Process Set to Yield Results for Kepler
Image courtesy of © Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY SportsOn the season Kepler’s .234/.326/.420 slash line doesn’t do much to excite baseball fans. His .746 OPS is a career high, and that number alone helps to further downplay the importance of a career worst .234 batting average. Looking back at his exploits for Minnesota this season, we can see that the total production is bolstered by a strong start and the current run, while being significantly dragged down by an abysmal month of June. The German-born lefty is mashing left-handed pitching this year, despite having taken a step back against righties. For a guy who was often benched down the stretch a season ago, it’s good to see those days are behind him.
Now, when trying to quantify the potential impact of his bat, it’s easiest to look at what else is going on here. Kepler is setting career highs in some very significant categories this season. He’s walking more, striking out less, showing better plate discipline, making strong contact, and getting lift under the baseball. As you can see in the image, there’re some real avenues for growth on the surface thanks to the process currently being employed.
Recently Tom Froemming pointed out how tough the game of baseball can be. Despite very similar inputs, Max Kepler’s results couldn’t be further off from Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi. Just missing out on his first All-Star Game, Benintendi owns a .305/.388/.512 slash line on the season. Max is making better contact more often than Andrew but seeing significantly lesser results. To this point, it’s worth noting baseball is not a game with a one size fits all approach.
There’s no denying the launch angle revolution has merit at this point. Simply put, the vast majority of players will have a greater success rate by lifting the baseball in the air. We know that “hard hit” contact is defined by balls put in play with at least a 90mph exit velocity. When it comes to launch angles, line drives are generated from trajectories of 10-25 degrees, while fly balls are produced by trajectories from 25-50 degrees. Marrying a strong exit velocity with an optimal launch somewhere between 25-30 degrees is going to create homers at a rapid pace. Dipping that launch down to something like 18-23 degrees should produce solid line drive rates.
Looking at the hard-hit rate leader boards Kepler finds himself sitting 55th among qualified hitters. Three spots up from him at 52nd is the Astros Alex Bregman. In 2018 Bregman owns a .900 OPS thanks to a .277/.381/.519 slash line. His 22 home runs are a career high, and he was named an All-Star for the first time this summer. Bregman owns a virtually identical GB/FB rate as Kepler (0.81 to 0.84), and their batted ball profiles are eerily similar. What helps to distance the Houston infielder is the added lift he gets on the baseball. With an average launch angle of 16.3 degrees (and 28.8 degrees on home runs) Alex is getting enough of a process boost to significantly impact his results.
When taking everything into consideration, it’s fair to believe there’s more to squeeze out of Kepler. The .251 BABIP is unsustainably low given the quality of inputs. Thankfully the normalization that takes place over the course of a full season should help to correct that average. It’s also relatively easy to see the surface numbers Kepler has provided us and compare them with more analytical factors to decipher a potential for growth. As Max continues to deviate from the ground ball plan of attack he has previously sided with there should only be added levels of success to follow.
It’s entirely possible that we don’t see the full transformation of statistical output from Kepler in 2018. Given his current process there’s little reason to believe that an .800+ OPS isn’t more reflective of the true production level. The .860 OPS posted since the end of July (.264/.369/.491) seems much more indicative of what is truly taking place this season. I’m not necessarily convinced that Kepler is capable of a 3-4-5 line but reaching an upper .800’s OPS or touching .900 is hardly out of the question. He’s still just 25 years old and clearly making tweaks to both his swing and approach at the dish.
Knowing what we do right now about Kepler, it’s hard to believe there won’t be a season in the not-so-distant future that seems to come out of nowhere. If he were to post an .850 OPS over the entirety of 2019 it would be a 100-point jump on this season, and even more so on his career average. That would be a massive improvement but seeing it as out of nowhere would only suggest that the process hadn’t really been researched. In a game that’s decided by so many little factors, Kepler is dealing with a decent bit of bad luck as he continues to make small tweaks that set himself up for future success. When those roads all intersect at the optimum level Minnesota would be welcoming another star into their stable of outfielders.
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