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Can Max Kepler Reach Christian Yelich Status for the Twins in 2020?

All players do not progress on the same curve or at a similar rate. I’ve long wondered if the Minnesota Twins have a similar asset to Christian Yelich in Max Kepler, but we’ve yet to see it. In his age-27 season, there are numbers trending towards a breakthrough that could be extraordinary.
Image courtesy of © Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
During 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.

Attached Image: Capture.PNG

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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25 Comments

Never hurts to dream.Exciting to think that he's just entering his prime.

    • bighat likes this

Excellent article. I'd love for Kepler to enter Yelich territory. And as you've written, it's not that far-fetched a scenario. Man, that would be sweet!

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Doctor Gast
Jan 08 2020 05:29 AM

Yeah! I don`t think Kepler has peaked yet, I think he has just found his groove. It`ll be fun to watch! A healthy Buxton would also help so we aren`t so dependent him. Last year I believed he got worn downa fresh Kepler I believe would have gotten 40 HRs

    • tarheeltwinsfan likes this

I keep asking what his ceiling really is?If he can boost his average and OBP a bit, retain his power and stay healthy for the next ten years, will he get consideration for the HOF?That's what I see him becoming, one of the best players in the game.

    • Mike Frasier Law and tarheeltwinsfan like this

Doubtful. Twins cant have nice things. 

Yelich was already a very good player in Miami, this article understates his talent quite a bit.Here's an age by age comparison:

 

Age 21: Yelich - 118 OPS+, 1.8 fWAR; Kepler - Minors

Age 22: Yelich - 118 OPS+, 4,1 fWAR; Kepler - -34 OPS+, -0.1 fWAR

Age 23: Yelich - 120 OPS+, 2.4 fWAR; Kepler - 93 OPS+, 1.3 fWAR

Age 24: Yelich - 134 OPS+, 5.4 fWAR; Kepler - 94 OPS+, 1.5 fWAR

Age 25: Yelich - 117 OPS+, 4.6 fWAR; Kepler - 98 OPS+, 2.7 fWAR

Age 26: Yelich - 166 OPS+, 7.6 fWAR; Kepler - 121 OPS+, 4.4 fWAR

 

The main difference is that Yelich has always hit the ball incredibly hard.Every year that statcast tracks he's been in the top 10% of the league for average exit velocity, usually in the top 5%.Kepler has never been in the top 10%.

 

Not to rag on Kepler who became an excellent player last year, but he basically only reached the level of player that Yelich was in Miami, and I don't see how he reaches present day Yelich territory without increasing his exit velocity by several MPH or making some other drastic change in his contact rate and/or plate discipline, and I don't know how that happens.

    • birdwatcher, gunnarthor, Twins33 and 10 others like this

My guess is that last year was Kepler's career year but he probably has a few more 3-4 WAR type seasons. But I don't think he gets much better but he probably plateaus. A corner OF with a Cuddyer type profile but better defense is a darn good player.

    • adorduan and bighat like this
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MMMordabito
Jan 08 2020 08:55 AM

He'll never steal the bases, so it will never happen.

 

Nevermind the career OBP

 

This is a rose-colored rube-off.

    • gunnarthor and KFEY93 like this

Yelich was already a very good player in Miami, this article understates his talent quite a bit. Here's an age by age comparison:

Age 21: Yelich - 118 OPS+, 1.8 fWAR; Kepler - Minors
Age 22: Yelich - 118 OPS+, 4,1 fWAR; Kepler - -34 OPS+, -0.1 fWAR
Age 23: Yelich - 120 OPS+, 2.4 fWAR; Kepler - 93 OPS+, 1.3 fWAR
Age 24: Yelich - 134 OPS+, 5.4 fWAR; Kepler - 94 OPS+, 1.5 fWAR
Age 25: Yelich - 117 OPS+, 4.6 fWAR; Kepler - 98 OPS+, 2.7 fWAR
Age 26: Yelich - 166 OPS+, 7.6 fWAR; Kepler - 121 OPS+, 4.4 fWAR

The main difference is that Yelich has always hit the ball incredibly hard. Every year that statcast tracks he's been in the top 10% of the league for average exit velocity, usually in the top 5%. Kepler has never been in the top 10%.

