MINNEAPOLIS — Byron Buxton finished his first homestand for Minnesota with quite the challenge in Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale, the three-time-and-counting All-Star left-hander who will likely appear on the schedule many times in the coming seasons as a division rival of the Twins.
He had four appearances at the plate.
He struck out four times.
Even for one of baseball’s multi-skilled, much-hyped prospects gracing the game this summer, the adjustment to major league pitching is unlike any learning curve perhaps in all of professional sports. Especially for a 21-year-old like Buxton, who has played only 60 games in Double-A and none in Triple-A.
“You don’t see that down there,” Buxton said Wednesday, still able to flash a smile after his harsh initiation against Sale.
The ever-cautious Twins didn’t plan to call up Buxton this soon, but injuries to other outfielders prompted the move. There’s no guarantee he’ll stay with Minnesota for good, particularly considering how rough some of his at-bats have been. Buxton is hitting .189 in 11 games, with at least one strikeout in all but one of them.
“You get up there in the box, it’s a different thing,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said, adding: “But you learn. You keep learning every time up there.”
Forget for a second about the speed, the powerful arm and the .866 on-base-plus-slugging percentage he’s posted over his minor league career. The Twins have shaped their future around Buxton, the highlight of a handful of standout young players on the cusp of being part of the core of their roster, partly because they believe in his attitude, character and desired balance of confidence and humility.
The second overall pick in the 2012 draft came from a tiny town in rural southeast Georgia, far from the bright lights of the big-league life.
“How you’re wired and your makeup and your ability to control your emotions when things kind of get geared up around you — all those things help, but that being said, I haven’t seen too many players in a long time who can just insert themselves in a major league lineup and be as natural as we will see over time,” Molitor said.
Despite the obvious inexperience at the plate, Buxton has already created plenty of highlights. He hit a stand-up triple in his second game. He has used that long stride tracked down fly balls in either gap with ease. He went 3 for 5 with three runs Monday, his first time in the leadoff spot, including a routine groundball to shortstop that he beat out for a single.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan told Molitor he clocked Buxton’s home-to-first as the fastest he’d ever recorded for a right-handed hitter in all his years of scouting the game. Ryan later offered a caveat, in his typical understated fashion.
“I’ve seen faster times,” Ryan said, “but those have been on drag bunts.”
Molitor, another key decision-maker of this franchise who’s hardly prone to hyperbole, acknowledged Tuesday “the fan” in him was tempted to keep Buxton first in the lineup the day after his so-far-career-best performance at the plate. Buxton was moved back to ninth against the right-hander Jeff Samardzija, but returned to the leadoff spot against Sale the following day.
Molitor paraphrased former Twins manager Tom Kelly, a roving instructor and special assistant for the organization, in describing his perspective from the dugout on the addition of Buxton to the team.
“When he’s on the field and he’s involved with something, you don’t want to take your eyes off him. You’re not sure what’s going to happen, and I mean that in the most positive of senses,” Molitor said, adding: “It’s just constant potential electrifying giftedness, you know? It’s just something that you don’t want to miss. You hear the oohs and ahs when he strikes out. He’s just kind of brought that, between expectation and the things he can do. People are paying attention to him.”
The list of lessons has been long, from the approach at the plate to making the right read on the pitcher when trying to steal a base to tracking balls in center field.
“It’s getting better,” Buxton said, “day by day.”