It was suggested under this byline last September, to some derision, that Byron Buxton might be a legitimate contender for the 2020 American League Most Valuable Player Award.
There were better candidates, such as winner Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber, but Buxton’s value to the Minnesota Twins was clear at the time. When he played, Minnesota was 26-12.
That number, of course, neatly summed up the fact that Buxton’s presence is not just important but too infrequent. Since his first callup in 2015, Buxton has been on the injured/disabled list 13 times.
But fewer are snickering at the idea of Buxton, the second overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, completely fulfilling his rare potential.
After his 393-foot home run into the second deck in left field in a 10-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Thursday, the first crowd of any size to watch a baseball game at Target Field in 18 months serenaded the Twins center fielder as he rounded the bases.
“MVP! MVP! MVP!”
It was modest as “MVP” chants go, but it’s April and the crowd was limited by the pandemic to 9,675. If Buxton continues to hit as he has early, and the pandemic continues to wane as vaccinations ramp up, those chants will be more hearty in August.
Batting from the cleanup spot for just the second time in his career, Buxton went 3 for 5 with a single, double and homer as the Twins improved to 5-2. April has never been Buxton’s best month at the plate; in fact it’s been his worst — he’s a career .202 hitter in March and April.
In six games, he’s hitting .421 with a team-leading four homers, four RBIs and four runs scored.
Rocco Baldelli couldn’t remember if he was the one who penciled Buxton into the No. 4 spot in the order before Thursday, but the Twins manager said it just made sense against left-hander Marco Gonzalez on Thursday.
“He’s been swinging the bat great, and with the lineup today, he just seemed to fit the configuration today in that spot,” Baldelli said. “He’s playing fantastic, from every angle, giving us great at-bats. He’s just finding the barrel, and it’s coming off so hot right now. That’s just what we’re getting from Buck right now.”
It wasn’t just his bat, of course. He tracked down everything hit in the air near center field, as usual, and reached base four times, beating out a potential double-play ball in a four-run third inning to put runners at first and third with one out.
Instead of having two outs and an open first base, Gonzalez had to face Mitch Garver with Buxton in his peripheral vision and gave up a three-run home run that stopped only because it hit the batter’s eye in center field.
It’s that speed that has made Buxton a major factor for the Twins every time he plays. He saves runs and takes extra bases. Now, it appears, his bat is catching up to the rest of his game.
“Everybody in this room has a purpose on our team, but he’s got something special,” said right-hander Jose Berrios, who got a standing ovation after allowing two earned runs and fanning eight in 5 2/3 innings Thursday. “He brings a lot of energy, he’s the fastest (player) in the game, and when he’s healthy, he can hit and run. We can see it so far this season, and that’s who Byron is.”
With only one full season — 140 games in 2017 — Buxton has been like a great trailer for an OK movie: The highlights were amazing, but there weren’t enough of them. So, those who suspect we’re seeing another in a long line of short spurts from Buxton can be forgiven.
But if this becomes the Summer of Buxton, it will only be appropriate. Twins fans have waited for the second overall pick of the 2012 amateur draft to become a superstar even longer than they’ve been waiting to go to a baseball game.
For those who dare to dream, there is room on the Byron Buxton bandwagon.