What's Max Kepler's Next Step?
Image courtesy of © Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsIf the Twins expected anything more than they got from Max Kepler in 2019, they did so unfairly. He was a star, not only playing his usual, laudable right field, and not only filling in admirably in center field for Byron Buxton, but bashing his way to 36 home runs and a 126 DRC+, according to Baseball Prospectus. Down the stretch, however, Kepler struggled, and it might not just have been because of the nagging injury to his left shoulder.
Start chopping up Kepler’s exemplary seasonal stats, and some surprising things emerge. For one, he had a better season (in a small sample, of course) against left-handed pitchers than against righties. He lit up fellow lefties, hitting .293/.356/.524 against them. His BABIP with southpaws on the mound was a sturdy .296. Against righties, he was a solid-but-unspectacular .236/.328/.517 hitter, with an ugly .223 BABIP.
Yet, throughout the first half, Kepler hit righties hard, too. At the All-Star break, Kepler stood at .263/.348/.543 against right-handers, despite an unimpressive .254 BABIP. Thereafter, however, he would hit righties at a meager .193/.295/.476 clip. In 166 plate appearances, he had a .168 second-half BABIP against righties.
Some of the compromised contact, of course, likely stemmed from the weakness and limitations of his shoulder during the final several weeks. Still, he had low ground-ball and pop-up rates, pulled the ball consistently, and had a very high Hard contact rate, according to FanGraphs, north of 41 percent.
The rest of the gap, then, might more easily be explained by a change in the way right-handed hurlers pitched Kepler—and that change, in turn, might be viewed as a reaction to adjustments Kepler made in 2019, which unlocked his full power potential but left him vulnerable in certain areas of the zone.
After a series of important and valuable adjustments in 2018, Kepler came back in 2019 with even more exaggerated versions of those swing and approach changes in place. He stood more upright in the batter’s box, started his hands a hair higher, and lengthened his stride, creating more torque and generating a steeper bat path as he entered the strike zone. That’s how he had the highest average launch angle of his career, and how he so easily accessed his full power.
It also opened up some holes in Kepler’s swing. He struggled with pitches at the top of the zone, and even with pitches in the lower, inner segment of the zone. By becoming selective enough to look for pitches on which he could extend his increasingly violent swing and slam the ball out of the park, Kepler made himself vulnerable on high and inside stuff.
Here’s where righties pitched Kepler in the first half of 2019:
After the break, here’s the breakdown:
In addition to becoming much more careful in the areas of the zone where Kepler was most capable of doing damage, and thereby throwing more junk below the zone and off the plate away, right-handers began to look for opportunities to attack the top of the zone, and even to work down and in on Kepler. That’s a counterintuitive place for a righty to pitch to a lefty, and it undoubtedly led to some of the mistakes Kepler crushed for his 11 second-half homers against righties, but on balance, it paid off.
If a 2020 season happens, it’s hard to predict whether Kepler will have worked to close this hole, or whether his fully healthy left shoulder will have allowed him to close it without a significant adjustment. There’s undeniable value in the approach he took last season, one lefties will continue to struggle to exploit, and one that allows him to have success even while vulnerable in certain ways.
Still, it’s interesting to track the cat-and-mouse game between a good hitter like Kepler and the pitchers trying to gameplan against him. There will be opportunities, whether in 2020 or in 2021, for the league to target the weaknesses he showed late in 2019 even more acutely, and it might be up to Kepler to find a new movement pattern in the box that allows him response flexibility even as he maintains his damage-focused, highly successful work from 2019.
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