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Byron Buxton's early career struggles aren't unique

The future of the Twins is back in Triple-A after a miserable start. He's in good company.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Miguel Sano was supposed to be one of the best and brightest prospects in the majors. He arrived in the majors and hit a bunch of long home runs, just like he was supposed to. And that's the riveting story about how the talented prospect became a talented major leaguer.

Seems unremarkable, right? It's like the story about the guy who wants to make nachos and goes to the store to buy chips. Except it's not always that easy. It's not often that easy. Young players go from facing fringe prospects and 30-year-old journeymen to the best baseball players in the world. If you're not expecting a few struggles, you're not paying attention.

This sets up the temporarily sad tale of Byron Buxton, who is back in the minor leagues after another miserable trial in the majors. If it isn't ultra-surprising for a talent like Sano to succeed immediately, it's even less surprising for a 22-year-old to have a rough introduction into the majors. Two points make Buxton especially noteworthy, though:

  1. He's not just a random prospect, he's one of the 10 best prospects in baseball for years now.
  2. We're not talking about a teensy little slump. He's been awful.

Awful in this case is defined as 187 plate appearances of .195/.239/.316, spread over parts of two seasons. He was hitting .156/.208/.289 with 24 strikeouts in 49 plate appearances to start this season, which isn't much better than the average pitcher in the National League so far. It takes a legendary slump for a team to look prudent when they use a couple dozen at-bats to make a serious roster decision. This qualifies.

So our job today is to make Twins fans feel better about Byron Buxton. The best way to do that is by finding the peers, All-Stars and legends who went through a similar stretch. If these players improved after their early hiccups, why not Byron Buxton?

The current players

This is going to be a little tricky because we don't want to ignore everyone who struggled when they were younger than 22, but we have to acknowledge that it's exponentially more likely that a teenager will struggle in his introduction to the majors. Alex Rodriguez hit .204/.241/.204 for 59 plate appearances in his first season in the majors, but he was also 18. That shouldn't count. Although he's hitting like that again, if only to remind you that nothing is permanent and everything will eventually decay into nothingness, up to and including the sun.

So to find the best comp, we want someone who was a) a well-known prospect, b) expected to just slide right into the major league lineup, but c) hit only a touch better than the average National League pitcher. The most important part of the comp might be the strikeouts and walks, really, because it eliminates any cases of small-sample luck goblins and focuses on the players who were completely spun around.

Adrian Gonzalez hit .227/.272/.407 with 37 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 162 plate appearances in his debut with the Rangers. He ticks off the top-prospect box as a former first overall pick, and he was a year older than Buxton is now. But the isolated power hinted at the player he eventually became. Close, but not quite.

The same disclaimer about power goes for 22-year-old Carlos Gonzalez, who hit .242/.273/.361 with the A's over 302 at-bats in his rookie season. At the same time Gonzalez was struggling, Carlos Gomez was hitting .258/.296/.360 for the Twins. We all know that had a happy resolution. For the not-Twins. Let's move on.

Also, Carlos Gonzalez got 302 at-bats with the A's.

Anthony Rizzo's disaster of a debut (.141/.281/.242 in 153 plate appearances) was close to Buxton's, enough to make the Padres think, "If only there were a way to exchange this 21-year-old prospect for a young pitcher with a sore shoulder!" But he was showing off a patience that Buxton can't match, at least not yet.

No, the best active comparison for a top prospect who struggled at the same age, in a similar way, with similar tools? Brandon Phillips, who hit .208/.242/.311 as a 22-year-old in his first full season for the Indians, striking out a bunch and hardly walking. He was Baseball America's No. 7 prospect overall before the 2003 season, but his struggles would be so pronounced that he got just 33 more plate appearances for them over the next two seasons, spending most of his time in Triple-A instead.

So if you're worried about Buxton, don't! He might be traded for the next Jeff Stevens.

The All-Stars

Kenny Lofton was one of the best tools-to-numbers success stories of his generation, a basketball player who was something of a bunt-first hitter, even in college. If there were a reasonable chance of him hitting a lick, he would have gone in any of the 16 rounds before he was selected. When he came up as a 24-year-old -- not exactly a young prospect -- he hit .209/.253/.216 over 79 PA. That's a line that tells you he needs to make better contact, he needs to be more patient, and he needs to hit the ball harder. Basically, he needed to do every single part of hitting much, much better. Just like Buxton.

