Byron Buxton: MLB Analytics Versus the Traditional Scout

There is a shift within baseball. Not one where a disproportionate number of fielders slide from one of the infield to another, but in the undeniable growth of analytics and the subsequent decline of the ‘traditional’ scout.

It is accepted that no singular number or statistic defines a player. Baseball is, by nature, built upon error. Still, analytics aims to accept error on the part of the athlete but is intended to remove the part attached to human bias – this is, in essence where odds on sites like William Hill baseball betting odds, would come into play for a specific game. Narrowed down to a single pitch, a fastball may read an identical speed across two radar guns, yet there might be two differing opinions as to its translation.

The new era has already arrived, and the use of analytics is growing stronger each year. The aforementioned shift on the field — where infielders change position based on the likelihood of a ground ball in a specific area — is completely driven by statistics. Even if the entire crop of left-handed hitters suddenly began slapping the ball through a gaping hole at shortstop, the fielders’ new adjustments would be decided by numbers. Probabilities.

These probabilities of a specific act are relatively defined — although gradually changing over the course of larger sample sizes. But what about the player, himself? What about his probability to reach his potential? There are no hard numbers to help determine the actual likelihood that a player will become an All-Star. Only the peripheral numbers that suggest that he can.

Enter Byron Buxton.

For the past few years, Minnesota’s Byron Buxton has been the crowned jewel of the entire Minor League Baseball system. Considered a ‘can’t-miss’ prospect across the board, Buxton was a borderline folk hero, where the presentation of his box score for a given night might as well have been attached to a poem in his honor.

Like many Minor League ballplayers, access to Buxton’s at-bats were somewhat limited — although growing rapidly in recent years. The numbers were there, but the stories were usually told through an eyewitness of some sort. A scout.

Ironically, the numbers were not actually there. Indeed, they were present and capable of being tracked. Those who delve into analytics of Minor League players were easily able to ascertain enough information to make an educated projection. But the fact that a story was always tied to the statistics suggested that a story was needed to mask them. If this were true, one — the legend or the facts — would ultimately be wrong.

A direct look at Buxton’s Minor League numbers begins to explain the discrepancy. Despite which metric is accepted as ‘best,’ at a given time, Buxton was wildly inconsistent. At age 19, across two lower levels of the Twins’ Minor League system, Buxton batted .334 with a .424 on-base percentage and .520 slugging percentage. It is easy to see where the heroic comparisons formed.

The following season, Buxton’s numbers collapsed to the point that his on-base percentage of .307 was 27 points lower than his batting average from the prior year. Not coincidentally, this 2014 season was cut drastically short due to injury.

The roller coaster continued until a scheduled pit stop on June 14, 2015, where mega-prospect Byron Buxton would make his Major League Baseball debut. Finally, the inconsistent numbers that formed the lower-end projections would clash with the tall tales of baseball scouts that had judged Buxton the ‘old-fashioned’ way. A resolution would not be made via one single game, but the beginning had certainly arrived.

Analytics won the first game of a potentially decade-long series when Buxton struck out twice en route to an 0-for-4 debut. The encore began similarly, as Buxton’s first two at-bats in his second game were outs, placing the young outfielder in an 0-for-6 hole to start his career.

The sample size was small, but the slight shift in favor of the pessimists was enough to tilt the scales. With little to use as the foundation of an argument, those who had lauded Buxton were quickly being silenced by those who trusted in probabilities and percentages. In a way that only Byron Buxton could do, he would prove both sides were right by the end of the night.

In his third at-bat of his second career game, the right-handed Buxton hit a line drive into the gap in left-center field. Immediately, interest was piqued. For nearly the entire league, this was a routine double. For Buxton, it was his chance to shine.

The stories told by the scouts always left the impression that one could not grasp Buxton’s potential unless they watched him play. Specifically, unless they watched him run. As Buxton bolted out of the batter’s box and around the bases, it was impossible to be ignorant to what the scouts saw. Buxton skated into third base for a triple in a blur. The young man appeared to be a star.

Eventually, the book will be written on Byron Buxton. His story will end in any number of ways, and he might become just another ballplayer. Throughout his journey, however, he will also carry the responsibility of those tied to his failure and success.

Consensus thinking can shift rapidly at a given time. Once a top prospect, Buxton can be universally vilified or romanticized if he proves worthy of either. Uniting the two sides — traditional scouting and analytics — will, in effect, devalue one.

As the momentum has already began to swing towards statistical analysis, it has the upper hand to survive a miscalculation on Buxton. Such an event would revive the scouting world — at least, temporarily. If Buxton does prove to be a bust, however, he will likely drag down more than himself and his followers. In the end, the prospect’s development means more than statistics in a box score.

Byron Buxton is the last hope for the traditional scout.

Featured Image Credit: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA (Byron Buxton) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Mario Mergola
Mario Mergola is a writer, avid sports fan, former ESPN Radio producer, husband, and father who specializes in finding the hidden gems of the less-explored option. Follow @MarioMergola

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