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Twins 2018 Position Analysis: Right Field

Is Max Kepler a full-time player, or destined for platoon duty? The jury is still out, and while he has time yet to prove his worth against left-handed pitchers, the Twins need to start thinking seriously about their course of action if he is unable to do so.
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA Today
Projected Starter: Max Kepler
Likely Backup: Robbie Grossman

Depth: Eddie Rosario, Jake Cave, Zack Granite
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Akil Baddoo, Jaylin Davis

THE GOOD

Following a strong rookie showing as a 23-year-old in 2016, Kepler maintained in his sophomore season. Holding down right field from start to finish, he posted a .243/.312/.425 slash line with 19 home runs, 32 doubles, and six steals on seven tries.

Sure, stagnation isn't great – Kepler's 96 OPS+ in 2017 was identical to his 2016 mark – but it's much better than regression, which is common for a second-year big-leaguer.

The last time Kepler turned in consecutive seasons with such similar production was 2013 and 2014, between two levels of A-ball. At age 20 he registered a .736 OPS in Cedar Rapids, and he followed with a .726 OPS in Ft. Myers at 21. The next year was his big breakout, when Kepler put himself on the top prospect map by slashing a ridiculous .322/.416/.531 at Chattanooga to earn Southern League MVP honors.

From an optimist's standpoint, the outfielder's minor-league track record could also be instructive with regard to his progression against left-handed pitching. No, he was not good in 2017 – and we'll get to that shortly – but Kepler also endured massive struggles against southpaws in Low-A (.365 OPS with the Kernels) before taking a step forward at High-A (.691 OPS with the Miracle) and turning the corner at Double-A (.893 OPS with the Lookouts).

Kepler has always been a bit of a gradual adjuster; perfectly understandable for a player who signed at age 16 out of a continent that rarely produces major leaguers.

He has barely crested 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, and turned 25 in February. His history points to there remaining growth potential, both against same-sided pitchers and offensively in general.

On the defensive side, Kepler did make some significant strides last year. After a mistake-prone rookie campaign he cut down his error total from seven to two, while also improving his range metrics. Kepler even made eight starts in center and held his own.

If he were to go down with an injury, Robbie Grossman would be in line to take over. Eddie Rosario could also move over from left, with Grossman or Zack Granite taking over in left. Some argue that Kepler and Rosario are best suited for a position swap, since Eddie has a better arm and covers less ground, but the difference isn't huge.

In the larger scheme, the Twins have one bona fide right field prospect in their system, and at a glance you might confuse him with the current MLB occupant. Alex Kirilloff has an athletic build and sweet lefty swing that are both remindful of Kepler, though scouts see more power in his frame, which is noticeably bigger this spring after a year off due to Tommy John surgery.

We'll be curious to see how Twins Daily's No. 5 prospect fares in his return to the field this year. But even with a strong showing back on the scene, Kirilloff is at least two or three years away, so the position belongs to Kepler for the foreseeable future.

THE BAD

Will it belong only to Kepler? Unless he can turn around his abysmal performance against lefties, the 25-year-old could be in line for a timeshare.

Kepler did not fare well against portsiders as a rookie, hitting .203/.273/.322 in 2016, but last year it really got ugly as he dropped to .152/.213/.240. That kind of ineptitude will make it difficult to write his name in against lefty starters, potentially leading to a reduction in his 568 plate appearances from 2017.

MLB right fielders posted a .798 OPS last season, second-highest of any position behind first base. That places Kepler, who finished at .737, well below average. If you could keep his .828 OPS versus righties, and plug in a platoon mate, you'd have yourself an admirable solution at the position. But unfortunately, the Twins lack viable candidates for such a setup at the moment.

Grossman, a switch-hitter and Kepler's primary backup, went just .238/.376/.320 versus southpaws last year, though he did put up a .994 OPS against them in 2016. Fellow backup options Jake Cave and Zack Granite also swing from the left side, as does near-ready prospect LaMonte Wade.

Ideally, the Twins would have a lefty-mashing corner outfielder on hand, but they didn't add one and perhaps that is by design. Kepler still has a chance to be a quality everyday player. He just may not have a ton more time to prove it.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Extreme platoon splits throw his ongoing status as an everyday player into question, but Kepler is a good outfielder whose ability to do damage against right-handers is not in doubt. He should get at least one more season to show he can right the ship against southpaws, and there's ample reason to believe he will.

