It’s Time to Believe in Byron Buxton Again

No question about it. I’m ready to get hurt again.

Byron Buxton is finally healthy after a prolonged battle with right knee pain that limited him to only 382 plate appearances in 2022 and 347 in 2023.

As it turns out, the issue wasn’t his meniscus or loose bodies but rather a plica, a thickening of tissue in the inner knee resulting from improper embryological development during the first eight weeks of life. Yes, you read that correctly. Buxton had the plica removed following the Minnesota Twins’ loss in the ALDS to the Houston Astros, and he has largely been pain-free ever since; he had previously described the pain he felt as akin to someone stabbing him in the knee with each step.

“I’m fully healthy,” Buxton told reporters upon arriving at spring training. “That puts my mind at ease to just go out there and have a normal spring training rather than try to put it on hold and not necessarily hide it…The pain’s gone, so I’m a lot more happy, 100 percent.”

The early spring training results bolster the idea that the former All-Star and 2017 Platinum Glove winner is feeling good. Although Buxton has appeared in only four games as of this writing, he has appeared in center field in all—a task he’d been unable to accomplish since late 2022—and has put nine balls in play with exit velocities of 82.5, 93.7, 94.5, 94.5, 96.5, 100.6, 101.5, 105.8, and 106.9 mph (he’s slashing .417/.500/1.000 in 14 plate appearances with two(!) triples and a 389-foot home run).

Simply put, Buxton is hitting the ball hard and tracking to be an everyday centerfielder for the first time in 18 months. It doesn’t get much more encouraging or exciting than that.

Even a moderately healthy Buxton would be a boon for the Twins, whose center fielders ranked 14th in fWAR (3.8) in 2023. While Michael A. Taylor filled in admirably, knocking out a career-best 21 home runs to go along with Gold Glove-caliber defense, his astronomical strikeout rate (33.5%) and poor on-base percentage (.278) limited his overall value.

Though he’s not exactly an on-base machine either (career .300) and also has a propensity to strikeout (career 29.4% K%), Buxton offsets his weaknesses by racking up doubles and home runs; he didn’t post a slugging percentage below .500 from 2019 through 2022. He’s also displayed a better eye at the plate over the past two seasons, increasing his walk rate from around 5% during his first seven seasons to a respectable 8.9% and 10.1% in 2022 and 2023, respectively. (In a ludicrously small sample, his walk rate during spring training has been 14.3%.)

The result is an athlete who puts forth MVP-level production when on the field.

Buxton posted an fWAR of 4.0 in 92 mostly health games in 2022, likely a reasonable production estimate for the 2024 campaign. If he plays at least 100 games—a feat he has only accomplished once—a 5.0 fWAR win season isn’t out of the realm of possibility, especially if his pledge to steal more bases rings true.

The Twins are hopeful that Buxton’s knee situation is truly, finally clear. “Everything physically that we could ask for at this point, we’re getting from him,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told media members following Buxton’s first game in center. “His body is responding really well. It’s been a very positive camp.”

However, even the most rose-tinted outlook on Buxton’s health needs to factor in that he’s likely to miss extended time at some point in 2024, either because of injury or to hopefully prevent one. The Twins added former Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Manuel Margot specifically for this reason and also employ the services of Willi Castro and Austin Martin, who could fill on occasion. 

The Twins’ centerfield situation is in a much better position entering 2024 than it was at any point last summer simply because Buxton has a chance to be roaming there, even if only for three or four days per week. He’s finally healthy. It’s time to believe in Byron Buxton once again, and MLB is better off for it.

Lucas Seehafer

Lucas Seehafer is a journalist and professor living in southern Minnesota. He is working towards a Ph.D. in Kinesiology and holds a graduate degree in physical therapy. He has had bylines appear on many websites including Baseball Prospectus, SBNation, FanSided, Forbes, and more.

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