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Article: What if This is the Max for Kepler?

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After Breakout Season Max Kepler Looking Toward Next Level

When you look at him, you wouldn’t realize that Max Kepler was a cold-blooded killer. Behind the laid-back, polite, innocent-looking demeanor is a 23 year old who is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of murdering Southern League pitching.

By now, most are familiar with Kepler’s intriguing backstory – a player signed as a teenager from the baseball boondocks of Berlin. His makeup and athleticism wowed Twins scouts to the point that they were willing to make him the highest paid European amateur signing, in spite of the fact that Kepler had played more soccer than he had baseball.

His lack of experience was apparent upon his introduction to a better pool of competition. “You watched him back in the Gulf Coast League and Cedar Rapids, he didn’t know what he was doing,” said Mike Radcliff, the Twins Vice President of Player Personnel. “He had a great body and a great swing and he had tools. He had no idea.”

That was then. Now, Max Kepler is the reigning Southern League MVP. He essentially forced the Twins into giving him a September call-up. How did the 22-year-old suddenly flip the switch?
Image courtesy of Marilyn Indahl, USA Today
Kepler says it was frustration with the status quo that prompted him to reevaluate his approach at the plate.

In 2014 he was coming off a season where he slugged just .393 with Fort Myers. That was several points higher than the league’s average, to be sure, and the Florida State League with its sweltering, oppressive humidity in the summer months has a way of zapping power from many promising prospects. That being said, he was certainly not creating the type of power expected from a corner outfielder with a six-foot-four frame.

“I was rehabbing with Fort Myers and I started with the same approach that I had in '14 and I wasn't happy with it,” Kepler explains. “I was just hitting singles and I wasn't generating much power, which I was looking for in '15. And then, kind of on my own, I just started to raise my leg a little more and sit back on my backside. Which wasn't really a leg kick yet but I had momentum going in my swing.”

Since he began the 2015 season late and was assigned with the Miracle as what amounted to a rehab stint, his use in the lineup was sporadic and his at-bats were limited. The inconsistency combined with the new swing did not produce much.

It was in Chattanooga that Kepler’s 2015 season began its upward trajectory. Working with Lookouts hitting coach Chad Allen, he says, gave him the guidance to improve his swing as well as confidence to keep using it, in spite of some initial struggles during his introduction to the Southern League.

“Chad Allen told me, you know, why not just mingle with the leg kick and see what happens for a week or two. The first week, I struggled and kept [the leg kick] low and then the second week, I felt really comfortable, balanced. It got bigger.”

After 12 games into his Chattanooga career, Kepler had a dozen hits, sprinkling in a double and a pair of triples in almost 50 at-bats. The results seemed very similar to his output in Fort Myers. Then, in the final game of a series against the Jackson Generals, he hit two doubles. Something clicked and the floodgates opened. Over the next five games, he hit another five doubles.

Kepler said he did not model his swing after any particular hitter but he has studied the Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez and his leg work. “I try to be as quiet and soft as he is in the landing,” Kepler says.

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Obviously Gonzalez was a much more polished hitter entering professional baseball (as opposed to Kepler who honed his skills in the baseball hotbed of Germany), and Gonzalez has the good fortune to call Coors Field home where balls travels in the high altitude, but it’s not difficult to envision Kepler adding more home runs to his resume this season.

Evaluators say that it is not just what Kepler has done physically with his swing but he has also made improvements in his ability to handle the game between the ears. The mental side that Allen instilled, Kepler says, was to stop obsessing about the count and quit worrying about when pitchers get ahead. Just let it fly. “He told me to be more aggressive. I was more of a patient hitter, didn't like striking out a lot. I was more of a slap hitter once I got a strike on me.”

Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky, who says he views Kepler’s minor league development last season as one of the organization’s biggest accomplishments of the year, also had a hand in getting Kepler to pull the ball with authority.

“I told Chad, I said his job is to get Max to pull the ball the right way,” he said. “Max has always been able to barrel the ball, put it to left field, left center. Pulling was always a struggle for him.”

Contrary to what most believe about the Minnesota Twins’ curation of hitters, inside the organization coaches and instructors work diligently on trying to maximize power potential, not reduce it. This may not have always been the case but there is a renewed emphasis on developing power. The message from the top of the minor league development chain is to drive balls, show aggression and, yes, pull the ball.

Kepler, who says he used to “inside out a lot of balls” earlier in his career, has shifted his approach to pulling the ball rather than focusing on dumping a fastball to left field.

“You don’t beat up the Southern League and become an MVP like he did without pulling the ball,” Brunansky remarked. “To Max and Chad’s credit, he learned how to pull the ball the right way. You see that coming back into camp this year, which is good. The ball jumps off his bat, he’s got a real quick back.”

Some wondered if Kepler’s other offensive skill sets would erode with the focus on generating more power. Would the message to be more aggressive translate into swinging at more pitches out of the zone? Would his strikeouts skyrocket into Adam Walker territory?

Interestingly enough, even with the more aggressive mindset, Kepler actually reduced his strikeout rate in Double-A (from 15 to 13 percent of plate appearances). What’s more, as the season progressed and he continued to hammer the ball, pitchers began to respect his power and pitch around him. The naturally patient Kepler was savvy enough to accept a free pass to first. He went from walking in 8 percent of his plate appearances to 14 percent. Those numbers are trending in a mighty fine direction.

