Can Max Kepler Reach Christian Yelich Status for the Twins in 2020?
Image courtesy of © Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsDuring 2019 the German native put up his best season in the big leagues. Posting an .855 OPS, he jumped his total over 120 points from the season before and added nearly 100 points on his career average. This was while playing through some injuries and being stretched to contribute more defensively than he’s ever had to.
Garnering multiple MVP votes, Kepler finished 20th in the balloting among American League players, and there’s reason to believe he could make another leap in the year ahead. Before getting into the offensive numbers, 2020 was the fourth straight season in which Kepler has posted a positive DRS in the outfield. He picked up significant slack in centerfield, and while teammate Byron Buxton relies more on foot speed, Max generates positivity with his glove through well-targeted routes and closing decisions.
No one is looking for Christian Yelich’s defense, however. The 2018 MVP has leapt to the upper tier of the game’s best because of his bat. Joining the Brewers during his age-26 season, Yelich had posted OPS marks of .859 and .807 in the two seasons prior. When taking home the award he swatted a ridiculous 1.000 OPS and won the batting title with a .326 average. Last season his triple slash of .329/.429/.671 led the league, and had he not gotten injured, a second straight MVP award would have been his. Before that transformation though, Yelich had drawn just a few MVP votes of his own, good enough for a 19th place finish in 2016.
So, what changed?
Baseball has long since become a sport of information. Whether through analytics or otherwise, adapting to how the game is played and the best avenues for success is something great players have jumped on board with. At the dish, elevating the baseball is now generally accepted as leading to the most positive outcome. That’s not to suggest swinging for the fences is a logical exploit, but the reality is driving the ball higher, harder, will produce optimum results. Major League defenders are too good to simply “hit it on the ground” and even when that strategy creates a desired result, the net gain is relatively minimal, at best.
Although Kepler will be a year older than Yelich was before his MVP-winning season, 27 is an age that should genuinely be accepted as prime territory. Matthew did a wonderful job breaking down age curves as it relates to Jose Berrios earlier this week, and Kepler falls into a similar category. What’s maybe most important has been the implementation, intended or otherwise, of more desirable inputs. More succinctly put, Max is lifting the ball, and doing it with more force than he ever has.
Starting in 2016, when Kepler entered the league, both Yelich and Kepler show very similar parallels. Having previously been hitters placing the ball on the ground, the former Marlin especially so, they’ve continued to show growth year over year. Results have followed suit as HR/FB rates have increased, and ground ball percentages have gotten out of a negative territory. Christian has always been a high-average hitter as well however, and that’s a talent Max has not had at his disposal.
There’s a threshold of optimum launch angle, so continuing to increase loft isn’t the forever goal for Minnesota’s right fielder. From here, it’s about discipline and decision-making. Despite a career best OPS last season, Kepler actually posted a negative BABIP. With a .252 average, his .244 BABIP ranked 97th of 98 qualified hitters (min 500 PA) in 2019. As a pull hitter (career high 53.4% in 2019), lifting over the shift or settling back into career averages (46% pull 31% cent 22% oppo) is the next challenge.
One of the most aggressive hitters in baseball, Kepler attacked on the first pitch in a whopping 98 plate appearances last season. Generating a .923 OPS in those instances, it was clear he goes to the plate with an immediate plan. The greatest deficiency comes when behind 0-1, where he posted just a .740 OPS. Making sure he can continue to own the plate, against either righties or lefties, when looking for the next pitch is a must.
James Rowson is gone, Edgar Varela has stepped in, and one of the greatest opportunities in the year ahead remains the next step in Kepler’s development. Minnesota locked Max up to a five-year extension last winter because they saw what was yet to come. I don’t believe the 2019 version is the peak, and while Christian Yelich is among the best players on the planet, maybe Rozycki can get closer to that threshold in 2020.
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