Not to rag on Kepler who became an excellent player last year, but he basically only reached the level of player that Yelich was in Miami, and I don't see how he reaches present day Yelich territory without increasing his exit velocity by several MPH or making some other drastic change in his contact rate and/or plate discipline, and I don't know how that happens.


Excellent post!
    • Mike Frasier Law likes this

This is a bit off topic, but my prediction is that launch angle will be much less important this year than last. The softer ball will transform home runs into fly balls and fly balls into pop ups. Exit velocity is crucial because hard hit balls are more likely to be successful regardless of angle. 

    • tarheeltwinsfan likes this
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AlwaysinModeration
Jan 08 2020 11:02 AM
One thing I noticed about both Kepler and Garver last year was how they both seemed to elongate their follow-through forward through the point of contact. Instead of a natural spinning/wraparound follow-through (Sano is the classic example of the wraparound rotation on his follow-through), they seem to extend their hit plane up and forward. Rosario does it in an exaggerated fashion (always has), and Buxton seemed to do it a lot last year too. To me it seemed like these four guys were all trying to lengthen the amount of time that their bat stayed on the same plane through the hit zone.

Am I imagining this, or is this something that others noticed as well?

Edit: Kepler: https://youtu.be/oi7_avH6w0A

Garver: https://youtu.be/L3JD4306Akw
    • 70charger and DocBauer like this
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Parker Hageman
Jan 08 2020 11:19 AM

 

So, what changed?

 

The output changed because he made physical changes to his set-up/swing. In 2018 his profile was that he would hit balls in that 95+ exit velo and 10-30 degree launch angle into the opposite field gap, so a lot of those were tracked down. He made some modifications to his posture and didn't stride to the plate as much with his front leg, thereby closing himself off, in 2019 and that resulted in driving the ball better to the pull side. 

 

The increase in pulling the ball more was by design and it has worked well for him.

 

    • SQUIRREL, Mike Frasier Law, DocBauer and 2 others like this

Seems like a wee bit of a stretch. I'd be happy if he just became a top 7 right fielder in the league, don't really need him to be an MVP/Superstar.

It’s probably good we didn’t trade Kepler last offseason! Some of us were even discussing having Cave start over him... what a difference a year can make!
    • Mike Frasier Law, SwainZag and wabene like this
No.

Just a sense I get, but he’ll never put up the kind of power numbers he did last year again (I think people have lost context on what 40 homers with non-juiced ball actually means). I’d expect the his numbers to look closer to 2018, in which he hit 20 HR in 611 PAs (as opposed to 36 in 596 in 2019).

I think people are underestimating the ball change in their evaluation of the 2020 team. The Twins seemingly changed their entire program, in terms of approach at the plate, To get the ball up in the air. The hitters did a wonderful job of it, and with the ball it was a perfect storm.

We’ll see Sano and Cruz put up monster power numbers again because they hit the ball a mile, regardless of the ball. But, I think guys like Kepler, Garver, Rosario, and Polanco are going to See significant power reductions. I think Kepler and Rosario especially. The home runs to right and the balls off the limestone could turn into fly ball outs at a significant rate for those guys. Garver also drove a ton of balls to that right center area of the field, if I remember correctly.

I’m concerned. We’ll have a good offense, but it won’t be a top 2-3 elite offense like we saw last year. That’s why it was so imperative that we upgraded pitching.

Signing Josh Donaldson would certainly help keep that offense up with the Yankees, who certainly won’t be hurt as much by the ball in their T-ball park.

Long story short. I think Kepler has a nice year, but he’ll look more like a .270/20-25/80-90 RBI guy than Yelich and his absurd all-time great numbers. It’s not even fair to compare the two, really. It’s like wondering if Jorge Polanco will reach Alex Rodriguez status circa 2007.
    • Musk21 likes this
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Captain Torii
Jan 08 2020 04:11 PM

That's a bit much to put expectations like this on Max; we can hope he is the best he can be, but it's wrong for people expect someone to be like someone else that puts up ELITE stats. Hope he has a career year and continues to ascend with his talent, anything above that is great; but it will be our pitching that makes our season a success or failure...

"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."

 

Sigh. We still have writers/posters who insinuate that batter BABiP will trend to league average. No. Max Kepler's career BABiP is .253. That's over 2229 plate appearances, now. Christian Yelich's BABiP is .358 across more than 4000 PA.

