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Article: Twins Prospect Max Kepler Continues To Impress


When the Minnesota Twins signed Max Kepler to a $800,000 bonus, the organization knew they had a project on their hands. The raw German-born player would have a longer development timeline than most transforming from the toolsy teenager to a polished prospect. Unlike his compatriots in the Western Hemisphere, Kepler lacked the reps and the game awareness that comes from playing against the pool of competition on this side of the globe as a youth. That shortcoming would be on display in his introduction to professional baseball.

 

If you watched Max Kepler this year or happened to have glanced at his stats in Double-A, however, you would have no idea that he came from a baseball-deficient part of the world. Does he have a chance to see playing time in Minnesota this season?Offensively, this season has been different for Kepler. He has gotten more athletic, more aggressive with his swing and Chattanooga’s hitting coach, former Twin Chad Allen, says that is no accident.

 

“We made him do that,” Allen said referring to Kepler’s remodeled swing with a newly incorporated leg kick. There was an emphasis placed on getting him to drive the ball to the pull side without selling out, increasing his power but without sacrificing his contact abilities.

 

Kepler’s swing has come leaps and bounds since his days honing his craft in Berlin. At 16 years old, his mechanics were a crude iteration of what a baseball swing should be. His body lurched out over his front foot to get to the ball. The Twins worked hard to get him to stay back and wait for the ball to come to him. That resulted in a swing like the one he displayed while with the 2013 Glendale Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League, as seen below. Kepler would use the toe-tap method while keeping his weight back. The current version is one with an aggressive lower-half that is seeking to drive ball rather than just meet it.

 

If you watch the progression, Kepler develops from a toolsy hack into an athletic and collected power hitter over the course of five years.

 

http://i.imgur.com/DTGsXWG.gif

 

http://i.imgur.com/5isgBaW.gif

 

http://i.imgur.com/oM6PqBY.gif

 

“The first day we worked together this year, we kinda jumped him a bit and got on him pretty hard,” Allen admitted. “He had to realize that his potential. He’s got a high ceiling. We just made him aggressive. Not necessarily a pull hitter but more aggressive to the pull side and just understanding that he’s got to go up with the mentality that ‘I’m a pretty good hitter and I’m going to think that and when I go to the plate, I’m thinking I’m going to drive the ball every time.’”

 

Within the front office, the Twins’ staff was more or less anticipating this delayed learning curve. Mike Radcliff, the organization’s Vice President of Player Personnel, said that this offensive outburst is just the culmination of his development. He noted that international players like Kepler who do not come from Latin American countries like the Dominican or Venezuela that have leagues for players in that country prior to being brought into the United States system -- guys from Australia or Europe -- are often far behind in the game’s development curve. This season, he believes, was Kepler finally catching up to the rest.

 

“His [development] was limited out of Germany,” said Radcliff. “Played a lot more soccer games than he did baseball games before he was signed. It takes patience and we have a lot of that in our organization, thankfully.”

 

Even when their prized European prospect failed to produce an OPS over 740 in all but one of his first five professional seasons, the Twins evaluators never lost hope. “We all assumed, figured, projected he would hit eventually,” Radcliff continued. “This is the year it is showing up on the box score for sure.”

 

His box score numbers in Double-A have been ridiculous so far this year. Among those hitters who have compiled 400 or more plate appearances at that level, Kepler has the highest OPS (.994) by a large margin. His .569 slugging percentage tops Double-A with teammate Adam Brett Walker coming in a close but not that close second (.506). But while Walker has struck out in an eye-popping 176 of his plate appearance, Kepler managed to strike out in just 57 trips to the plate.

 

“For him to produce, something had to click. He’s doing something different and better,” Radcliff believes. “He’s more in tune to the game. He has more focus, he has more concentration, he knows how to react. Most of it is mental. He’s been physically impressive for a long time.”

 

Allen agreed that he has seen a maturing kid with not only an increased level of confidence but an expanding aptitude for the game. The mental aspect of his game is now catching up with his physical side.

