I’ve avoided even mentioning all-encompassing phrases for the majority of my time writing about baseball, but this theme of defensive value permeating fantasy esteem has emerged from the depths of the internet to catch my intrigue; Buxton has rekindled that curiosity.
Fantasy sports deal so much with numbers, the latent reasons why we make some decisions are never actually recognized. I traded Xander Bogaerts and Michael Conforto for Francisco Lindor after a month of baseball in a redraft categories league. For a short period of time, I felt duped by the name value of “Mr. Smile,” attributing my fault to the wizardry he has displayed at shortstop. But I was wrong. Lindor has quietly produced a season good for 61st overall in roto leagues, a rare contributor in each of the five hitting categories. Conforto left that fantasy team of mine with the hopes of all Mets fans acutely pressed on his shoulders. Reflecting on the only healthy individual on the Mets season – jk lolz – I’m surprised the outfielder still sits as a top 100 player (85th overall). With Bogaerts struggling mightily in the second half, I’d give the advantage to myself in the deal, with the extra credit that Lindor’s production right now is vital to my title run chances.
As you can see from my deliberation above, there are so many ways to analyze a deal it’s nearly impossible to isolate the thoughts crossing my mind at the time of hitting the accept button. Given that very few analysts look at players like purely robotic number vomiters, from that loose assumption, we can infer at least some valuation methods for the average owner let personality, team affiliation, and – most relevant to Buxton – defense and pedigree, seep into projections. The reason I’ve come to even avoid a seemingly correct “all-encompassing phrase” like the one I opened this column with is because ticking in the back of my mind is yet another qualifier. There might be a reason that only five of the top 20 defensive rating scores (DEF) on Fangraphs are from players with negative baserunning scores (BSR), and two of those five are catchers. Speed is one of the things we rarely lose a craving for as seasons progress, and it also happens to be an intersection of those two skills. Runs and stolen bases might be the least appealing fantasy statistics, but they make up 40% of the categories in roto formats. At the same time, maybe this connection means absolutely nothing for the player himself, but that defense and speed can help the pitchers around him and the hitters he protects.
The connections are endless, with the underlying theme emerging that even when you think a skill means nothing, it could have a small impact on other areas of the game. It may seem dubious, but add up those small impacts and it could mean the difference between finishing first and second in your league.
All my banter about past decisions and paths of player valuation circle us back to the ultimate question: Is Buxton the prince we were promised (I’ll miss you, Game of Thrones)?
The obvious mechanical change – which surely has some relevance to Buxton’s torrid second half – is the elimination of his leg kick. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs does a great job of GIF’ing this change, and it’s obvious enough that even your sports-inept friends would be able to spot the consolidation of his pre-swing movements. Rhythm is another aspect of hitting that I’ve talked about before with players like Orlando Arcia, and if you watch the trio of GIFs in Sullivan’s linked column, the two most recent hacks show quieted pre-stride hand motions from Buxton. He’s more direct to the zone, and improving his ability to square up breaking balls – as I’d venture a guess the leg kick wasn’t helping to keep his weight centered he was fooled. In this GIF coming below, take a look at how much less he is swinging and missing at breaking balls around the zone, but especially below the knees. Each of those three quadrants directly below the strike zone have seen substantial reduction in whiffs.
Above is one of the many pieces of hard evidence supporting the legitimacy of Buxton’s 5% increase in overall contact rate and nearly 6% increase in contact out of the zone. We want Buxton to put the ball in play so he can produce off his .323 career BABIP with his elite speed. These mechanical tweaks might make that a reality.
What about Buxton’s fantasy value? Remember, that’s independent of the value he produces in centerfield – essentially, remember our intro? Even though it might help arms like Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana, I don’t think I’ll be playing in any niche “defensive runs saved leagues” anytime soon. But the speed and instincts part of Buxton’s game were essentially the reason he was praised in his youth when the tools hadn’t turned into skills yet.
Let’s break up my rambling with one reason that defense might help an outfielder’s pitching staff…
Based on sprint speed heres what it would be like to have the 3 slowest players in an OF vs the 3 fastest (Outer band 6 sec hang time) pic.twitter.com/5exrnHvbZl
— Daren Willman (@darenw) September 2, 2017
Razzball’s Player Rater is pessimistic, slotting him behind Howie Kendrick and Kevin Kiermaier as nothing more than a fifth outfielder rest of season. It sees a slash-line of .247/.307/.415, with an added trio of both home runs and stolen bases. As evidenced by the numerous exasperations that Buxton is under owned, there is this thing called fantasy football – which Razzball slaughtered last year – so add 15% ownership when accounting for all those abandoned leagues (#RIP) and stop putting it in your columns!
More important than the lack of ownership is the Player Rater nulling any positive effect of the changes we just talked about. Buxton’s next 30 games are projected to essentially be a quarter of his aggregate production to date. In some ways this says, “We’re not completely dismissing his changes, but aren’t fully bought in until we have confidence that Buxton doesn’t revert back to first-half Buxton when pitchers adjust back.” Wait… you guys didn’t know the Player Rater could talk?
The thing about pitchers adjusting back is Buxton’s new approach – much better discipline and contact on breaking balls down in the zone – is a hard one to counter. For the first time in Buxton’s career, I think he might have pitchers on their toes.
Logic would suggest pitchers will continue to expand the zone on Buxton, focusing more on the outer-half, where some swing-and-miss still exists (see GIF above). If this is the course of action, it will be a great test to see if Buxton’s improved discipline – 7% strikeout cut in second half – will stick. Laying off pitches buried low-and-away will shoot up his OBP, and his steals should appreciate as a result.
Smokey highlighted Buxton as a SAGNOF specialist, and I still believe that is where the majority of his value will come from. Buxton is the only player in baseball with 20+ stolen bases and only one unsuccessful attempt. He exists with a beyond elite efficiency, near speedsters like Billy Hamilton and Whit Merrifield – yes, Whit Merrifield is an extremely efficient base stealer. Because the majority of Buxton’s fantasy value is embedded in this speed, an efficiency this high suggests we’re in less danger of seeing severe fluctuation in attempts.
In the second half, Buxton is sitting on a .327 average with a .370 BABIP; high indeed, but not the .400+ we see in a lot of other streakers that screams regression. Buxton isn’t developed offensively enough for me to think he is a .300 hitter, but if we believe in his improved contact rate, then he isn’t the .250 bat the Player Rater is pegging him for. Mixing in the positives with the negatives, Buxton is probably in the midst of a hot streak, but the valley after this peak shouldn’t be as low as its ancestors in the first-half. I think there is a .270 hitter in there for next year, with upwards of 40 steals for an optimistic projection. I believe in the approach he has going, and the only thing to flip that on its head will be if I’m underestimating how pitchers can pivot to get Buxton out – or whatever the heck pivoting to video means.
I’m not sold on the improved power numbers just yet, but what I am sold on is that pitchers are going to have a tougher time adjusting back to Buxton this time around, and when they do, the spotlight turns back to Buxton’s contact rate and its ability to hang near its current level. With a .270 version of Buxton, confidence for even more improvement can pile up like Razzball fan-mail, and the extent to which that happens will dictate how high his value can soar… and how many envelopes our interns have to open.
With all this jargon, I’m pleased it’s finally time to address all that really matters. Buxton’s birthday is December 18th, the same day as super-prospect Ronald Acuna, and least importantly, myself. When you shoot out a birthday tweet this winter to Buxton and Acuna, don’t hesitate to toss in yours truly. To do that, you need to follow me… so do that first.