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Free Agency / Re-Signings 2020-21 Offseason

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Caesar Hernandez a Marwin replacement option

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Is Cruz a MUST signing? And what if he doesn't fit?

Minnesota Twins Talk Yesterday, 07:08 PM
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Blake Snell a trade target or not

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2020 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook Available NOW!

Twins Minor League Talk 28 Nov 2020
The 2020 Minnesota Twins Prospect Handbook will be now available.By clicking here, you can order the paperback version of the PDF/E-Book...
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What's Max Kepler's Next Step?

In 2019, Kepler appeared to be having a monster breakout, before an injury marred his final several weeks. However, there might be more to that regression than sheer health problems.
Image courtesy of © Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
If 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:

Attached Image: Kepler.gif

After the break, here’s the breakdown:

Attached Image: Kepler 2.gif

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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All other teams thank you for this article. ;)

    • Bomba2026 likes this
Doctor Gast
Apr 09 2020 06:31 AM

Kepler is a great hitter! Like what you said he adjusted fantastically against lefties which prior he had difficulty. When healthy he will continue to adjust & be that great hitter that we expect him to be.

    • h2oface and DocBauer like this
Apr 09 2020 09:19 AM
The question that I have had for a few years has been "Why is Kepler's BABIP so poor?" After reading this article I add, "Why is Kepler's BABIP so poor against right handed pitchers?" This piece gives good info on Kepler, I don't think it directly answers my questions, though.
    • DocBauer likes this

In addition to a shoulder injury, Kepler banged up his knee earlier in the summer and dealt with that injury until the end of the season.  


If healthy, I see Kepler having a better season in 2020 than in 2019...should we be so fortunate that there is a season.  


The question that I have had for a few years has been "Why is Kepler's BABIP so poor?" After reading this article I add, "Why is Kepler's BABIP so poor against right handed pitchers?" This piece gives good info on Kepler, I don't think it directly answers my questions, though.

The poor BABIP to hard contact ratio has been the big question for Kepler and why many think he can tear it up one day.What is odd is that it has been season after season not just a single one.A single season you would think it is just bad luck and good defense, but every season, it has to be something more.  


I think the number one adjustment he needs to make is realize teams are scared of him, and will start to pitch like it.Work on identifying the holes and stay off those pitches.Take page from Mitch, and say if I cannot hit that pitch hard, why swing at it.If it is a strike so be it, just let it go.  


If Max can make the adjustment to stay off the pitches where he struggles, then he can be a beast.Easier said than done.How many times, for other players, Buxton to be specific, do I say to myself here comes the slider off the plate leave it, and there is the slider and he swings through it.Everyone knows it is coming, but in the back of your head it is, but what if this is the one time it is not and I miss the fastball.  


I personally, would coach players to make pitchers show they will throw you a strike more often then they won't.Why do their job for them.That is why I love Mitch and his approach.He looks middle middle and swings hard.He figures if he cannot get a hit on edge of zone pitches, why swing.Unless it is two strikes and you need to foul off close pitches, but even then if you are not good at that, just take it, let the ump do his job.

    • DocBauer and Vanimal46 like this
What is Max's next step? If Corona keeps up I'd say another puppy or a baby Max!haha

The poor BABIP to hard contact ratio has been the big question for Kepler and why many think he can tear it up one day. What is odd is that it has been season after season not just a single one. A single season you would think it is just bad luck and good defense, but every season, it has to be something more.

Without actually looking at any advanced stats, I would think it’d partially related to his trajectory/launch angle (obviously).

I recall hearing he struggled with launch angle up until last season, and was working on/made adjustments to attempt to correct it. BABIP numbers for a guy driving pitches in an elevated manner vs. low-line drives and ground balls look different.

It also appears that a large percentage of his hard hit balls in play are to the pull side. I don’t have any data handy in terms of shifting on Max, but that could explain some of it. As he makes adjustments that should increase BABIP year after year, more shifting could be offsetting that.

