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Kepler Finally Maxing Out

Max Kepler is my favorite Twins player, something that has been true ever since he stole my heart with his performance in July of 2016. If you remember (I truly hope you do not), the Twins were mostly unwatchable that year as they rolled over and died from the very beginning and slogged their way towards the worst record in baseball. Their reward was Royce Lewis and a fresh FO, but at what cost? There wasn’t much else to gain from the season but the play of the young prospect caught my eye and his three home run game on Aug. 1 that year cemented my appreciation for him.
Image courtesy of © Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports
My connections to Kepler run a bit deeper too. My last name implies a strong German heritage (Braun means “brown” in German), so naturally I stuck to Kepler. Of course, the similarities pretty much end there as he can hit major league pitching and my baseball career ended once the breaking balls were introduced to me.

Anyways, Kepler ended that year with a modest 93 wRC+ and a 1.3 fWAR over 113 games. Passable numbers for sure, but the potential for Max seemed higher thanks to his top prospect status, great athleticism, and low BABIP which seemed to be signs that a breakout season was coming soon. Kepler put up the same wRC+ in 2017, a somewhat baffling occurrence as a breakout seemed all but inevitable that year.

Of course, there is always next year and the Kepler celebrations were paused until 2018 where he hit for a wRC+ of … 97. Scientists and baseball writers were bewildered as his walk rate jumped 3.3% while his strikeout rate dropped 4.4%, both things that would suggest a breakthrough, yet it didn’t quite occur. Kepler’s defensive numbers were better in 2018 so his fWAR jumped from 1.4 to 2.6, but this was not quite the way everyone wanted Kepler to improve.

Between his start in 2016 and the end of the 2018 season, Kepler’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) sat at an astonishingly low .257. Among those with 1500+ plate appearances in that time period, he comes in with the fifth-lowest BABIP in all of baseball. Some of the names that come in around him are Todd Frazier, Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols, Carlos Santana, Maikel Franco, Curtis Granderson, and Salvador Perez. There’s a general theme here of slow, lethargic and (mostly) guys who would no longer be considered “athletic” by MLB standards. But then there’s Kepler, who BaseballSavant has in the 59th percentile for sprint speed, an above average level.

Why his BABIP is so low remains beyond me as looking into his batted ball profile leaves me even more confused than before. His soft/med/hard hit % slash line is almost identical to George Springer from 2016-2018, yet Springer holds a BABIP .049 points above him. His pull/center/oppo % slash line resembles Victor Martinez’s from 2016-2018, yet even old man V-Mart was able to put up a .281 BABIP. And to top it all off, his FB/GB/LD % slash line over 2016-2018 matches up well with Rougned Odor, yet the small stink was able to out BABIP him by .017 points.

Now, every player has a BABIP that is unique to them and their batted-ball profile. Some can hold higher numbers than others while some just naturally have lower ball in play ability, but Kepler’s BABIP will always remain perplexing to me, what is making it so that this guy cannot get a hit to save his life?

But enough about the past, we can’t change it anyways. What about Kepler so far this year? Well thank you so much for asking, Kepler is holding a respectable 118 wRC+ in 2019 as he continues to usually bat lead off in an extremely potent Twins lineup. His average exit velocity of 91.4 MPH is higher than his career average of 89.2 and the MLB average of 87.4.

What is probably the least shocking about a hitter in 2019 is that he also now has a career high pull rate of 56.2% which is 11.4% higher than his average and his average launch angle is currently 15.7 degrees, a number that is actually lower than his 2018 launch angle average, but a mark that is above the MLB average of 11.0 degrees. Or, to put it simply, he’s pulling the ball in the air more, which is a good thing.

Oh and by the way, he’s also swinging way more than usual, which is probably a good thing for him. His swing rate is at 51.9%, a number that would place him in the top 20 of qualified free swingers in baseball last year and is also 9.3% higher than his swing rate last year. The return is that his walk rate is slightly down (but still great) while his K rate is slightly up (but still very manageable) yet because he’s hitting the ball hard I don’t think he or the Twins care too much.

