In a more just world — in a world without injury — Byron Buxton would need a lot more shelf space in his home. A five-tool player with a name that sounds like it should belong to a superhero, Buxton was drafted second overall in 2012, spent some time as our number one prospect, debuted at age 21, and went on to average nearly 4.6 WAR per 162 games. By all rights, he should have spent his 20s challenging Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani to a game of hot potato with the American League MVP trophy. He should be on magazine covers. He should be a worldwide megastar nicknamed Lord Byron.
Instead, Buxton is a one-time All-Star who owns a Gold Glove, a Platinum Glove, and a Wilson Overall Defensive Player of the Year, all three awarded in 2017. He’s never finished better than 16th in the MVP race. You know the reason for this as well as I do. Buxton has never put up 4.6 WAR in a season because he’s never come close to playing in 162 games in one. He’s surpassed 92 games just once and he’s qualified for the batting title just once: in 2017, the year of the glove-shaped trophies. Over the nine seasons of his career, Buxton has played in roughly 4.5 seasons worth of games. The injury section of his Baseball Prospectus player page borders on some sort of macabre literary pretension, listing a blazon of injuries to his head, face, shoulder, back, ribs, wrist, hand, thumb, finger, hip, groin, hamstring, knee, shin, foot, and toe. There are fractures, hairline fractures, concussions, contusions, lacerations, dislocations, strains, sprains, soreness, inflammation, and tendinitis.
This morose lede is just a preamble though, because Buxton is back. Earlier this week at TwinsFest, he told everyone just that: “Oh yeah. I’m back.” After undergoing offseason surgery to excise a plica from his right knee, he is ready to play center field for the first time since 2022. “What makes me so sure? My body tells me that,” Buxton said. This is wonderful news. Anyone who loves baseball is rooting for him to get a shot at a full, fully healthy season. Anyone who loves baseball is excited to watch him roam center field once again, a human being so perfectly suited to that environment and the task before him that you can’t help but feel for just a moment like maybe the whole world makes sense after all.
Anyone who loves baseball is also tempering their expectations. Buxton is 30 and coming off a second straight season that ended with knee surgery. His offseason routine right now is equal parts physical therapy and baseball activities. The Twins have been honest about the fact that “back” might not mean exactly what we might want it to mean. They’re hoping that Buxton will be able to play 80 games in center field. For his part, Buxton chose not to put a number on it. “My body will tell me that,” he said.
Bodies are the worst. What the hell are you supposed to do with your hands? The same body that gives you the coordination and grace to play the game in such a way that it transcends the realm of sport and becomes art can then decide to break down frequently — so frequently that the fleeting chance to perform on that plane of existence serves as nothing more than a wistful reminder of what could have been.
How much health is a person entitled to? Everyone on earth has had their life limited to some degree by their health, and everyone knows people who have had it much worse. Injuries are a part of sports and a part of life. No one deserves to be injured, or to feel sick. In a more merciful world, we would all live healthy lives, achieving our potential (or not achieving it for all the other reasons that we don’t achieve our potential), and then one day the grim reaper would give us a friendly tap on the pristine shoulder and ask us to follow him, please.
It gets weirder when you’re a talent like Buxton. It’s his life, and he must be acutely aware of how differently things could have gone, of how much more he had to offer over the last nine years. But the rest of the baseball world feels robbed too, both on his behalf and on our own. We want to see his greatness for ourselves and for baseball as a whole.
How much health is a ballplayer entitled to? With the exception of Cal Ripken Jr., every baseball player alive could argue that they would have had a lot more to offer the game if only their body would have cooperated.
Buxton, though, is a different, more extreme case. Keep in mind that his 19.0 WAR during his nine major league seasons rank 60th among all position players. Keep in mind that every single one of the 59 players ahead of him has played in more games than his 670 in that span. (Ronald Acuña Jr. has the next fewest games played in the group, at 673, but he debuted three years after Buxton and has recorded 545 more plate appearances.) Keep in mind that 39 of those 59 players have made at least 1,000 more plate appearances than Buxton’s 2,487. Keep in mind that even when he has been on the field, Buxton hasn’t been at 100% all that often. Keep in mind that despite that fact, on a per-game basis, Buxton has been more valuable than 31 of those 59 players.
In 2023, battling through a rib injury, patella tendinitis, and a hamstring strain that combined to limit him to 85 games, Buxton ran a 98 wRC+. It was his worst offensive performance since 2018, when he played in just 28 games. Buxton was more aggressive on pitches in the zone and he made more contact, but that didn’t stop his strikeout rate from rising by a percentage point. His average exit velocity fell last year, and his EV50 (the average of the top 50% of his hardest hit balls, which Baseball Savant formerly referred to as best speed) has dropped in each of the past three seasons, from 104.7 mph to 103.8 to 102.5.
Even so, there were positive signs last season, too. His sprint speed was still a nearly elite 29.3 mph. He was still worth 4.8 runs on the bases, tied for 29th best in baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances and his highest total since 2017. Although his power was down overall, Buxton was still capable of top-end exit velocity. He ripped three of the four hardest-hit balls of his career in 2023. That includes a career-high 116.9 mph double on Aug. 1, his last regular season game of the season.
Buxton has also made it clear that he’ll be more comfortable when he’s playing on both sides of the ball again. “I’m 29, I’m DHing, and I know I’m not supposed to be DHing,” Buxton said at TwinsFest. “You’re not buying into DH.” There’s bias in these numbers, because Buxton was usually relegated to DH when he wasn’t healthy enough to play the field, but since 2019, he has a 111 wRC+ as a DH and a 136 wRC+ as a center fielder. “What excites me? I’m going back to center,” he said. “As simple as that. Nothing makes me happier than playing the outfield.” He’s not alone. The Twins have been encouraged by videos of Buxton’s progress, seeing him move better than he has in years, watching him get into his legs at the plate and make the thunderous contact that he’s capable of making.
One of the joys of sports is that we get to witness greatness. Somewhere out there, at every human pursuit, someone is the best. If you’re one of the greatest accountants in the world, that gift will probably allow you to carve out a nice life for yourself, maybe even a luxurious one. But your gift will likely go unrecognized to some degree. How exactly do you judge that someone is the best in the world at accountancy? In sports, greatness shows up in the numbers, but it’s often obvious. It knocks you over the head. It’s miraculous to behold. Sometimes you see Shohei Ohtani at the plate, looking completely fooled by a pitch yet still able to reach flick it over fence, and you can’t help but laugh, because no other reaction seems appropriate. Buxton, too, is that type of player when he is on the field.
It would be truly magical to see Buxton at his best, and best health, for a whole season. He certainly deserves the chance. The rest of us will be hoping he gets that chance, too. But at the same time, we should not confuse hope with expectation. The sanguine quotes may have gotten the headlines, but Buxton gave another that summed up the situation a little more completely. “It’s different, I can feel it. It feels good,” he said. “Things feel back to … as close to normal as it’s going to get. You take the positive and run with it.”