Max Kepler Improving His Approach in 2018
Image courtesy of © Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKepler put up decent numbers in 2017. Through 147 games he managed a .243/.312/.425 line with 19 HR and 69 RBI, nice. Digging a little deeper into Kepler’s 2017, there were some troubling trends. Kepler’s BB% decreased, down to 8.3%, while his K% remained consistent, around 20%. Kepler’s wOBA remained remarkably consistent to its 2016 figure, an unremarkable .315.
It’s also been well documented that Kepler really struggled against lefties. It’s important here to take a step back and realize just how horrible most lefties are against lefties. Justin Morneau, one of the best left-handed Twins of all time, hit just .253 against lefties. Joe Mauer, Mr. 2,000 himself, has a career .290 average against lefties. He is an exception. My point here is simply that it’s not unusual for left handed hitters to have extreme splits in their offensive numbers. Unless your name is Ichiro Suzuki (.330 career avg. against LHP), the struggle is real. In 2017 however, Kepler was truly rancid against left-handed pitching. In 125 ABs he managed a .125/.213/.240 line with a 5% BB% and a K% of 30. Rough.
By contrast, against righties in 2017 Kepler put together a strong .272/.343/.484 line with almost double the walks and almost half the strikeouts. Kepler’s hitting of lefties is a little like the Vikings O-Line going into 2017, it doesn’t have to be great, because there’s a lot else to like. It just has to be good enough.
This spring, Kepler spent significant time with the aforementioned Morneau, who had similar splits early in his career with the Twins, before improving significantly against LHP later in his career with the Twins. So far, the results have been encouraging. Through an incredibly small sample, Kepler is hitting .250/.400/.500 against LHP, and has yet to strike out. Time will tell if Kepler is improving against LHP, but in a lineup dominated by left-handed bats, it’s an important step to maximize Paul Molitor’s lineup flexibility.
Another area of interest in digging into Kepler’s numbers is pitch recognition. It’s been noted repeatedly that opposing pitchers are going after several young Twins hitters (most notably Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton) increasingly with breaking pitches. Here’s a look at Kepler’s results against pitches he saw at least 200 of in 2017.
Looking at the numbers, it’s evident that Kepler was struggling significantly to recognize and react to breaking pitches. Hardly uncommon for a young hitter, but for the sake of comparison, Byron Buxton hit .206 and .250 against sliders and curveballs respectively, in 2017. Now let’s look at the early returns from Kepler’s 2018.
*Info does not include data from the Puerto Rico games.
Please don’t hit me with the ‘small sample size’ comments. I get it, it’s incredibly early. Kepler however, is showing some improvement in recognizing breaking pitches, evidenced by destroying two for homeruns against the defending champion Houston Astros in a game the Twins tried extremely hard to throw away. It’s early, but be encouraged. Overall, Kepler’s early start shows several promising trends. His BB% is up to 16%, his K% is down to under 10%, and his OBP is up 60 points to .381.
Launch Angle and Exit Velocity
The last noticing on Kepler’s hot start is how the ball is coming off the bat. Mike Berardino wrote an excellent article in March detailing Kepler’s approach at the plate.
“For me, it’s not about launch angle, it’s about getting my bat head in the zone as early as possible”, Kepler offers to Berardino.
What Kepler is referring to squaring up the ball, the plane of his swing, and generating excellent bat speed.
Launch angle is to hitting as framing is to catching, it has become THE encompassing soundbite in a skill set made up of dozens of important factors. Exit velocity is actually a better predictor of outcomes for hitters. The harder you hit the ball, the better things are likely to go. In 2017, Kepler’s average exit velocity was 88.3 mph. Early in 2018, it’s up to 91.8 mph. Drilling down to isolating breaking pitches, the contrast is even more stark. In 2017, Kepler’s exit velocity on sliders and curveballs was 86mph. Thus far in 2018, it is 97.9 mph. That’s not the kind of difference you can generate unless your pitch recognition has improved significantly.
It’s still incredibly early in the season, particularly for the Twins (who are several games behind everyone else!) Kepler’s start however, should have Twins fans excited, as it appears he has made some important adjustments throughout the offseason. What do you think Kepler’s ceiling is this year? What kind of numbers are you expecting from him?
I’m excited to be contributing regularly at Twins Daily with a new column. Here’s the concept: Typically, the productivity of the average American plummets on a Friday afternoon. I am looking to take full advantage with a weekly amalgam of thoughts on the Twins to be released every Friday as folks are looking to pass the time between actually stopping work and heading home or to happy hour.
Typically this will focus on a player of interest. However, I’m eager to write about what folks want to read about, so if you have a question or an idea, please leave it in the comments or hit me up on Twitter @J_D_Cameron. Thanks for reading!
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