At the start of spring training, the Twins inked Kepler to a five-year, $35 million extension that would make him a free agent in 2025. The deal basically ensured that Kepler would be paid a guaranteed amount of life-altering money while the Twins hedged their bets that the still young Kepler could break through and make a $7 million AAV deal look like a steal. And even if he never improved over his 2018 self, $7 million a year for a solid OFer is still pocket change.

The next major sign of confidence has come in his nearly daily placing at the very top of the Twins lineup, a move that has been questioned less and less as the year has started but was a somewhat puzzling play when it was first announced.

Nonetheless, the budding star (and yes, I do mean star) has started to flash the offensive capabilities that the Twins believed he had in him thanks to some changes in his approach at the plate and if he holds it over a full season with his 2018 level of defense, you are looking at a legitimate top-five right fielder in all of MLB.

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13 Comments

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twinsfaninsaudi
May 12 2019 03:27 AM
No one ever talks about how his real name is Maximilian.
    • Mike Frasier Law, woolywoolhouse and bighat like this
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the_brute_squad
May 12 2019 05:25 AM

I'd be curious to see what his PO% is? He and Rosario have to lead the team in getting out via the pop up. If that's the case, it certainly would make sense as to why his babip is low.

    • bighat likes this
Really good article. I think you may have answered why Kep’s career BABIP is low and has increased this year. Historically he hit balls mostly Right Center and Center, the deepest part of the park. Fly balls that don’t leave the park are usually outs.

Now that he’s started pulling the ball more off that target field limestone and over it, he’s getting better success.

Exciting to watch that young man mature. All the tools and it’s finally seemingly coming together.
    • DocBauer likes this

A player with similar numbers to Kepler right now is Joc Pederson. Not sure what that says, but it's interesting.

 

We focus on Kepler's offense (as well we should) but he plays a very nice RF and can move to center without any problems. So far he seems to fit pretty well in this aggressive Twins lineup. I'd still like to see him take more pitches at the top of the order but I'm not going to make a big deal of it. Plenty of time left this season to make adjustments.

    • Dantes929, Sconnie, DocBauer and 1 other like this

Pineda with the quality start yesterday BTW - and Stewart had one too. How many QS in a row is that for the Twins? Wow.

 

Hildy was the lone black mark but I don't second-guess putting him in there. We have Rogers fresh for today if needed, Perez on the mound, and the Twins are in good position to take 3-of-4 which is what they wanted out of this series.

 

Astudillo is back. Sano is reportedly going to spend a couple weeks down in AAA because they want him to get used to playing every day...

 

Adrianza is out of options but valuable as both a PR and a defensive infielder. La Tortuga is going to have to play his behind off in the next two weeks. Otherwise I fear it'll be AAA for Willians. As much as we all complain about Adrianza, he has value and with no options it's hard to imagine the Twins would just give him away.

 

If that's the biggest problem the Twins have in the foreseeable future, things are going well!

    • DocBauer likes this

A player with similar numbers to Kepler right now is Joc Pederson. Not sure what that says, but it's interesting.

We focus on Kepler's offense (as well we should) but he plays a very nice RF and can move to center without any problems. So far he seems to fit pretty well in this aggressive Twins lineup. I'd still like to see him take more pitches at the top of the order but I'm not going to make a big deal of it. Plenty of time left this season to make adjustments.

I’m not sure I buy into the “leadoff hitters job is to see as many pitches as possible” narrative, but agree, a few more walks to balance the current strategy of “ambush the first pitch meatball” would really be a plus. Kepler seems more likely to develop that than Rosario, but maybe less likely than Polanco. It’s been fun watching these guys grow right in front of us like the Puckett/Hrbek group in the 80s
    • mikelink45, DocBauer and bighat like this

 

 It’s been fun watching these guys grow right in front of us like the Puckett/Hrbek group in the 80s

This right here.  Maybe the increased swing rate can be partly attributed to Astudillo?

