Want to believe in Byron Buxton? Watch him leg out a triple

Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton hit home runs last season against Jose Quintana, Danny Salazar, Kelvin Herrera and Justin Verlander.

But on this March day when we’re talking on the phone, those aren't the hits that come to mind for him.

“I remember the triples more than the home runs,” he said.

So should you, because the triples are what will make you a believer in the potential of Buxton, who was Keith Law’s No. 2 prospect entering last season.

Fans saw the quick swing and easy strides on Buxton’s first major league hit in 2015, a triple to left-center against the Cardinals, in which he ran into Mark Reynolds at first base and almost fell down rounding second. In a way, that foreshadowed what was to come.

The Twins moved Buxton quickly through the minors, and he stumbled through his first couple of major league stints, dealing with overeagerness and injuries. Through 63 games in 2016, he had a slash line of .193/.247/.315.

But every so often, you’d see it.

Buxton would hit a line drive and fly around the bases. On July 2, he hit a triple against the Texas Rangers, and Twins TV play-by-play voice Dick Bremer said, "Sometimes you watch Buxton, and it reminds me of the old newsreel footage of Jackie Robinson running with his hands pumping."

Buxton said his favorite triple was his first of 2016, which came against the Brewers on April 18.

“I hit a ball off the end of the bat down the left-field line,” he said. “Kurt Suzuki was on first base, and in the dugout, he said, ‘Buck, you gotta slow down. You beat me to third base before I crossed home plate. That stuck with me. I smile every time I think of it and how we were having fun with it. We were having fun and laughing. That’s how you play baseball. You battle every day and have fun doing it.”

Buxton's triples are distinct. He’s one of the few right-handed hitters in the game who can hit a line drive over the shortstop's head and think three bases is a realistic goal. About 20 percent of triples hit in the majors last season were hit to left field or left center, but five of Buxton's seven were hit to that part of the park.

According to Statcast, Buxton had three of the 10 fastest home-to-third times on triples over the past two seasons. That’s why on the 20-80 scouting scale, Buxton’s speed grades out as an 80.

What is the key to a Buxton triple?

“It’s more about getting out of the box,” Buxton said. “My first couple of steps out of the box usually dictate if I can push for a triple. It depends on how hard the outfielder is running and where the cutoff people are. There are a lot of things that go into it. Being blessed with the speed I have, I have an urgency to want to take those extra 90 feet. It allows me to keep going, push the tempo and get us another run. You have to be smart about it and know the game situation.”

Buxton’s love of hitting triples came from a conversation he had in high school with his father, when Buxton said he’d rather hit triples than home runs. Years later, the elder Buxton still encourages his son to be baseball savvy, so he gets on Byron if he doesn’t remember the details of his triples.

Buxton said his father will ask questions such as, "When did you hit this triple?"

"He expects me to know. I'll write down some details so when my dad gets on me about it, I know the answer. He gets mad when I don't know the answer and I'm supposed to. Really mad," Buxton said, laughing. "That's his competitive fire coming out."

The idea is to think the game out enough before you play it so that you can react rather than think once you’re on the field. As it turned out, thinking is what got Buxton into trouble at the plate. Said Twins bench coach Joe Vavra:

“He listens very well … to everything. Maybe [he listened] too much.”

Getting on track

When Buxton was called back up in September, conversations with his family and former Twins center fielder Torii Hunter steered him back on track. His mentality was to have less thought and more fun, or as he said of what he was told, "Play like when you were smaller."

“You didn’t think about much. You just wanted to go up there, hit the ball and make good plays … playing fearless, like I was 7 and having fun doing it," he said.

As a result, Buxton’s September was one to remember. He had been sent down to Triple-A in early August, and the move was just what he needed to get his game right.

“There was an air about him of, 'I know I can do this,'" Vavra said.

Upon his return on Sept. 1, he produced a slash line of .287/.357/.653 with two triples and nine home runs, including an inside-the-park homer that prompted the reaction in the photo atop this story. He became more aggressive against pitches in the upper half of the strike zone and walloped them, as shown in the chart on the right and in the heat maps below.

“The key for me was being in attack mode and not being passive,” Buxton said. “Not thinking about what pitch they might throw. I was just trying to see if they would throw me a pitch up in the zone that I could handle. It happened to work out, and I put some good swings on them.”

The future

So which Buxton will we see in 2017?

The different projection systems all have faith that he’s better than his full major league body of work would indicate, though those systems also refrain from endorsing him as being as good as he was in September last season.

Here are their outlooks:

Steamer: .243/.298/.411 with 15 home runs and 1.6 WAR

• PECOTA: .245/.297/.436 with 18 home runs, seven triples and 3.3 WARP

ZiPS: .259/.311/.444 with 16 home runs, and 3 WAR

PECOTA also offers what Baseball Prospectus’ system calls a “90th percentile” projection. This offers up the least likely but most optimistic version of what Buxton can be in 2017 -- .279/.335/.497 with 22 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 5.8 WARP. (WARP is Baseball Prospectus' version of WAR.)

Many people in the baseball community are impressed with Buxton but want him to show more.

“The majors exposed the challenge of putting the ball in play consistently,” Baseball Tonight analyst Doug Glanville said. “But we forget that he’s only 22. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, he’ll be an all-around impact player when all is said and done.”

“I’m buying into [September],” one scout said. “But it may not be until June before he gains a consistent approach at the plate. He tends to chase what he should not and take what he should hit. I think it will click for him after the cold weather lifts. He needs to realize that his home park [Target Field] is set up for his speed and using the whole field. A focused plan of discipline is key.”

Vavra said he is excited about the next phase of Buxton’s growth.

“You’ve just got to watch him grow,” Vavra said. “His base-stealing tendencies are going to improve. That improves with confidence. He has the dynamic to be that special, five-tool guy.

“There are a lot of speed guys, but not a lot of guys with the five tools like he has. So that’s a pretty special player.”

The legacy

As Buxton’s father has passed certain things on to his son, Buxton has done the same with his 3-year-old, Britton. The two like to race, and it’s evident the son has inherited some of his dad’s traits.

“He cries if he loses,” Buxton said with a laugh. “Now it’s to the point where he says, ‘Dad, let me win.’ He can’t beat me right now. But he’s fast. He can outrun my wife [Lindsay]. She can’t catch him. That’s a good sign, if he’s got my speed.”

It’s also a good sign that Buxton is feeling good about himself heading into this season. And he has wisdom to offer any other young player going through something similar:

“Stay in there,” he said. “Don’t get down on yourself; don’t feel sorry for yourself. Just keep battling, go out and compete every day. For every bad thing, there’s going to be a good outcome eventually. If you work toward your weakness and improve every day, it eventually becomes closer to one of your stronger strengths. Just keep the game fun and keep your passion and love for it.”