, J.T. Realmuto’s 28 home runs led all catchers in 2019.
Besides the power numbers, being able to stay healthy once he returned to the field in May was a big reason he could put up the big season. Mauer had previously had injury issues during his time as a catcher that kept him out of the lineup. His 138 games and 606 plate appearances were the highest in his career and would only be topped in 2012. He suffered a concussion a year later and was switched over to first base full-time in 2014.
Like Mauer, Buxton has an injury history. But when he has been available, Buxton has always been capable of playing at an MVP level. He has always been great defensively at a premium position and recently has delivered at the plate. But unlike Mauer, he shouldn’t have to carry the Twins this year.
Mauer was in a contract year in 2009 and cashed in, signing an eight-year, $184 million deal with his hometown team in 2010 — the biggest contract signed by a catcher at the time he signed. Unfortunately, the Twins lost 99 games in 2011 and spent most of the 2010s stuck in a rebuild. Mauer’s contract became a bogeyman, as he was never able to replicate his 2009 numbers and spent the second half of his extension at first base.
Buxton won’t hit free agency until after next season, but he’s picking the right time to show off his full potential. Based on reports that he turned down extension offers in the past, Buxton looks willing to test the free-agent market. Many fans grew tired of Mauer’s deal, but they would have been more distraught if the catcher would have taken his talents elsewhere. Teams with deeper pockets like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox would have signed the All-Star in a heartbeat.
Unless Buxton signs an extension next offseason, big-market teams will make competitive offers for him in free agency.
We won’t know how many more seasons Buxton will play in Minnesota until the end of this season, at the earliest. So fans should sit back and enjoy what Buxton can do over the rest of the year, knowing that he’s putting together a season the likes of which we haven’t seen in over 10 years.