 

“You see him doing stuff at the plate now -- and it’s not all the time -- but for instance every once in a while he’ll hit a lefty down the left field line with two strikes,” Allen explained. “That’s something you can’t necessarily teach to a lot of kids but he has the mental capacity to understand that even though I’m being aggressive to the pull side if you can still go the other way and flick a ball down the line, left-on-left, that showing you that the kid has some mental awareness of what is going on with the game and how the guy is pitching to him.”

 

That is another area of his game that has developed rapidly: Kepler has vastly improved against left-handed pitching. Just two seasons ago, he posted a .117 average off of lefties. He managed just seven hits in 60 at-bats and just one for extra bases. A switch flipped for him, perhaps because of confidence or because of the mechanical changes but this season he has compiled a .364 average versus left-handed pitching, or 28 hits in 77 at-bats. The approach that Allen was describing has paid dividends.

 

Kepler’s progress this season goes beyond the numbers as well. Earlier in August, Kepler was ejected from a game after an umpire failed to acknowledge that he was hit on the arm in an at-bat, instead calling it a foul ball. Kepler showed the mark the ball caused to the umpire and was promptly excused for the rest of the day.

 

To Allen, this is a significant milestone. He and the Lookouts coaching staff view that as a sign of confidence.

 

“In reality, Max has been a very laid back guy. A really, really laid back guy,” Allen said. “What really makes us as a staff smile is that he is now showing emotion. And to us, that is one of the biggest things that made us perk our ears up and go ‘oh wow, now we really got something’. He wants to do better, he wants to succeed. I’m not saying you have to show emotion all the time but when he gets pissed off, when he gets mad at a call that to us is saying that son of a buck is competing. When you have a guy that is competing every single day and gets pissed off when he doesn’t have a call go his way or doesn’t get a hit, that’s a big leap for us.”

 

With major league rosters expanding in September, there is an outside chance that Kepler is added as a left-handed bat with outfield and first base capabilities.

 

“I think hitting-wise, he’s there,” Allen assessed regarding Kepler’s current ability to handle major league pitching. “I think the biggest thing that Max is gonna have to learn like everybody learns when they get to the big leagues is that they gotta mentally stay strong when you go up there because the biggest thing that a young player is gonna have to deal with is learning to deal with failure in the big leagues. And if you can't deal with failure in the big leagues, you probably not going to be there very long.”

 

Radcliff is more conservative when it comes to Kepler’s timeline. Despite the outstanding stat line, he believes there are elements of his game that need some refinement.

 

“He’s not ready to be an average major league player tomorrow. He’s along that path. He’s doing good things, he’s produced. He’s hitting .340 but he still doesn’t take at-bats and swing at strikes and handle breaking balls like he is going to have to do to be an average hitter in the major leagues,” said Radcliff. “So there’s way more things that the eyeball picks up along with all the numbers that he is producing that is part of the evaluation process and part of the process for him to make that next to the 25-man roster.”

 

Radcliff noted that he did not want to sound disparaging when he offered up the things Kepler still needed to work on. After all every minor league prospect has things they need to work on before they stick in the major leagues for good. He mentioned Byron Buxton, a mega-prospect, who still needs to improve at the plate. But from his evaluation stance, after years of simply catching up to the rest of the field, Kepler has positioned himself on the fast track headed for Minnesota.

 

 

“You watched him back in the GCL and Cedar Rapids, he didn’t know what he was doing,” said Radcliff. “He had a great body and a great swing and he had tools. He had no idea. Now, well now, he is starting to understand what he is doing everyday, and every swing and every at bat.”

 

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This article is awesome!

 

We should be talking about Max Kepler, and we will, but I do need to say that I am incredibly impressed with Chad Allen. I've talked to him a couple of times and he's so knowledgeable and really has a plan. He seems to have a good plan for everyone. I think that's important. 

 

But Kepler's been tremendous. I saw him in Cedar Rapids, and that talent was there, but his swing was strange. You could see the quick bat and the power potential, but it was very, very raw. 

 

He's a quiet guy, very respectful. Every time I've talked to him, he stands and listens intently. Very polite. It's cool to see more assertiveness.

