Will Max Kepler Take the Next Step in 2018?
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA TODAY SportsKepler passes the eye test, but take a glance at the numbers and you see a guy with an OPS+ of just 95. So what’s been missing? Digging deep into the numbers is the only way I have of trying to find answers, so here we go ...
Over the 2016 and ‘17 seasons, Kepler had just a .269 batting average on balls in play. That’s seriously suppressed his offensive output. It’s the ninth-worst BABIP among 131 qualified hitters over that stretch.
The FanGraphs glossary entry on BABIP is a great resource, and points out two things that would suggest there are reasons to be optimistic about Max turning things around. The average BABIP for hitters is around .300, and you need about 800 balls in play before a hitter’s BABIP stabilizes. Max is approaching that mark, but according to Baseball Savant he’s put 668 balls in play as a big leaguer.
A lot of people associate a a low BABIP with bad luck, but I’m not one to automatically make that assumption. There can be concrete reasons behind why a player struggles to post a respectable BABIP. For example, anyone who consistently makes weak contact or doesn’t run well. But does that describe Max?
Exit Velocity and Sprint Speed
In that same two-year stretch, Kepler had an average exit velocity of 88.7 mph. That’s solid, ranking 121st out of a sample of 355 hitters (top 34.1 percent). So it's not like he's just making a bunch of weak contact.
Kepler spent a lot of his time in the minors in center field, but is he really that athletic? Statcast’s sprint speed data would certainly suggest so. Kepler had an average sprint speed of 28.2 mph in 2017, which ranks 63rd among the 333 players who had a minimum of 25 opportunities to be tracked for that metric (top 18.9 percent).
If Kepler is consistently hitting the ball hard and runs well, then what’s with that alarming BABIP? Maybe it really is just bad luck, or …
Over the 2016 and ‘17 seasons, Kepler’s average launch angle was just 10.7 degrees. That ranked 201st out of the 335 hitters who had a minimum of 250 balls in play (in the bottom 40 percent). The good news is that rate has been on the rise.
In 2016, Kepler’s average launch angle of 8.3 degrees was worse than 78.2 percent of hitters. He jumped up to 12.7 degrees last season, which only trailed 43 percent of hitters. Basically, he went from terribly below average to slightly above average in that metric.
Despite that improvement, Kepler’s overall numbers stayed pretty much the same. What gives? I do think Max may have been a bit unlucky in 2017, but one thing that didn’t help him was an infield fly ball rate that jumped from eight percent to 11.5.
What About Those Platoon Issues?
There’s no denying Kepler’s performance against lefties is a concern. Over his career with the Twins, he’s hit just .176/.242/.279 (.520) against port-siders. Something to keep in mind is he’s only had 271 plate appearances against southpaws.
In his last full minor league season, Max hit .319/.390/.473 (.863) against lefties. Yes, hitting Southern League pitching is a whole lot different than major league pitching, but it's still pretty early to cast a final judgement on his ability to hit same-sided pitching.
It’s easy to forget that 2017 was only Kepler’s age 24 season. Things could click any day now. He’s still trying to figure things out and find some consistency. Here’s a look at his OPS by month in 2017:
Put it all together, and I see a guy who’s on the verge of a breakout. What do you think? Am I just seeing something I hope is there? Or is a Max Kepler breakout inevitable?
It wasn't only two seasons ago when Max Kepler was featured on the cover of the Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook. To read more about players like Kepler still in the Twins farm system, pick up a copy of the 2018 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook.
- Cory Engelhardt, h2oface, tarheeltwinsfan and 3 others like this