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Max Kepler (And the Belated Breakout)

Posted by Matt Braun , 09 May 2019 · 1,016 views

Max Kepler is my favorite Twins player, something that has been true ever since he stole my heart with his performance in July of 2016. If you remember (I truly hope you do not), the Twins were mostly unwatchable that year as they rolled over and died from the very beginning and slogged their way towards the worst record in baseball. Their reward was Royce Lewis and a fresh FO, but at what cost? There wasn’t much else to gain from the season but the play of the young prospect caught my eye and his 3 home run game on the 1st of August that year cemented my appreciation for him. My connections to Kepler run a bit deeper too as my last name implies a strong German heritage (Braun means “brown” in German), so naturally I stuck to Kepler. Of course, the similarities pretty much end there as he can hit major league pitching and my baseball career ended once the breaking balls were introduced to me.

Anyways, Kepler ended that year with a modest 93 wRC+ and a 1.3 fWAR over 113 games. Passable numbers for sure, but the potential for Max seemed higher thanks to his top prospect status, great athleticism, and low BABIP which seemed to be signs that a breakout season was coming soon. 2017 came and went and Kepler put up the same wRC+, a somewhat baffling occurrence as a breakout seemed all but inevitable that year. Of course, there is always next year and the Kepler celebrations were paused until 2018 where he hit for a wRC+ of… 97. Scientists and baseball writers were bewildered as his walk rate jumped 3.3% while his strikeout rate dropped 4.4%, both things that would suggest a breakthrough, yet it didn’t quite occur. Kepler’s defensive numbers were better in 2018 so his fWAR jumped from 1.4 to 2.6, but this was not quite the way everyone wanted Kepler to improve.

Between his start in 2016 and the end of the 2018 season, Kepler’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) sat at an astonishingly low .257. Among those with 1500+ plate appearances in that time period, he comes in with the 5th lowest BABIP in all of baseball. Some of the names that come in around him are Todd Frazier, Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols, Carlos Santana, Maikel Franco, Curtis Granderson, and Salvador Perez. There’s a general theme here of slow, lethargic and (mostly) guys who would no longer be considered “athletic” or at least not as athletic when compared to other MLB players. But then there’s Kepler, who BaseballSavant has in the 59th percentile for sprint speed, an above average level.

Why his BABIP is so low remains beyond me as looking into his batted ball profile leaves me even more confused than before. His soft/med/hard hit % slashline is almost identical to George Springer from 2016-2018, yet Springer holds a BABIP .049 points above him. His pull/center/oppo % slashline resembles Victor Martinez’s from 2016-2018, yet even old man V-Mart was able to put up a .281 BABIP. And to top it all off, his FB/GB/LD % slashline over 2016-2018 matches up well with Rougned Odor, yet the small stink was able to out BABIP him by .017 points.

Now, every player has a BABIP that is unique to them and their batted-ball profile. Some can hold higher numbers than others while some just naturally have lower ball in play ability, but Kepler’s BABIP will always remain perplexing to me, what is making it so that this guy cannot get a hit to save his life?

But enough about the past, we can’t change it anyways. What about Kepler so far this year? Well thank you so much for asking, Kepler is holding a respectable 113 wRC+ in 2019 as he continues to usually bat lead off in an extremely potent Twins lineup. His average exit velocity of 91.4 MPH is higher than his career average of 89.2 and the MLB average of 87.4. What is probably the least shocking about a hitter in 2019 is that he also now has a career high pull rate of 55.4% which is 10.7% higher than his average and his average launch angle is currently 15.7 degrees, a number that is actually lower than his 2018 launch angle average, but a mark that is above the MLB average of 11.0 degrees. Or, to put it simply, he’s pulling the ball in the air more, which is a good thing.

Oh and by the way, he’s also swinging way more than usual, which is probably a good thing for him. His swing rate is at 52.3%, a number that would place him in the top 20 of qualified free swingers in baseball last year and is also 9.7% higher than his swing rate last year. The return is that his walk rate is slightly down (but still great) while his K rate is slightly up (but still very manageable) yet because he’s hitting the ball hard I don’t think he or the Twins care too much.

At the start of spring training, the Twins inked Kepler to a 5 year $35 million extension that would make Kepler a free agent in 2025. The deal basically ensured that Kepler would be paid a guaranteed amount of life-altering money while the Twins hedged their bets that the still young Kepler could break through and make a $7 million AAV deal look like a steal. And even if he never improved over his 2018 self, $7 million a year for a solid OFer is still pocket change. The next major sign of confidence has come in his nearly daily placing at the very top of the Twins lineup, a move that has been questioned less and less as the year has started but was a somewhat puzzling play when it was first announced.

Nonetheless, the budding star (and yes, I do mean star) has started to flash the offensive capabilities that the Twins believed he had in him thanks to some changes in his approach at the plate and if he holds it over a full season with his 2018 level of defense, you are looking at a legitimate top 5 right fielder in all of MLB.

  • Dman likes this



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Andrew Gebo
May 09 2019 08:17 PM
If Buxton can reach his full potential and be the type of player that earned him the title of baseballs #1 overall prospect then Kepler is likely the “worst” OFer on the team. Now, before you get mad at me, that’s not a knock on Kepler. That more so speaks to the overall potential of this teams core. Kepler, as you outlined in your post, is showing signs of breaking out and becoming a very good player. It would be hard to argue that an OF consisting of Rosario, Buxton, and Kepler is anything but one of, if not the best OF in baseball. His low BABIP is head scratching for sure. The only theory I can think of is that defensive shifts are impacting his BABIP. Balls hit up the middle or to the pull side are being turned into outs more frequently due in large part to the shifts. There could be other factors involved but defensive shifting likely plays a role in his low BABIP.
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LA VIkes Fan
May 10 2019 01:16 PM

On the low BABIP, it seemed like he popped the ball up a lot last year rather than hitting line drives. This year, it seems like he's hitting more line drives so his BABIP is up. That would seem to correlate with his slightly lower launch angle this year. It may be just as simple as him over swinging a little last year to generate power/home runs and going back to being himself this year.

 

Also, I don't think we should underestimate the freeing effect of having a long term, guaranteed contract for both him and for Polanco. There was an interesting article in I think Fangraphs or the Athletic about the effect on guys who sign a longer term "team friendly" contract early in their career. They quoted Evan Longoria as essentially saying that the contract he signed freed his mind up and was a big factor in him playing as well as he did in Tampa. All of this for both guys may just be the effect of taking a major worry off of their plate and allowing them to just go out a play ball. 

    • Danchat likes this
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ScrapTheNickname
May 10 2019 04:18 PM
Using the old-fashioned "eye test," Kepler's low BABIP is obvious. He pulls everything, and grounds out a lot, and pops out a lot. If he learns to hit the ball where it's pitched, rather than pulling he will yet blossom into a top-notch hitter. Alas, we have only seen hints of that yet.
    • Danchat and jkcarew like this

Using the old-fashioned "eye test," Kepler's low BABIP is obvious. He pulls everything, and grounds out a lot, and pops out a lot. If he learns to hit the ball where it's pitched, rather than pulling he will yet blossom into a top-notch hitter. Alas, we have only seen hints of that yet.


Obvious to me as well. His pull rate isn’t as high (until this year) as you might think...but he does TRY to pull everything. Everything. Result: balls hit to left of center are almost always poorly struck and the result of him getting beat by a pitch that he’s trying to pull. With his approach, sustained improvements mostly limited to the BB/K ratio and HR rate.