Taking walks is of course not a horrible thing, but the old moneyball trend that placed such high praise (and not without mathematical merit) on them perhaps got in the heads of some players and hitting coaches for a while.  Basically, the idea is to put the ball in play--that is what makes it fun.  Which is why you see Dad's everywhere swinging at pitches literally 6 feet above their heads while their kids pitch to them.

 

Pineda with the quality start yesterday BTW - and Stewart had one too. How many QS in a row is that for the Twins? Wow.

 

Hildy was the lone black mark but I don't second-guess putting him in there. We have Rogers fresh for today if needed, Perez on the mound, and the Twins are in good position to take 3-of-4 which is what they wanted out of this series.

 

Astudillo is back. Sano is reportedly going to spend a couple weeks down in AAA because they want him to get used to playing every day...

 

Adrianza is out of options but valuable as both a PR and a defensive infielder. La Tortuga is going to have to play his behind off in the next two weeks. Otherwise I fear it'll be AAA for Willians. As much as we all complain about Adrianza, he has value and with no options it's hard to imagine the Twins would just give him away.

 

If that's the biggest problem the Twins have in the foreseeable future, things are going well!

Two disagreements - the first is quality starts - this is not your issue.I just think the QS is a ridiculously low bar and I have hated it since it first came into use.Pineda is getting credit for not falling off the mound.A quality start against this Detroit lineup is not significant and Pineda has a long ways to go yet.(I hope he gets there.)So nothing personal, just a little rant.

Adrianza is a luxury, but I do not see him as a necessity.I will be interested in the way the decision is made if we are fortunate to have so many good players we have to lose one.  

Kepler's wRC+ right now is 106 and ranks 20th among right fielders. Eight Twins have a higher wRC+. His OPS+ is 109 compared to his career 97. Meanwhile, his splits vs lefties so far this year (SSS) are once again flirting with platoon territory...hence the recent trend for Baldelli dropping him to the bottom of the order vs lefty starters.

 

Kepler's 2019 improvement can be attributed totally and completely to an increase in HR rate. His BABiP is an abysmal 236 which is exactly where he sat at the end of last year. And his determination to try to pull everything isn't going to improve that materially. On the other hand, there's no reason to think that the improved HR rate isn't sustainable and can't continue to grow a bit more, even. But, it will have to for Kepler to be a "star".

 

It should also be pointed out that Kepler's extension also makes him considerably more valuable in trade scenarios.

Kepler is far from reaching his potential, as he matures he will become a better hitter.

    • DocBauer and tarheeltwinsfan like this

 

No one ever talks about how his real name is Maximilian.

But would you want to go by that?

 

I'd go by Maxi35milian. :)

    • tarheeltwinsfan likes this

Kepler is far from reaching his potential, as he matures he will become a better hitter.


100%! He is not maxing out or realizing his potential at all. And I say this as both a fan and a believer.

I cant explain his BAIP numbers. He shows a good eye, solid contact skills, a sweet stroke, and plenty of natural athleticism and power. But it's all of those qualities that tell me how much room for improvement there is in his game.

He played club ball in Germany, not at an elite HS program or a participant in traveling teams or specialized camps. He made steady progress before a seeming breakout in AA and then practically skipped AAA. Hes still only 26!
    • tarheeltwinsfan likes this

This will sound backhanded but I agree that Kepler is close to the "max" he can be, .766 OPS.

 

This is in the neighborhood of the level the Twins are paying him to perform at, so if he stays in this range and continues to play solid defense it's all good. He's not blocking anybody. He is here for his consistency and stability, not his all star potential.

 

One problem is his batting average is down and his walks are also down, but the result is slightly better than before so I say let the guy keep swinging.


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