Think of it as the Minnesota Twins‘ version of a Shohei Ohtani question: What is the best way to extract the maximum on-field value from the considerable and varied skill set of Byron Buxton?

In an ideal world, the choice would be easy: He would be a fixture in center field.

Alas, this simple formula has been complicated by Buxton’s frequent injuries, the latest of which was knee trouble last August that ended his 2022 season and resulted in a procedure last September. This season, in an effort to keep Buxton’s bat in the lineup and protect his knee, Minnesota has used Buxton exclusively as a designated hitter.

This, too, would seem a simple thing if not for the fact that Buxton is one of the most impactful defenders of his generation and arguably the most athletic DH ever to log this much time at the position.

The ploy has worked, more or less, as Buxton has played in 91% of the Twins’ games, all at DH, and he has posted a 128 OPS+. But there is a cost to the plan, as the Twins are missing out on all the other stuff that Buxton does well like, you know, playing center field as well as anyone of his generation.

The answer to this dilemma is elusive, but it’s a fascinating conundrum. So let’s dig in.

First, we’re not trying to judge the Twins’ brain trust regarding its use of Buxton. Only the team, its training staff, manager Rocco Baldelli and Buxton himself can determine what he can and can’t do.

“For me, there’s no actual decision to make right now,” Baldelli said during a recent series in Chicago. “Because if he could go out there and play center field, if we believed he could go out there and do it, he would be out there.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next month or at the end of the year. The most important thing, though, is that he can play today and that he can play tomorrow and he can play the next day.”

Nevertheless, even Baldelli had to admit this is a compelling theoretical question, particularly if you like the math of baseball (and who doesn’t?). Ohtani comes to mind because if you remember back a few years, there actually used to be some debate about whether or not Ohtani should be a two-way player — and if he could play both sides of the ball on the same day. Inherent to that debate were calculations and speculations about how the Angels could maximize the on-field value of the sport’s most unique player.

The Ohtani debate is mostly settled, because who would want to change anything about that guy? And Buxton doesn’t pitch. Still, his significant value is based on a wide array of abilities. In short, he’s good at just about everything, with the notable exception of a strikeout rate that has tended to consign Buxton to low batting averages.

Because of this diverse set of skills, Buxton’s per-game rate of accruing wins above replacement (we’ll focus on the version of WAR ) has been among the game’s elite. Since Buxton broke into the majors, he ranks 46th among position players by WAR (21.2) but he’s 23rd on a per-game basis. The disparity stems from the fact that Buxton played in just 85 of every 162 games the Twins played from 2016, his first full season in the majors, through last season.

Underpinning the 21.2 career WAR Buxton has compiled are runs, or runs above average, to be more precise. By that metric, Buxton has been 129 runs better than the average player during his career, 125 of which were compiled before the current season.

Here’s a breakdown of where those runs above average came from:

Batting: 18
Baserunning: 22
Avoiding double plays: 8
Fielding: 68
Positional value: 9
TOTAL: 125

Right off the bat, you can see the problem: 77 of Buxton’s runs above average before this season were earned in areas he is closed off from when he is a DH. That’s 61.6% of his on-field value.

Now let’s look at the same breakdown for the current season:

Batting: 5
Baserunning: 2
Avoiding double plays: 1
Fielding: 0
Positional value: -3

The math, for the Twins, is daunting and becomes increasingly cumbersome as Buxton moves closer and closer to being ready for full-time duty. Also, keeping in mind that while that last figure (5) is runs above average, so even as a DH, Buxton is helping the Twins win. It’s just that he is capable of helping a whole lot more.

One way Buxton could make up for some of the lost value would be by being so comfortable in the DH role his hitting numbers blew up. That hasn’t really happened. Over his career, Buxton has put up a better OPS as a DH than overall (.832 to .778) but that sample isn’t very large and the difference isn’t that big. He’s at .834 this season.

The baserunning component is a wild card because the same factor that keeps him from playing defense also limits him on the bases. He has stolen four bases (all during May) and his sprint speed (29.1 feet per second, per StatCast) is the same as his elite figure from last season. Still, Baldelli has said that while the Twins aren’t holding Buxton back on the bases, some days he’ll be able to run, and some he won’t. All in all, Buxton has been pretty conservative on the bases.

The fielding component is pretty obvious: Buxton can’t help with the glove from the DH spot.

Finally, the positional value component is really interesting, even though it is squarely in the theoretical realm. The purpose of positional adjustments is to address the varying standards for hitting from position to position. The more important the position is defensively, the more offense you’re willing to sacrifice at the spot. Positional value attempts to account for this dynamic. And because you can get away with using literally any player as a DH, in WAR formulations that spot has negative positional value.

When you tie all the subcategories together, you find that through the 2022 season, Buxton accrued WAR at a rate of about 0.035 wins per game played. This season, that figure is 0.025, or 72.4% of his typical rate.

That chasm seems gigantic, but here’s the “problem”: Buxton has played in 91% of the Twins’ games, as mentioned. Prior to this season, that figure was 52%.

In other words, the Twins are getting more of a lesser version of Buxton. At his current pace, Buxton would earn 3.7 WAR by the end of the campaign if he were used exclusively at DH and continued to appear in 91% of Minnesota’s games.

At the 91% rate of appearances, Buxton is on target to appear in 147 games, which would be a career high. Last season, Buxton earned 4.0 WAR over 92 games. The season before that, it was 4.6 WAR in just 61 games.

Given Buxton’s usual per-game WAR rate, he’d have to appear in just 106 games to reach the 3.7 WAR he’s on pace for as a full-season DH. But if you want to think big and roll the dice, a 147-game version of the full-time Buxton, at his pre-DH production, is a five-plus WAR player and an MVP candidate. The downside is injury risk but, then again, maybe the Twins would get lucky … Buxton is certainly due some good injury luck.

So which is better: the full Buxton, but for fewer games, or the half-Buxton, for a lot of games?

Eventually, this question will move from theory to reality for the Twins. When Buxton is at full strength and begins increasing the focus of his daily preparation to envelop the defensive side of the ball, the Twins will have a lot to think about.

For one thing, the Twins have a lot of outfielders. Michael A. Taylor has won a Gold Glove, as has Joey Gallo. The Twins want to make sure younger players like Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach and Nick Gordon are still getting time.

Still, none of them have the impact of a healthy Buxton. If Buxton is manning center field on most days, he could still get half-rest days by DHing once or twice a week, and the Twins could use the spot more as an area to steal rest for others, like Carlos Correa and Gallo. The Twins rank third in WAR from DHs, but are 22nd in the overall outfield and 23rd in center field.

In the end, what seems clear is that however long it takes for the Twins to get Buxton back in his full glory, the best version of the club has him roaming center field, and that would especially be true in the postseason, when defense can turn a series, and when, not for nothing, the Twins will be trying to snap an epic 18-game playoff losing streak.

You have to get there first, of course, and while Minnesota is in a solid early position atop the tepid AL Central, the season is a long one and the pressures will change with the evolution of the standings board.

All through it, the Twins will have to monitor Buxton’s capacities, the performance of the rest of their roster and, like it or not, the math of using an intentionally reduced version of their most dynamic player.

We don’t know what the Twins should do, or when they should do it. But this Minnesota version of the Ohtani question is an amazing baseball puzzle, one that will take all summer to piece together.

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