MINNEAPOLIS — An already bad year for Byron Buxton ended with the Twins center fielder spitting mad when management declined to call him up from Triple-A Rochester last September.
In the minors rehabbing from a series of injuries, he was still upset more than three months later.
“I have no idea what they want now. I stayed in Triple-A for four months,” Buxton said after a holiday charity event at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in December. “What do you expect? What can you want?”
Buxton, however, was not so angry that he didn’t learn anything from the situation. One of the majors’ best outfielders, with a 5.2 WAR in parts of four seasons, he was forced to reflect on what was holding him back.
“It spurred me to get better. It spurred me to take that step back and put things in perspective,” he said.
Buxton, 25, has bounced back better than ever, having his best major league season, and at mid-June, is an All-Star Game candidate for the first time. He didn’t prepare differently over the offseason, he said. The changes were mental.
“I just told myself that mentally I’ve got to get stronger,” he said. “Physically, the ability is there, you know? You’ve got the love and passion for the game; it ain’t easy to come out here and play every day, but it’s easy for you to come out and show effort and do what you need to do to try to help the team win.”
After batting a career-low .156 with a .183 on-base percentage and 28 strikeouts in 28 games before migraines effectively ended his major league season in 2018, Buxton entered Thursday’s victory over the Seattle Mariners hitting .271 with nine home runs, 38 RBIs, 40 runs scored and 10 stolen bases.
Once stressful, batting is now a joy— for Buxton and the Twins, who lead baseball in batting average (.274), home runs (131) and RBIs (387). His ninth homer was a 427-foot blast to left-center with Miguel Sano on first that tied Wednesday’s game 6-6 in the ninth inning.
“He’s not afraid,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s out there feeling good about what he is doing. I think he looks fantastic.”
One of the surest signs of Buxton’s progress was a shift-beating single in the fourth inning of Sunday’s 12-2 victory at Detroit. With the defense lined up for him to pull, and Ehire Adrianza on first base, Buxton poked a single through the gap at second and into center field. Adrianza advanced to third and later scored.
Asked if that’s something he could have done last season, Buxton said, “Not at all. Last year, I probably try to over-do it.”
In the batter’s box, Buxton was a bundle of nerves; not right now.
Buxton fanned in his first two plate appearances against Seattle starter Yusei Kikuchi on Thursday, then drew walks in his next two, scoring in the sixth and seventh innings.
“It’s a long, long, long season. You strike out that at-bat, so what?” he said. “That’s one of the things mentally I’ve got myself better at — where I’d strike out a couple times and that would definitely predict the rest of my game. It kind of put me on the down side, like, ‘Man, you had some good pitches to hit and you missed it; now you’ve got a strikeout,’ you know?
“Now it’s, ‘All right, you got me that at-bat but you’re going to see me again.’ I always want to get back into that batter’s box.”