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Article: The Making of Max Power

max kepler james rowson launch angle scouting
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#1 Parker Hageman

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Posted 28 July 2019 - 07:29 PM

Max Kepler says his 2018 season was sidetracked when he got caught up in thinking about launch angle.

“I’ll be honest,” the Twins outfielder confided this spring, “I bought into it a little bit -- the launch stuff -- and I wanted to see if it would work for me. I wouldn’t say that it didn’t [work] but it certainly opened my eyes to my strengths and what works for me.”

The confession was strange considering Kepler had been an advocate of hitting down through the ball. As more hitters sang from the gospel of getting the ball in the air, heading into the 2017 season he went so far as saying he found the idea of elevating the ball to be “completely bogus” as he based his philosophy to advice from Barry Bonds, who told him to focus on hitting “hard ground balls” and “hit the ball through the pitcher’s forehead”.

The growing trend was too strong for him to resist.By his own admission, Kepler’s ultimate goal was never to hit ground balls. He wanted a level swing. One, he said, that imparted backspin on the ball to help it carry.

While batted balls can certainly travel with different variations of spin (back, top, side) more recent research has found that concepts like chopping or cutting a ball to create that spin is a fool’s errand. In fact, physics show that more spin can even suppress the distance, regardless of spin direction. The end goal, as Twins hitting coach James Rowson so eloquently put it in his instructional video, should be to hit the ball square.

In 2018 Kepler would post the highest launch angle average of his career (15.2 degrees) but also learned the lesson that if you hit too many balls into the vast wasteland of the middle of the ballpark, many of those can be tracked down. Target Field was especially unforgiving for him when he wasn’t pulling the ball.

“Last year I tried to work on my swing mechanically, and that’s the result I got, popping up a lot of balls,” Kepler said. “One of the lowest batting averages on balls in play, someone brought that up.”

He hit .203 on fly balls well below the league’s .283 average on fly balls, so you can see how that can grind. You find the money part of the barrel only to watch another well-struck ball land in a welcoming center fielder’s glove. Kepler acknowledged it was frustrating but resigned himself to concentrate on the process, not the results.
The thing the Minnesota Twins evaluators enjoyed about Kepler’s 2018 season was his ability to make consistent solid contact. He finished the year just behind Joe Mauer and Miguel Sano in terms of average exit velocity. They figured it wouldn’t take much to tweak that into improved production.

The Twins worked with him on his bat path into the zone (trying not to be as steep into the swing zone), his posture including straightening up in his stance, and had him close his front side up a bit.

Download attachment: Kepler Stance Difference.png


All the moves have aided in his increased power production but one element has been more of a catalyst for the home run totals. Removing the wider front leg starting point helps keep from cutting himself off and frees him up to pull the ball more. Watch his front leg travel inward a longer distance in 2018:

Download attachment: FSFrameGIFImage (6).GIF

With momentum carrying toward home plate, this limited his ability to turn and open up on a pitch effectively. This is why he hit more of his hard hit balls to center instead of pulling them. You might also notice is occasional toe tap he implements in 2019 as well. With the shortened stance, this helps him stay back instead of aggressively attacking the pitch and pulling it foul.

Even with a vow of returning to his previous methods and avoid getting caught in a launch angle-centric trap, Kepler entered 2019 hitting the ball in a very similar manner that he did the year before -- in the air. The difference was that rather than sending the balls with premium contact into the big part of the field, with adjusting his set-up, Kepler started to pull the ball:

Download attachment: Max Kepler 95 Spray Chart.png

After pulling all balls in play 48% of the time last year, he’s yanking 64% of balls in play this season. That shift in approach has led to more power and the added home runs has inflated in that average on fly balls to .342.

Now, after hitting a career-best 28th home run of the season, Kepler has increased his home run percentage to 6.4 percent -- one of the top 15 home run rates in baseball. It must be far more satisfying watching those balls disappear over the fence instead of into an outfielder's glove.

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"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." -- Jim Bouton, "Ball Four"


#2 tarheeltwinsfan

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Posted 28 July 2019 - 07:46 PM

Thanks Timely article.


#3 Twinsrule1991

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Posted 28 July 2019 - 08:48 PM

Really cool article! Have loved seeing Kepler smack the ball around all year!
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#4 BrianBuchanan

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Posted 28 July 2019 - 08:50 PM

Very insightful! You can really see the difference in his swing in those clips.

