Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Right Field
Image courtesy of Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Max Kepler
Likely Backup: Marwin Gonzalez
Depth: Jake Cave, LaMonte Wade Jr.
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach
Reading through the 2019 fWAR leaderboard at right field is a veritable "who's who" of MLB stardom:
Christian Yelich, MIL – 7.8
Cody Bellinger, LAD – 7.8
Mookie Betts, BOS – 6.6
George Springer, HOU – 6.5
Aaron Judge, NYY – 4.6
Bryce Harper, PHI – 4.6
Max Kepler, MIN – 4.4
Does Kepler belong in the conversation with the premier class ahead of him? Many signs points to yes.
A year ago, Kepler was one of the most obvious breakout candidates in baseball, with an offensive profile that overshadowed his modest track record. Sure enough, after three seasons of consistently mediocre production, the right fielder turned a corner, belting 36 home runs to dwarf his previous watermark of 20. His .855 OPS was a 16% improvement over his previous best.
In 134 games, Kepler crossed the plate 98 times, and drove in 90 runs. He thrived offensively as leadoff man for one of the most potent offenses in MLB history. Notably, he performed better against lefties than righties for a second consecutive year, after struggling mightily versus same-siders in the early stage of his career.
The German native has worked tirelessly on his game and developed into a tremendously refined ballplayer at the age of 27. He takes good at-bats and rarely strikes out; in fact, the only MLB players to hit 35+ home runs with a lower K-rate than his (16.6%) were Cody Bellinger, Alex Bregman, and Nolan Arenado. He's solidly above average in almost every Statcast measure.
And as the above chart shows, his defense was flat-out elite. Kepler brings the range of a solid center fielder to a position that's frequently manned by plodding sluggers, making him a key asset on the field. When he's in right and Byron Buxton's in center, it's awfully tough for baseballs to find landing spots in Minnesota's outfield, which is a strength well suited to the team's fly ball pitching staff.
Kepler's ability to capably slide over to center in Buxton's absence is a key value-booster, and one reason why the depth could easily be tested in right field. But if the reigning Twins Daily MVP can stay mostly planted where he's best, there aren't many better.
Icing on the cake? He's on the front end of his prime and under team control at favorable rates through 2024.
One could argue that no Twins player in 2019 was a more obvious beneficiary of the juiced ball than Kepler. He set a very stable baseline for himself in his first three big-league seasons: 17 HR, 19 HR, 20 HR, with slugging percentages that never topped .425. Then, he went out and blasted 36 homers and slugged .519, at a time where power numbers spiked across the league.
He was due for some positive regression, given his launch angles and ability to control the zone, but that's a stark jump. And one issue plaguing Kepler did not disappear: Since 2016, he ranks 285th out of 292 MLB hitters in BABIP. Every player behind him on that list is either old, or slow, or both.
Kepler's an above-average runner who makes tons of contact, and hits the ball reasonably hard, mostly in the air. But for whatever reason, he is stunningly ineffective at turning batted balls into hits. While his .244 BABIP in 2019 was a slight improvement over 2018's .236 mark, it was still fourth-lowest in baseball and a far cry from the league-wide standard of .300.
This is a big deal with material impact on Kepler's value. If he would've hit .280 instead of .252 last year, his overall production would've been dramatically better – especially in the OBP column, where his .336 was rather uninspiring for a leadoff man.
An abnormally low BABIP would in most cases be cause for optimism about a hitter's prospects of rebounding, but this has become Kepler's norm. And if it persists while his power numbers come back down to Earth, you've got the recipe for a return to ordinary levels of production.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Kepler's a great player who has risen to the precipice of superstardom by combining tremendous athletic gifts with a steadfast will to improve. He still has hurdles to get past, but I wouldn't bet against him.
Given that he's under guaranteed contract for another four years, and stellar defensively, Kepler is as firmly entrenched at his position as anyone on the roster. Meanwhile, the organization's No. 2 and No. 3 prospects both play that same position. Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach are both verging on major-league readiness, presenting a welcome quandary: What to do with so much high-caliber talent?
I'm sure the Twins will find a way deal with it when the time comes. Maybe Buxton's persisting lack of durability answers the question on its own. Or maybe they'll leverage the impending vacancy (?) in left field.
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: First Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Left Field
Twins 2020 Position Analysis: Center Field
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