 

This article would have been more interesting to me if it had explored what in Kepler's approach/development could potentially close THAT gap between himself and Yelich. Because it's not more pulling and launching. And it's not bad luck.

    • Danchat, Vanimal46 and wabene like this
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LA VIkes Fan
Jan 08 2020 10:38 PM
As other players have said, Kepler's weak spot is the amount of soft contact he generates. Both the analytics and the eye test show that and it is the reason for the low BABIP. That's what has to improve. He's a great asset as is, and consistent harder contact would make him even better. Probably won't happen but we can always dream...
Honestly, I don't care if he becomes the next Yelich. I mean, he could. But I would be ecstatic if he just did in 2020 what he did in 2019. I want Max to be Max and just keep doing what he has been doing.

I've been trumpeting for some time now what his natural athletic ability and sweet swing could accomplish with a little time and patience. We saw that in 2019. Is there improvement to be made? Yes, I think there is. To what degree I don't know.

One of the biggest, and most impactful things that happened to the Twins last season was another injury to Buxton when he seemed to be finally tapping in to his potential. Kepler stepped in and did a great job in CF. But it's not where he should be on a daily basis. And then, unfortunately, he was hurt most of September and just wasn't ready for the post season.

I like Jake Cave. I probably like him more than some. And after a poor first half last season, he responded well. He seems to have the tools to be a perfect 4th OF who SHOULD be able to handle CF, but so far, he hasn't done so. And that's disappointing. Seth recently brought up bringing in Kevin Pillar. Way before all the FA off season angst began, I thought about bringing in another OF candidate to compete for that 4th OF spot who could hold down CF and not embarrass himself offensively. Pillar is still out there and should come cheap. I would jump at a chance to sign someone like that to make a fight for the 4th OF spot.

Let the best man prove himself. Let Kepler be the outstanding RF he is, with a relief game here and there in CF. Makes the entire roster better. He doesn't have to be anything or anyone other than the talented and athletic player he is.

The only thing I really worry about Max is, where do you hit him? He was so productive in the #1 spot, do you move him from there? With or without a proposed Donaldson signing, I could see variations where he hits anywhere from 3-7. And he could be outstanding in any of those spots.
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tarheeltwinsfan
Jan 09 2020 02:31 AM

 





The only thing I really worry about Max is, where do you hit him? He was so productive in the #1 spot, do you move him from there? With or without a proposed Donaldson signing, I could see variations where he hits anywhere from 3-7. And he could be outstanding in any of those spots.

What were the main reasons Kepler batted lead off so frequently last year? His aggressive, first pitch swing rate was evident. His .250 plus or minus BA was not impressive for a lead off hitter. His base stealing skills were nothing special. He does have a beautiful swing though. Arraez will be a much better lead off hitter in 2020 in my opinion.

    • DocBauer and rdehring like this

 

Seems like a wee bit of a stretch. I'd be happy if he just became a top 7 right fielder in the league, don't really need him to be an MVP/Superstar.

 

You are in luck!

 

Okay, this is the real link: 

 

https://www.fangraph...lter=&players=0

 

You are in luck!

 

Okay, this is the real link: 

 

https://www.fangraph...lter=&players=0

 

Seriously though, everyone who thought that Bryce Harper would be more a less a worse-slugging Max Kepler in 2019, raise your hand.

 

(Put it down, buddy.)

 

Seriously though, everyone who thought that Bryce Harper would be more a less a worse-slugging Max Kepler in 2019, raise your hand.

 

(Put it down, buddy.)

Raises hand.

 

I thought Bryce Harper would be, indeed, more or less than Max Kepler.:lol:

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Parker Hageman
Jan 10 2020 10:38 AM

To me it seemed like these four guys were all trying to lengthen the amount of time that their bat stayed on the same plane through the hit zone.

 

Am I imagining this, or is this something that others noticed as well?

 

 

This was absolutely emphasized by the coaching staff last year. Part of it is to keep from breaking their wrists early (like Buxton below). Part of it is to drive middle of the field and reduce hook on the ball. If you hit the ball square rather than clipping and adding backspin, you get better results.  

 

    • 70charger likes this

 

You are in luck!

 

Okay, this is the real link: 

 

https://www.fangraph...lter=&players=0

 

Perfect! That's right where we need him to be.


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