After Breakout Season Max Kepler Looking Toward Next Level
Image courtesy of Marilyn Indahl, USA TodayKepler 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.
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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