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“He’s not ready to be an average Major League player tomorrow. He’s along that path. He’s doing good things, he’s produced. He’s hitting .340 but he still doesn’t take at-bats and swing at strikes and handle breaking balls like he is going to have to do to be an average hitter in the Major Leagues,”

 

What's Radcliff saying here?  His expectation for Kepler is to be an "average" major league hitter?  We shouldn't hope/expect that he will put up numbers in the majors anything like what he is doing at AA?  Interesting comments.

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I saw him in ST and could have sworn I was watching Morneau in every aspect of his game. He Ks only once every 6.5 ABs, with almost a 1-1 in BB/K and 17-21 in SBs. Very impressive athlete. His ceiling could be a left-handed Paul Goldschmidt when he develops more HR power, which IMO he will. 

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"With Major League rosters expanding in September, there is an outside chance that Kepler is added as a left-handed bat with outfield and first base capabilities."

 

Why has there been so much talk lately of calling up vargas over Kepler?

 

 

Vargas (35 games at AA) - 151 AB .287/.417/.516
Kepler (last 35 games at AA) - 132 AB .341/.440/.614

 

Imagine Kepler would also offer much more flexibility defensively. Great article though! thanks

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Why has there been so much talk lately of calling up vargas over Kepler?

 

 

Radcliff hinted at experience being a factor for this September, especially if the Twins remain in contention. 

 

What's Radcliff saying here?  His expectation for Kepler is to be an "average" major league hitter?  We shouldn't hope/expect that he will put up numbers in the majors anything like what he is doing at AA?  Interesting comments.

 

 

He was speaking toward if Kepler was called up right now. Not long-term. His expectations based on what he has seen/the reports at Double-A suggest that Kepler may struggle to be an average major league hitter right now.

 

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“He’s not ready to be an average Major League player tomorrow. He’s along that path. He’s doing good things, he’s produced. He’s hitting .340 but he still doesn’t take at-bats and swing at strikes and handle breaking balls like he is going to have to do to be an average hitter in the Major Leagues,”

 

What's Radcliff saying here?  His expectation for Kepler is to be an "average" major league hitter?  We shouldn't hope/expect that he will put up numbers in the majors anything like what he is doing at AA?  Interesting comments.

 

He's saying that despite the impressive batting average, if he were called up now he would probably still struggle with breaking pitches and such. He's not a finished product. They think he can become an above average player.

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Great, long overdue article. Kepler really isn't being talked about as much as he should. If you combine the fact that he just turned 22 in April, with the fact (mentioned by the article) that he didn't play highly competitive ball until 16, and that he has been hampered by injuries, his dominant performance this year is really incredible and hasn't gotten enough attention, especially from national prospect watchers, but even from local Twins ones.

 

Unfortunately, those quotes from Radcliff make it sounds like Kepler won't be a Sept. 1 call up.

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Great, long overdue article. Kepler really isn't being talked about as much as he should. If you combine the fact that he just turned 22 in April, with the fact (mentioned by the article) that he didn't play highly competitive ball until 16, and that he has been hampered by injuries, his dominant performance this year is really incredible and hasn't gotten enough attention, especially from national prospect watchers, but even from local Twins ones.

 

Unfortunately, those quotes from Radcliff make it sounds like Kepler won't be a Sept. 1 call up.

 

There's no way he's a Sept 1 call up. They'll let him play every day through the end of Chattanooga season (Sept 7), and he'll play for the Lookouts in their playoffs, however long they stay in it. 

 

Also, Kepler is mentioned pretty much every day in the minor league reports. 

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Kepler seems like a pre-knee injury Jason Kubel

Good Ave, Good Power, Good plate discipline, decent speed

He's quite a bit more athletic than Kubel, even the pre-injury version.

 

IIRC, Kubel never graded out any higher than "mediocre corner outfield defense" while Max has fringy centerfielder potential in the vein of Wil Myers. You don't want him in center but he can probably hold down the position without completely embarrassing himself.

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“He’s not ready to be an average Major League player tomorrow. He’s along that path. He’s doing good things, he’s produced. He’s hitting .340 but he still doesn’t take at-bats and swing at strikes and handle breaking balls like he is going to have to do to be an average hitter in the Major Leagues,”

 

What's Radcliff saying here?  His expectation for Kepler is to be an "average" major league hitter?  We shouldn't hope/expect that he will put up numbers in the majors anything like what he is doing at AA?  Interesting comments.

