What if This is the Max for Kepler?
Image courtesy of © Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY SportsEntering the 2019 season, Kepler will be a 26-year-old with over 400 games and 1,600 plate appearances under his belt. He’ll have what amounts to roughly three full big-league seasons and should be more prime than a prospect at this point. Looking back at the past two seasons however, growth is hard to find, and time may be running out.
In 2017 Kepler posted a .737 OPS that was buoyed by an .828 OPS against righties. Despite never seeing significant platoon splits in the minors, he was routinely getting benched against southpaws down the stretch. With a .453 OPS against lefties, Paul Molitor had determined he was untrustworthy with a bat in those spots. Fast forward to 2018 and we’ve got normalization, but little else. Last season Kepler owned a .720 OPS vs RHP and a .745 mark against LHP, though the power came almost exclusively against righties.
Right now, it’s hard not to wonder where the past two seasons leave things with Kepler. He got out of the gate quickly in 2018, posting a .921 OPS through April 30. Owning just a .690 OPS the rest of the way however, he went from a plus-bat to a mediocre one. In a season that the Twins needed someone to step up during the absence of Buxton, it was Jake Cave who proved more notable than the expected-to-improve German.
Posting a career best 2.6 fWAR it wasn’t all downhill for Max a season ago. What bolstered that mark was his emergence in the field. Kepler has been a capable defender during his career, but the 6.6 defensive value was light years ahead of where he’s been throughout his professional tenure. He posted 10 DRS across all outfield positions, which nearly doubled his previous career high.
With the expanded role Kepler also fared well on the Statcast leaderboards. His 10 outs above average was tied for 11th in baseball, and he contributed 3% to his expected catch percentage this past season. That’s up slightly from the 8 OAA tally from 2017 and helped to fill the void felt by Minnesota being without the OAA leader in Byron Buxton.
All things considered the Twins need to feel a more significant all-around impact from Kepler going forward. It’s great that his defensive game has continued to raise the bar, but offensive stagnation at this stage of the game is anything but ideal. His 37.1% hard hit rate and 15.9% ground ball rate were both career bests, but there’s room for improvement in the middle.
Kepler has been vocal previously about his lack of desire to elevate the baseball. We’ve all but concluded that the most successful way to launch the baseball is increasing the launch angle. Despite his reservations Kepler’s results trended towards that reality this season. Unfortunately, his 46.2% fly ball rate and 37.8% line drive rate weren’t more married together. Rather than achieving an optimal launch angle, Kepler lifted often with little room for error. His 9.9% HR/FB was a career low and has trended downward each of the past two season.
Whether it falls on James Rowson in 2019, or a different coach entirely, continuing to get Kepler’s buy in to the launch angle revolution is a must. The more he understands the approach, the more likely he becomes able to execute upon it.
Right now, it’s all but set in stone that Max Kepler will open 2019 as a starting outfielder for the Minnesota Twins. The new manager will be tasked with getting the best out of Byron Buxton, and Eddie Rosario is inked in as well. Max continuing to tread water could lead to ceded playing time to Cave or some yet to be realized commodity. As important as it’s always been for the Twins to develop Jose Berrios, Sano, Buxton, and Rosario, it’s equally important for Max to step up with that group as well. The breakout needs to come, and soon would be great.
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