Even if the Twins end up adding a righty swinger to complement him at some point, Kepler will get the lion's share of playing time. He combines with Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton to give Minnesota a trio capable of sticking together for the next several years. Few franchises in the game can boast a better all-around outlook in the outfield.



~~~


Catch up on the rest of the series:

Twins Daily Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins Daily Position Analysis: First Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Left Field
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Center Field

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15 Comments

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Tommygun921
Mar 21 2018 05:23 AM
I commented in another article about how Morneau had said during his introductory press conference that he was looking forward to working with Kepler after watching him on TV last season. I wonder if it is something along the lines of facing Left handers. Also if Rooker has a good season he could split time with Kepler and DH/1b next season. 😀
    • mikelink45 likes this

I'm one of the ones who wonders if Rosario and Kepler should do a position swap; there's a lot of room in LF and the bigger arm plays better in RF, traditionally. but kepler has the tools to stick wherever.

 

I think he's the player to watch this season for a breakout. It might not come together because the LHP he's facing in MLB are the best of the best, but I think he's going to do better this season, assuming he gets enough reps.

 

I'm a Kepler guy. I want him in our OF for a long time.

    • tarheeltwinsfan, MN_ExPat and Original Whizzinator like this
Not worried. He'll be better this year. He's young. And while not all young players get better, Kepler and his background, indicate he will.
    • Twins33, tarheeltwinsfan, HitInAPinch and 1 other like this

The GOOD on Kepler, he appears to be someone welling to work hard to better himself. That is a plus.

 

Another GOOD, always thought the Twins were grooming him to be a Meintkiewicz-like first baseman for the future. That could still happen, or a possibility if split time with another person (Rooker0 as well as being a top-flight defensive guy for outfield play.

 

The BAD. The Twins have to decide if they want to see if it developes bigtime in the next few years, or cut bait if he has a halfway decent season in 2018, replaced by more prospects coming up in the system

 

But I love the guy's drive and energy on the playing field. It is a long 162-game season.

Absolutely love his swing. As noted in the article, his progress has been steady with jumps here and there to being such a raw nut talented player when signed. His swing and quick hands tells me he will improve against LHP. To what degree and how quickly is yet to be determined.
    • twinssouth and MN_ExPat like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Mar 21 2018 11:31 AM
No platoon. Give Kepler another season or two and the Twins will reap the benefits.
    • Carole Keller, Mike Sixel, Twins33 and 3 others like this

Agree with others here that feel he will sufficiently figure the LHP thing out.Everything having to do with his family background and overall story suggest that he will have all the tools required for "figuring things out" in his profession.He'll eventually max his physical gifts, and that's what is the encouraging part for me.

Kepler had only a 40 point OPS spread between RH and LH pitchers for his last two full seasons in the minors, but lefties have definitely owned him at the MLB level.

 

His BABIP would get a lot of help if he stopped popping the ball up as much, and with Kepler's eye at the plate, it's something I think he could work on with learning which pitches lead him to pop the ball up.

 

Kepler still reminds me of a somewhat less talented version of Joe Mauer at the plate, but Kepler may wind up delivering more pop, which will be necessary to remain a starter at a non-premium defensive position.

Kepler IMO has looked more comfortable against lefties this spring, though generally I expect he'll continue to struggle against quality 7th/8th inning lefties.

 

Two things I think are most promising for Kepler:

 

1) Strikeout and walk numbers.Kepler has an above-average eye.He walked 206 times (~ 10%) and struck out 301 times (~15%) in the minors.His major league numbers here are modest (9% and 21%, respectively) and ripe for improvement.

 

2) BABIP.In 2016 and 2017 at the majors, Kepler had a batting average of .235 and .243, with BABIP of 0.261 and 0.276.In AAA he hit .282 with .309 BABIP.In AA he hit .322 with .359 BABIP.A very strong correlation here suggests his average should sit around the .270 range, and if he ever decides to work on increasing his launch angle, I see him as a .280 hitter with 20-30 HR power.

 

I've also been quite impressed by his defense the last two years.Could play center if he needed to.Kepler just turned 25 and he doesn't hit free agency until 2022.I'm looking forward to seeing what the young man can do this year.

    • MN_ExPat and Original Whizzinator like this

What does he look like this spring?Are we seeing him make strides with the new coaching?

In 2017, the difference between Kepler and Rosario was significant according to Statcast.

 

Kepler:8 Outs Above Average, Rank:14th, Caught 71.7% of the opportunities

Rosario:-4 Outs Above Average, Rank:183, Caught 54.2% of the opportunities.

 

For the 2016 season, Kepler and Rosario's Statcast data

 

Kepler:11 Outs Above Average, Rank:13th, Caught 67.6% of the opportunities

Rosario:5 Outs Above Average, Rank:28th, Caught 60.2% of the opportunities.

 

In comparison to the previous season, Kepler improved and Rosario regressed.Was Rosario hurt or does this just reflect efforts at defensive improvement?  

 

https://baseballsava...in=25&year=2017

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Nick Nelson
Mar 21 2018 05:05 PM

^ Good research. At this point they're both young enough and the sample sizes are small enough that I'm not inclined to put a ton of stock into the data, but it does seem to match the eye test.

 

Rosario in general for whatever reason doesn't seem to get the most out of his solid speed. Questionable jumps/routes in the OF and a fairly poor steal rate on the bases. 

    • MN_ExPat likes this

Between Rosario and Kepler, Kepler is the better defender. Stats back eye test.

Rosario put on weight and lost speed.

2016 = 28.4,

2017 = 27.7. That's a pretty big drop off in sprint speed.

 

Kepler

2016 = 28.6 ft/sec

2017 = 28.2 ft/sec

League median....a RH OF would have made a ton of sense this off season.

 

https://www.fangraph...gs-right-field/

 

Much more sense than Tyler Kinney, for example.

    • Dave The Dastardly likes this

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