I read it differently. That if he were called up now he wouldn't even be an average mlb player. They expect that and much much more from him. Therefore, he needs more time in the minors.

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I don't see any reason why they wouldn't bring him up in September after the AA season ends. He's already on the 40 man roster, he's played well enough to earn a cup of coffee. Even if you don't start him you could us him as a pinch runner or defensive replacement because he's a great athlete. If nothing else the experience would be good for him and there's no downside to having him on the team during a playoff chase.

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"With Major League rosters expanding in September, there is an outside chance that Kepler is added as a left-handed bat with outfield and first base capabilities."

 

Why has there been so much talk lately of calling up vargas over Kepler?

 

 

Vargas (35 games at AA) - 151 AB .287/.417/.516
Kepler (last 35 games at AA) - 132 AB .341/.440/.614

 

Imagine Kepler would also offer much more flexibility defensively. Great article though! thanks

Vargas is playing at AAA, with a OBP of .856, after an OPS of .934 at AA. He deserves a call up, one way or another.

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Holy. Crap.

 

I've been critical of the scouting and development many times, but I'd like to find out who in particular in the organization saw Kepler as a 16-year-old swinging like he was taking a crap mid-pivot and realized they could turn that into a useful ballplayer. 

 

Well done fellas, well done.

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I don't see any reason why they wouldn't bring him up in September after the AA season ends. He's already on the 40 man roster, he's played well enough to earn a cup of coffee. Even if you don't start him you could us him as a pinch runner or defensive replacement because he's a great athlete. If nothing else the experience would be good for him and there's no downside to having him on the team during a playoff chase.

One advantage of keeping Kepler in Chatanooga is he gets to play in the Southern League postseason.

 

Does that matter? Dunno, but it's a consideration.

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One advantage of keeping Kepler in Chatanooga is he gets to play in the Southern League postseason.

 

Does that matter? Dunno, but it's a consideration.

 

It should be a huge consideration... He'd maybe be a role player with the Twins. He'll be the #2/#3 hitter for the Lookouts in playoff games. It's good for him and it's good for his teammates... Unless he's going to start, getting those playoff at bats will be great. And, he can be up by 9/15 or so.

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Holy. Crap.

 

I've been critical of the scouting and development many times, but I'd like to find out who in particular in the organization saw Kepler as a 16-year-old swinging like he was taking a crap mid-pivot and realized they could turn that into a useful ballplayer. 

 

Well done fellas, well done.

 

It's like the holy grail.  "Terry, I've found it!  I just saw a young player here in Germany with a crap-taking pivot that we have been looking for all these years."

 

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I've been critical of the scouting and development many times, but I'd like to find out who in particular in the organization saw Kepler as a 16-year-old swinging like he was taking a crap mid-pivot and realized they could turn that into a useful ballplayer.

 

 

Credit goes to Twins scout Andy Johnson. Per an article in the Wall Street Journal

 

It was no coincidence that the Twins bid highest. Norway-based scout Andy Johnson had spotted Max at a tournament when he was 14. "I saw this beautiful swing, and this kid run up the line like a galloping baby deer," he says. Then he learned about the family background, and was sold. It became imperative to sign Max and get him to the U.S. so he could face better pitching, Mr. Johnson says.

 

 

I may disagree with the "beautiful swing" comment but credit where credit is due by recognizing an athlete who could be developed. 

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It should be a huge consideration... He'd maybe be a role player with the Twins. He'll be the #2/#3 hitter for the Lookouts in playoff games. It's good for him and it's good for his teammates... Unless he's going to start, getting those playoff at bats will be great. And, he can be up by 9/15 or so.

Keep him down for the playoffs, then a week off before heading out to Arizona. 

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I know this is one...albiet huge...blossoming year for Kepler.  But when I read stuff like this, when I read everything he's done this year, when I read scouting reports, when I look at numbers, when I examine all-around ability-potential-athleticism, I can't help myself....I start thinking he is a #3 hitter of the future for the Twins.

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