He did. Just like Buxton? Dunno yet, but it's possible to make a sweet list of former All-Stars who had an OPS under .650 in their first exposure to the majors (min. 50 AB), only to get Rookie of the Year votes during their first full season.

  • Davey Johnson
  • Larry Bowa
  • Bucky Dent
  • George Bell
  • Jesse Barfield
  • Mark McGwire
  • Ron Gant
  • Larry Walker
  • Robin Ventura
  • Kenny Lofton
  • Manny Ramirez
  • Jim Edmonds
  • Alfonso Soriano
  • Troy Tulowitzki
  • Dustin Pedroia
  • Jose Iglesias

That's a mighty impressive list. Yet they were all making their hometown fans roll their eyes and complain. "This Manny Ramirez kid ... I don't know about this guy. Can't hit a breaking ball. They should trade him for (unrealistic trade target)." They were all fine.

I know this doesn't mean that Buxton will be fine. We're getting to that. But not before we get to the Hall of Famers!

Hall of Famers

Craig Biggio was a mess as a 22-year-old catcher, hitting .211/.254/.350 for the Astros. Mike Piazza had an identical .604 OPS at the same position in his first season, except he was also fighting uphill against pre-draft expectations that suggested he'd top out at Double-A if he was lucky. Those early struggles must have felt like terrifying validation.

Andre Dawson didn't hit a single home run as a 21-year-old for the Expos, walking just five times in 92 PA, with a .235/.278/.306 line. That's an excellent comp for Buxton, as far as raw tools go, and Dawson was one of the better prospects in the game at the time, rushing through the minors after coming out of baseball powerhouse Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University

If you're looking for a best-case scenario of a Hall of Famer who was completely dizzy in his debut, though, a combination of tools and whiffs and fear, it's Reggie Jackson. Buxton probably isn't going to join the 500-homer club, no, but Jackson was striking out in a third of his plate appearances back when hitters just didn't do that. He was playing on a 99-loss team that was about to move away from Kansas City, so you know the fans that showed up weren't exactly quiet and respectful about his struggles.

Starting from the very next season, he was Reggie Jackson, candy bar magnate and refreshingly blunt superstar. I would be proud to eat a Byron Crunchton candy bar.

Feeling better, Twins fans? There's a list of Hall of Famers, MVPs and All-Stars who did just fine after struggling like Buxton did. Relax. He just needs more time after injuries stole some at-bats from him.

Your job now is to not think too hard about Eric Anthony, Ty Griffin, Andujar Cedeno, Mark Lewis, Tim Costo, Jeff McNeely, Marc Newfield, Mike Kelly, Ray McDavid, David McCarty, Ruben Rivera, Brian Hunter, Karim Garcia, Ben Davis, Derrick Gibson, Travis Lee, Chad Hermansen, Ruben Mateo, Pablo Ozuna, Alex Escobar, Corey Patterson, Dee Brown, Chin-Feng Chen, Sean Burroughs, Drew Henson, Antonio Perez, Wilson Betemit, Austin Kearns, Joe Borchard, Angel Berroa, Casey Kotchman, Jason Stokes, Andy Marte, Josh Barfield, Ian Stewart, Joel Guzman, Lastings Milledge, Dallas McPherson, Jeremy Hermida, Brandon Wood, Reid Brignac, Andy LaRoche, Fernando Martinez, Lars Anderson, Gordon Beckham or any other of the top-20 hitting prospects from the last two decades who didn't turn out as expected just because they had the tools, expectations and a scouting pedigree. There are no guarantees.

There are no guarantees. Baseball is hard. Buxton knows that now, and it's probably the first time in his life that he's ever realized it.

The good news is that plenty of other excellent baseball players had to figure it out, too. Oh, and that bit about Sano laying waste to the American League immediately after arriving?

2016 WAR

Byron Buxton: 0.0
Miguel Sano -0.1

Baseball is hard, even if you have the hitting part down. At least Buxton's legs probably won't slump. He'll be back. And I'll wager he's more Kenny Lofton than Joe Borchard. It's still impossibly early in what should be an excellent career.