The reclamation of Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Every November in Baxley, Georgia, the fastest man in baseball heads to the starting line, convinced this is going to be the time. Byron Buxton can run from home plate to first base in 3.44 seconds. He can round the bases on an inside-the-park home run in 13.85 seconds. What he can’t do – the only thing it seems these days – is beat his older brother in a race.

Petty Officer First Class Felton Buxton, an engineer and recruiter for the United States Navy, is 30 years old. And when Byron heads to Baxley after a season with the Minnesota Twins, for whom he’s finally looking the part of a star after a stop-and-go start to his major league career, Felton returns to their home in Georgia, a place so far off the beaten path it doesn’t have cell service. Both know what comes next.

“Every year,” Byron said, “he comes out and does the same thing.”

“We just start talking noise to each other,” Felton said, “and line up.”

“He ran track in high school,” Byron said. “Everything he does is perfect.”

“It’s nothing but an open field,” Felton said.

“About 60 yards,” Byron said.

“And we just run,” Felton said.

Considering everything the 23-year-old Buxton does with his legs – the rapidity with which he churns them on a jailbreak bunt, the efficiency with which they pump on one of his signature catches in center fielder and, of late, the stability they provide as his swing looks like it’s catching up to his baserunning and glove – the fact that he can’t beat his brother in a footrace eats at him. At top speed, Buxton covers more than 30 feet per second on a baseball field, and yet when squaring off against his brother, he chokes on dust.

“We just look at each other and smile, really,” Felton said. “For me, it’s just like, I still got it.”

One of these days, Buxton is convinced he’s going to beat his brother. It took until he was 17 years old to clock a faster time than his dad. All of it seems to be something of a pattern: Byron Buxton may not beat you immediately, but give him enough time and him winning is inevitable.

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Much as he tried to ignore his reality, to detach himself from the hopes others foisted on him, Byron Buxton couldn’t escape them. He was the No. 2 overall pick in Major League Baseball’s 2012 draft and signed for $6 million. While his physical tools made him look like a diamond, his skills were more zircon, and minor league pitchers never exposed them. The Buxton hype train was oversold by the time he arrived in Minneapolis. It emptied quickly when he followed a mediocre rookie season in 2015 with an inconsistent 2016.

Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) catches a fly ball by Cleveland Indians designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion (10) during the seventh inning Aug. 15, 2017, in Minneapolis. (AP)

“No matter how many times I told myself the expectations and pressure don’t get to me, they’re still in the back of your head,” Buxton said. “ As you’re playing, you’re like, ‘I’m gonna do this.’ You change your game to live up to the expectations. The biggest thing I learned was not to play to those expectations. It took me two years to realize you can’t play the way that you want to play and hit .300 or stealing so and so bags. You’ve got to be yourself.”

Problem was, Buxton didn’t know exactly what that meant. Earlier this season, as he stepped to the plate with a batting average that began with a 1, Buxton sported a leg kick – the sort used by power hitters around baseball. If it was good for them, maybe it could be good for him? He was the being antithesis of himself, and the failure of the kick compounded his misery.

“When you see [batters] 1 through 8 lace the ball and you go up there and say, ‘You have no idea what you’re doing,’ it’s a sucky feeling,” Buxton said. “I finally realized something’s got to change. Whatever you do, put all your work into it.”

Already Minnesota had discussed sending him to Triple-A once again, hopeful something would click. Twins hitting coach James Rowson implored the Twins front office to hold off. He had a plan. And a pupil.

“It was tough,” Buxton said. “Especially me wanting to have that leg kick. At first, I was like, ‘I can figure this out. I’ve got this. I’ve got this.’ I kept trying to trick myself. Finally, I gave in. Because something had to change. It drove me crazy I wasn’t hitting.”

In late June, the reclamation of Byron Buxton began. It was a risky proposition. Changing a player’s swing can take months. Trying to adjust in the middle of a season, against major league pitching, is almost reckless. And yet because Buxton’s glove in center field is so good, the Twins were happy to let him and Rowson experiment.

The strategy was simple: One increment at a time. First, they killed the leg kick. Next, in an effort to focus on loosing Buxton’s hips, Rowson gave him a new movement every day, focusing on using the power in legs at the plate, too.

“We literally took it step by step,” Buxton said. “One day, he said, I want you to turn your foot like this. And the next day, he’ll give me two or three games to feel how it’s supposed to feel. And then it’ll be like, ‘All right, I want you to sit back a little more on your legs.’ We took it in small increments to where I could learn to adjust pitch by pitch instead of going 0 for 20 and being like, ‘I know what to do now.’ By then, I’m 0 for 20 in the hole, and I’ll be frustrated and trying to figure out different ways. This keeps me from thinking.”

The differences were almost instantaneous. Since the Fourth of July, when Buxton’s average finally climbed over .200, he has hit .329/.370/.599 – a slugging percentage higher than Buxton’s entire OPS (.552) in the first half. The Buxton of old was so bad that one American League team last season team handed out mock fines to pitchers who didn’t strike him out. This Buxton was the literal Six Million Dollar Man, a baseball cyborg who could run and catch and hit.

It’s only two months, and inside the Twins’ clubhouse, they wonder: Is this real? Is this a superstar turn or a nice run driven by a small sample with a high average on balls in play? Because if it’s the former – if this is even close to the Byron Buxton we’ll come to expect daily – he doesn’t have to worry about those expectations anymore. He’ll have met them.

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Stationed in Virginia Beach, Felton Buxton never misses a Twins game. He has watched them claw back from 103 losses last year to holding the second wild-card slot this season and sees his brother in the middle of what seems like everything – including a far-too-frequent number of meetings with an unforgiving impediment.

“I told him he’s got to stay away from them walls,” Felton said. “He just chooses to play that way.”

Buxton heads for third on an RBI triple off Kansas City Royals pitcher Onelki Garcia in the first inning Sept, 2, 2017, in Minneapolis. (AP)

Buxton does, often to the Twins’ benefit. Between him and Miguel Sano, the Twins may have one of the best 25-and-under duos in the major leagues, the sort around which a championship team is built. The Twins’ previous three postseason series ended in sweeps. They last made the playoffs in 2010, won a playoff series in 2002 and earned a ring in 1991. So while a World Series feels far off, it’s not too big of a dream for Buxton. He has substantive goals.

Like beating Felton this November.

“To the point that I’m not faster than my brother,” Buxton said. “I’m never content.”

Felton welcomed the challenge. Maybe he’d enlist someone to record it this upcoming year, just for proof’s sake. Because the biggest race of the year in Southeast Georgia has only a finite timetable. The fastest man in baseball knows exactly how many more times he’s going to run against his brother.

“Every year,” Buxton said, “until I win.”