****

No, Max Kepler was not going to beat out any of the existing outfielders for a spot to start the 2016 season but the move is a blessing in disguise. The crowded roster will give Kepler the time to find out if his revamped approach will hold up against theoretically better pitching in Triple-A.

With the minor leagues, baseball has one of the best filtration processes and, as Brunansky says, pitchers will give you instant feedback whether or not an approach will work. If it doesn’t work, Kepler will have to make more adjustments. On the other hand, if he embarrasses International League pitching the way he did the Southern League’s pitchers, he won’t be down for too long.

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14 Comments

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Tommygun921
Mar 28 2016 08:25 AM
Nice article Parker. I believe the twins found a good one. Strong character and concentration to be able to stick with the plan and see it come to fruition. Not to often to players strikeouts go down and walks up as they advance through the system. Especially considering they were already some of his strong suits. Hopefully he continues to make adjustments and we see him soon at Target field.
    • savvyspy, big dog, nytwinsfan and 1 other like this
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GMinTraining
Mar 28 2016 09:09 AM

I think Kepler is a stud with the sweetest swing in the organization.  If everyone on the MLB team plays as we hope - Who does he replace when he reaches target field?  or Who would you like him to replace if everyone else plays to their potential?  He's not a 4th outfielder.

    • twinssouth likes this

It would be great if Kepler tore up the International league.Twins could then trade Rosario or Arcia and maybe Stewart and another piece to the Padres for Tyler Ross.That would be a wonderful use of Twins new found depth.We do not want Kepler to stay down too long if he is raking.

I believe his hitting will be Mauer like, though not quite as elite, but that he will generate more power and, obviously, provide more speed. He is the Twins next #3 hitter. The question is, who moves to make room for him? Sooner or later...sooner...someone is going to have retire, be traded, released, or walk as a FA to make room in the lineup.
    • Platoon likes this

Great comparison video clips. You can see how Carlos Gonzalez starts his kick much earlier, dwells longer with his knee up, glides forward more slowly, then cocks his wrists tighter before pulling the trigger. It's all very deliberate and unhurried. Those things allow Gonzalez to deliver more power to the point of contact without subtracting from his ability to check his swing. 

 

I hope Max Kepler continues to study videos of Carlos Gonzalez. If he gets some of that unhurried rhythm in his swing, the league better watch out for Der Kid. 

    • savvyspy and h2oface like this

Kepler has been my favorite prospect for years and had given him the "breakout" prospect moniker for multiple years. Finally all came together last year. The eye-test with him improved my overall opinion more than it ever has for anyone else, and that eye-test came from Spring Training in 2012 when he was playing with the Snappers roster that included Sano, Rosario, and Vargas. Kepler was the best player on the team in the multiple games I watched, and it wasn't particularly close. Don't remember if he had injuries that season, but I was astonished he didn't play any in the MWL that year. The results didn't match up for a few more seasons, but I'm hoping he's a fixture in the lineup by the end of this season, and if so see him as the #3 hitter at some point next year. Can't wait for Max to be up for good!

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SF Twins Fan
Mar 28 2016 11:51 AM

Kepler is the prospect I'm most excited to follow this season. He just seems to have the 'it' factor. Seems to have great character, works hard and is determined to make it to the Show. I think the Twins did a great job bringing him up in September last year to get him a taste of the MLB. It will be interesting to see how playing time shakes out as the season goes on. There doesn't seem to be room for him currently on the Twins roster, which isn't a bad thing. Twins finally have competition!!!!!! If Kepler builds off of last season the Twins will be forced to do something unless there are injuries (which I don't hope there are).

    • James likes this

 

 

Who would you like him to replace if everyone else plays to their potential? 

 

 

Plouffe trade.  Sano to third.

I love how Bruno and Allen worked on this together, and how Bruno gives him some of the credit (along with Kepler, of course) for the development. Great organizational leadership there.

    • birdwatcher, brvama and big dog like this
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TheLeviathan
Mar 28 2016 02:11 PM

Kepler is about 40% of my insistence on trading Plouffe.  We NEED a batter like Kepler, he might step in immediately as the best leadoff hitter on the roster until Buxton improves his pitch recognition.

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ashburyjohn
Mar 28 2016 03:22 PM

I am high on Kepler but I will not be surprised if he gets off to a slow start in AAA. Last year was the "two steps forward" phase, I'm ready for "one step back". A full year for Max at AAA will not disturb me.

    • Mike Sixel likes this
Is he really guilty? Or, just Steven Avery-guilty?
    • Platoon likes this
Keplers athleticism just stands out compared to everybody else. He's an igniter, gets things going. He should be up by June and if so, will be a ROY candidate. Long term, I see him as our future 1st baseman. Short term, pick any spot in the outfield.
Assuming Max continues to rake in 3-A the Twins will not have a choice but to move him up. Where to is the question. The starters at Target Field will determine that. Sano's fielding in right, Park's transition to big time pitching, Rosario's continued development and Mauer's improvement.

First of all I think Sano will be a mess in right field. I Expect Rosario will continue a much better hitter than anyone gives him credit for and his defense is sensational. The questions to me are Park and Mauer. If both play well the Twins may face the question of do we replace Plouffe's .250 bat with Kepler's .300 plus bat? An easy, yes.

If Mauer continues as a .260 hitter with no power and modest fielding they may have to move Park to first, Kepler to right and Sano to DH. What a dream defensive outfield we would have then. The issue then, of course, is a $ bazillion guy on the bench.

When is the last time our Twins have had a potential problem of too much talent.

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