He also hit more HRs in 2019, which don’t fall into BABIP - not a huge driver, but a consideration. Also, when you’re attempting to hit more HRs, you’re going to hit more fly balls. The ones that don’t leave the park are more likely to end up in an outfielders glove than a screaming line drive. An increase n launch angle doesn’t necessarily mean good things, either. Maybe there’s more fly balls, and the hard hits are still lower to the ground.

Maybe he needs to find that sweet spot in his launch angle. Too low results in more outs, too high results in more outs. Maybe he’s flirting with the extremes and needs to dial it down a little now after last year to really breakout offensively (as if last season was somehow insufficient).

Love Max. So fun to watch hit. As someone largely of German descent (grandparents in my dads side came from the Hamburg area) who has studied the language and makes routine pilgrimages to Octoberfest (New Years Eve in Berlin is also the most underrated NYE party on earth), he’s far and away my favorite current Twin, and one of my favorite of all time. I’m not concerned about the BABIP. Stick with what’s working.
    • DocBauer likes this
Parker Hageman
Apr 09 2020 02:37 PM

One of the things that the Twins set to work on with Kepler was pulling the ball the right way -- which dates back to his prospect days. Even back in 2016, Tom Brunansky observed that a lot of Kepler's power was to left-center alley and tried to get him to pull the ball in the air more. 


In 2018, you can see how a high percentage of those optimally hit balls (over 95 mph, between the 10-30 degree launch) wound up in left-center field which explains a bit why he hitting the ball hard but failing to get hits. That year when he pulled the ball, he put it on the ground 57% of the time.


The Twins and Max made some changes, and one of the things was switching his stride (not landing closed where he would struggle to pull the ball effectively). He hit the ball in the air more to the pull side and hit it harder. One of the interesting things he said about 2018 was that he was actively trying to get the ball in the air more but failed at it and made the problem worse for him. 


Why it slowed down in the second half of 2019, I tend to agree with Matthew that pitchers made some adjustments and Kepler did not. His zone in which he hits the ball 95+ was kind of a smallish area (whereas someone like Christian Yelich covered more of the zone). Teams are going to make adjustments to that. 

    • DocBauer likes this
I think he may even have a different approach vs Lefties vs Righties. He had a total of 16 extra base hits against lefties last year which meant he got an extra base hit every 9.1 at bats. Then he got 52 extra base hits against righties which gave him an extra base hit every 7.2 at bats. Now we all know his power zone is down and in, I'd venture to say most lefties the ball will naturally tail away from Max a little bit. So maybe he dialed his swing down a little with a lefty on the mound and dialed it up a bit with a righty?? He really struggled with lefties a few years back but has improved tremendously over the last couple of years against them.
Wanted to quote initially, but by the time I sat down to do so, there were too many good quotes to list. So let me echo that for some crazy reason, despite athleticism, a sweet swing generally good contact and a good eye, Max's BABIP has simply been unusually and frighteningly low for someone with so much going for him.

Darius mentioned finding a sweet spot between contact/launch angle and approach. And that may be a simplified but accurate answer. He has been making adjustments, pitchers have been making adjustments, and round and round goes the wheel. But that's status quo for all hitters, probably more so for young hitters as they refine their game. I have often argued that Kepler has gotten by on pure ability and produced well, but has been a bit behind a lot of prospects and young players due to his training and early experience. Someone, I forget who, had a very interesting post about the kind of baseball and instruction Max had in Europe. I believe the post was about a year ago in another OP of similar discussion. The poster had real knowledge about the level of competition and instruction in Max's case, and it didn't compare to a traditional HS kid. The whole point being, like any young player he has had to learn, develop and make adjustments. But as good as he's been, it may have taken him a bit longer to begin to reach his full potential than others.

Considering how good he's been, and the big step forward in 2019, imagine how good he can still be.

While I believe he has 30HR power over a full season, (remembering his was hampered the last month or so last year), I would be surprised to see him be more of a consistent high 20HR hitter with an increase in doubles, BA and OB. Especially if he can find that sweet spot in his approach. I absolutely feel we haven't seen the best of him yet.