BAXLEY, GA.—To see the best high school position player for the 2011 draft, scouts had to go to Gardner, Kan., to see outfielder Bubba Starling. While not a baseball hotbed, Gardner was a relatively easy trip, as it’s about 30 miles from downtown Kansas City.
Baxley, Ga., on the other hand, is much more remote. A Deep South town, population 4,509, Baxley is bisected by U.S. 341 about 100 miles southwest of Savannah, Ga., a 30-minute drive from the middle of nowhere. The nearest major airport is two hours south—in Jacksonville, Fla. The nearest lodging is at least 15 miles away.
Ask any scout, though, and they’ll tell you the trip is worth every bit of effort. Appling County High outfielder Byron Buxton is arguably the best player available in the 2012 draft, and when scouts describe him they draw comparisons to Matt Kemp, B.J. and Justin Upton and others.
“This guy is better than (Pirates outfielder Andrew) McCutchen,” a National League crosschecker says. “He’s probably the best player I’ve scouted.”
Through 88 at-bats this season, Buxton was hitting .545/.649/.852 with 51 runs, 22 RBIs and 31 stolen bases in 32 attempts. He had struck out just three times and was even a big contributor on the mound, going 6-0, 1.66 with 93 strikeouts and 16 walks in 46 innings.
Before April was out, however, the spike in Baxley’s tourism industry was already on the decline. It had nothing to do with Buxton’s numbers, but rather the realization by teams with picks outside of the top five that they had little chance to get him. At an Appling County game on April 14, the Pirates were the latest-picking team present. They have the eighth overall selection.
Baseball’s His Sport
At first glance, Buxton’s history isn’t much different than that of many other prospect. He began playing when he was 6 years old and played multiple sports for several years. He gave up basketball as a high school sophomore but continued playing football through his senior season. Still, he always knew his future was in baseball.
“I have a lot more fun in baseball,” Buxton says. “I have a passion for it.”
Scouts, of course, would love to see more players like Buxton commit to baseball as a career for the long term, but scouts and coaches alike see the benefits of playing multiple sports in high school.
“He’s mentally stronger now,” Appling County head coach Jeremy Smith said. “Playing football has helped with that.”
The former quarterback and wide receiver also knows the benefit of hard work. His father, Felton, is a truck driver, and his mother, Carrie, runs her own day care. Felton Jr., Byron’s older brother, is an engineer in the Navy, while their 8-year-old sister, Keva, has the job of “getting on my nerves,” Byron said.
Buxton does his share around the house, but he laughs at the idea of helping his mom watch young kids. Instead, he does the yard work or heads to the field to polish his baseball skills, especially the curveball away, which Buxton says is his biggest weakness right now.
As small as Baxley is, there isn’t much for Buxton to do except play baseball. He stays out of trouble and on top of his schoolwork. He also enjoys hanging out with his friends, and when he is out and about, people recognize him. The Pirates are in the midst of their fourth straight season with at least 20 wins, and the community shows strong support, attending games in substantial numbers—even on the road. When Buxton walks to the plate, cheers for “Buck” echo among the Appling faithful.
Appling County’s field features an open layout with bleachers, room for fans to set their lawn chairs right up against a stone wall backstop and an expansive concession area complete with a large grill. It could easily be mistaken for a game at a large suburban high school, but the hospitality and fan atmosphere is what you find in smaller communities—intimate friendliness among the spectators and a strong passion for their team and players.
Buxton enjoys the attention, though you wouldn’t know it without asking. He’s quiet and speaks slowly as he chooses his words carefully—almost the opposite of the way he plays. While Buxton doesn’t draw attention to himself off the field, he showed early on that he was special on it.
Smith had seen Buxton play since he was about 9 or 10 years old, but he really took notice when Buxton was a freshman.
“He played basketball so he got out here late,” Smith said. “He started on our JV team. We brought him up for like the last eight games. In our first regional championship, he homered and made a play in the gap. We knew we had something special then.”
Buxton wasn’t a big showcase guy, so the first time he really started to get widespread attention from scouts outside Georgia was last summer, in the East Coast Pro Showcase and Under Armour All-America Game, where he battled with Lewis Brinson in the home run derby.
“It was great competition,” Buxton said of his summer tour. “It showed me what I have to work on to be one of the top players.”
He picked up steam as the summer progressed and moved up draft boards, just confirming what some scouts had started to see during the spring of his junior year.
“My first impression was in a playoff game last year,” one front-office official said. “He was pitching, showing 93-94 mph. In his first at-bat, the pitch comes it at 93. I don’t think I saw a ball hit that hard all year; it flew out of the ballpark. In his next at-bat he hit a two-hopper to the shortstop and ran a 3.75 down the line. I said, ‘He might be the first pick in next year’s draft.’ ”
Appling County has faced prospects, like Larry Greene and Kaleb Cowart, in previous seasons, but Smith says Buxton is the best player they’ve seen. His tools are explosive. His bat is quick and he peppers the field with hard line drives. He gets down the line in a hurry and glides easily to fly balls in the outfield. Scouts view him as a pure center fielder and think skills like his don’t come around very often.
“It’s the best tool package you’ve seen in 10 years and he has the potential to hit,” the NL crosschecker said. “This kind of athlete doesn’t play our sport. He’s unique to our game. The ones we get don’t have a feel for the game. This guy does.”
Starling Vs. Buxton
You don’t have to go far back to find a prospect with similar tools and similar attention. Starling came with a lot of hype in 2011, mostly because of his dual commitment to Nebraska for football and baseball, but also because he excelled in all facets of the game. He was picked fifth overall in a deep draft class, but most scouts give the slight edge to Buxton when it comes to comparing the two.
“I was a big Starling guy,” a second National League crosschecker said. “There’s not much separation for me.”
Starling and Buxton have similar arm strength, as both were able to throw in the low 90s off the mound and will certainly make runners think twice before taking an extra base or tagging up. Both provide good defense in center, though Starling’s size may eventually push him to a corner. Starling’s power trumps Buxton’s, and Buxton’s lack of home runs (two in 88 at-bats) this spring might raise an eyebrow, but it’s typically the last tool to develop for young hitters.
The biggest differences come in their run and hit tools. Starling had less experience in baseball and his swing showed it at times. His athleticism allowed him to make adjustments, but there is still thought that he’ll be prone to strikeouts and might not hit for a high average. While he was a plus runner, it took a little bit for Starling to get going.
Buxton is at least a 70 runner on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, and no one questions his ability to stay in center field. No high school bat is safe, but scouts see less risk in Buxton.
“There’s less room for error,” the first crosschecker said. “He has less power, but it’s a better swing. He has better barrel control.”
Buxton is an electric player who can affect a game in a variety of ways, yet he has received comparatively little hype. With an emphasis on travel ball and showcases and finding prospects at the youngest possible age, Buxton is a bit of a throwback—a small town’s quiet, modest hero who seems destined for a life on the national stage, under the lights and in the big city.
He’s about to take his first step into the limelight, whether it’s as the No. 1 pick or something a few picks later. Either way, expect him to keep it simple and let his tools do the talking.
“I just go out and have fun,” Buxton said.