A Massive Year for Max
Image courtesy of © Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsMax Kepler has become much more than just the entertaining story of a rare German born baseball player reaching the Major Leagues. After his first taste of action in 2015, Kepler has become a mainstay in the Twins lineup and outfield. His middling offense exploded in a 2019 season in which he was 21% above league average according to wRC+. His agility and athleticism made him a gold glove contender in right field. Kepler comes to mind for many when they think of the “core” of this Minnesota Twins team. 2021 however may determine whether that continues to be the case.
Left handed hitters often struggle against same handed pitching and Kepler showed just how ugly this historical trend could get in 2020. In 47 at bats, Kepler mustered just 6 hits and posted a .128/.208/.170 line against southpaws after actually hitting them better than righties in 2019 with a .293/.356/.524 line. Plenty of players struggled to find their rhythm in the shortened season, but looking at Kepler’s career triple slash of .219/.288/.368 against left handed pitching suggests that his 2019 may have been a mirage.
His pull the ball in the air approach at the plate sets him up to hit the ball over the fence but really limits his batting average ceiling in the age of the shift. His career 10% walk rate isn’t awful, but it doesn’t offer much of a saving grace in the on base department either. Adding 6% to his K rate against lefties as his career shows gives Kepler little room to be a well rounded and truly consistent hitter.
All of this to say, throughout Kepler’s entire career besides 2019, he’s been a deeply flawed hitter. Despite being on the strong side of the platoon splits, continued struggles against left handed pitching would be hard to ignore if another player shows that they can produce regardless of their opponents handedness.
Up And Coming Competition
Alex Kirilloff needs no introduction at this point, but reports are also beginning to suggest that former 1st round pick Trevor Larnach might not be all that far behind him. Larnach is known for his balanced approach of controlling the strike zone and using all fields. He’s a highly touted hitter who to this point hasn’t shown a weakness to left handed pitching in his minor league career. His offensive profile is one that suggests he could avoid the massive cut in production that Kepler has shown as he matures in the MLB.
Defensively, Larnach is far from a gold glove defender in the corners. The former OSU first baseman stands at 6’4 and over 220 lb, lacking the raw athleticism of Max Kepler. That being said, the Twins used positioning to hide Jorge Polanco at shortstop and we saw the Oakland A’s turn Robbie Grossman into a Gold Glove finalist a few years ago. Defensive positioning has come a long way in baseball and having a center fielder like Byron Buxton can hide a lot of blemishes. Larnach’s defense should be adequate enough at the corners for at least the near future.
Max Kepler has been valuable to the Twins and will surely continue to be. Top prospects are approaching however, and if Kepler’s offensive output continues with his career trends outside of 2019, the bar for those prospects to clear may not be all that high. Max could rebound in 2021, but what if he doesn’t?
Kepler still has his incredibly team friendly contract attached which pays out only a bit over $20m over the next four years. On one hand, using him in a strong platoon/backup center field role wouldn’t be all that much of a waste of money. On the other, it’s a contract that other corner outfield needy teams would be very interested in. If the future of the outfield truly does consist of Kirilloff and Larnach, is Kepler’s left handed bat more valuable as a trade chip?
I still expect Max to bounce back from his 2020 performance, but I’m unsure to what degree. I expect Trevor Larnach to debut in 2021 and be a great hitter, but a performance strong enough to dethrone Kepler in right field is a long shot for any prospect. That being said, the Twins strong farm system has opened up a lot of possibilities for what the future of this team looks like. Do you think Max Kepler can continue being a cornerstone of this Twins core? Do you think Trevor Larnach could throw a wrench into those plans? Let us know below.
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