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#5 Kelly Vance

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Posted 28 July 2019 - 08:51 PM

Funny how we want Sano to use the whole field, (which he did today to good effect) and Buck too, (mainly because of his speed if he hits it in the RCF gap, its a triple)

but we want Max to pull it. 

 

It is still hit the ball where it is pitched though, because the first rule of hitting is "Get a Good Pitch to hit" .....Ted

 

When it comes to power hitting, the first rule should be "Hit it on the Sweet Spot"

 

With Max, when he hits it, you know it is gone.I am amazed that Max has such a keen hitting eye with his inexperience. He hits it on the nose a lot.

 

Glad they extended him.  

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#6 Darius

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Posted 28 July 2019 - 09:28 PM

Really good read. You can’t get stuff like this anywhere else without paying.

I think Kepler is a little under appreciated nationally. I think he’s getting there, but if he played for the Yankees he’d be a huge star right now (and can you imagine his numbers in that bandbox?).
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#7 sloopjont

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Posted 29 July 2019 - 07:59 AM

Yeah, one size doesn't fit all.Hit it all over the field works for Sano and Cruz, and Arraez; but pulling the ball more seems right for Kepler.

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#8 rdehring

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Posted 29 July 2019 - 09:10 AM

Thanks for a good read, Parker.

 

Have been a huge Kepler fan sice he came on board as a 17 year old during the fall instructional league while attending high school across the street.Am a believer that he is still scratching the surface of what he can become.

 

Commented several months ago, asking the question..."Can Max Kepler become a Hall of Famer?"If you project an average of 35 home runs a year, ten to twelve years from now he would be pushing towards or beyond 500.As he continues to gain more experience, is it unrealistic to expect him to retire with a lifetime .270-.280 average?Given those two marks, he would likely finish with 1,200 to 1,500 runs scored and RBI.Should he be fortunate enough to have good health so he can play into his mid-late 30's, do those numbers merit inclusion in that exclusive club?I don't know if he will last that long and perform at those levels.But of all the current Twins, I am most excited about his having a chance to. 

 

I know during the past off season lots of people here and elsewhere where begging the Twins to sign Bryce Harper while making Max a fourth outfielder, back up first baseman or even trading him.Let me ask the question today, who would you rather have on your team, Kepler or Bryce Harper?Looking at their current production, I'll take Max even before comparing contracts.Wouldn't you? 

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#9 JLease

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Posted 29 July 2019 - 09:56 AM

 

 

I know during the past off season lots of people here and elsewhere where begging the Twins to sign Bryce Harper while making Max a fourth outfielder, back up first baseman or even trading him.Let me ask the question today, who would you rather have on your team, Kepler or Bryce Harper?Looking at their current production, I'll take Max even before comparing contracts.Wouldn't you? 

 

I'll admit it: I was one of those people who had concerns. I didn't have a problem with the contract extension, because with his ability to play CF his defensive value was high enough to support the deal. But I think it was perfectly fair to be concerned about whether Kepler would ever have the kind of offensive breakout people had been predicting for three years.

 

Prior to this year, Kepler had a remarkably consistent results profile as a hitter, and it was decidedly mediocre. Low BA, solid patience, good power for CF, lower end power for a corner OF. Poor BABIP. After three years of this, it wasn't crazy to be worried that this simply might be who he was as a hitter and a player: someone whose bat plays in CF but hits below average in the corners and makes up for the lighter hitting with elite defense in the corners while being solid in CF.

 

Fortunately for everyone involved, Kepler has taken that leap forward this year. He's really unlocked his power potential this year and it's a massive improvement. He's already hit career highs in HRs, RBIs, and WAR and will almost certainly crush his career high for 2B. Absent a signficant late slump, he's going to hit career highs in BA/OB%/SLG%, OPS, OPS+...you name it, he's crushing it. It's the breakout we've all been hoping for but many of us worried might never come.

 

Last year Kepler took a step up in total value, but it was mostly due to defense and playing a higher value position for it. Now, he's still playing great defense and hitting close to all-star levels. I'm thrilled for him and the team. The contract extension looks brilliant now, whereas before it looked ok and required a little hope stuffed in.

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#10 joefish

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Posted 29 July 2019 - 11:35 AM

Ban Artificial Baseballs Everywhere
Atta Max.

#11 wabene

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Posted 29 July 2019 - 02:42 PM

Great posts! Mr Lease captures Kepler perfectly. So much could happen just look at Morneau, but yes the sky is the limit.



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