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What To Do With Max Kepler


Many thought Max Kepler reached a new baseline in a breakout 2019. Two disappointing years later however it’s become clear that 2019 was a mirage. The clock is ticking on the Twins right fielder. What does the future hold for Max Kepler?

Kepler’s career can be split into three parts. One was his 2019 season where he led the Twins in fWAR and punished pitchers no matter their handedness. He slashed a fantastic .252/.336/.519. Unfortunately this stretch lasted all of 596 plate appearances.

The other two parts are the near 2000 plate appearances of just not being anything too special surrounding that 2019. He was 7% above the league average hitter in 2020, but this was just the 2nd of his seven seasons in the MLB where he was even league average at the plate.

Kepler has basically always held his own against right handed pitching, but it’s against lefties that really brings him down. In his career he’s slashed .214/.284/.359 against southpaws, 29% below league average. Also keep in mind that those numbers are significantly inflated by his one fantastic season in 2019 where he was 30% above league average against lefties. At this point we have about three years prior to that performance and plenty of data compiled since to say that Max Kepler is a terrible hitter against left handed pitching. Expecting anything other than an out every time he takes an at bat in those matchups is a mistake.

 

 

So what can the Twins do with Max Kepler? He’s not a bad player but his usage everyday regardless of matchups significantly hurts his production and the team’s success.

 

Find the Right Trade

Kepler is still a good defender in the corner according to his 80th percentile rating in Outs Above Average. He’s also been 12% above league average against right handed pitching in his career. It’s entirely possible that there’s a team out there who sees these bright spots as well as his affordability and actually makes a decent offer on the trade market.

Despite the amount of injuries the outfield has had this season, the Twins system as a whole has incredible depth in the corner outfield, especially of the left handed variety. On the big league club alone the Twins have Kirilloff, Larnach and Arraez. Kepler won’t bring in the haul he once would have, but finding a decent package based on what he still does well could be a great option for the Twins to try to shake up a roster that’s been incredibly disappointing.

Move to a Platoon

This season may be lost but the next time the Twins are looking to compete it’s really difficult to make a case that Kepler adds to those plans while he’s taking at bats against left handed pitching. They may give him the rest of the season but if they want to keep Kepler around it should come with the condition that a right handed hitting corner outfielder is brought in to platoon with him. 

So far Kirilloff and Larnach appear to be avoiding the biggest flaw in Kepler’s game, but the Twins are still very left handed heavy in the outfield. Bringing a right handed bat into the mix with the intention of sitting Kepler against lefties and occasionally one of the young left handers would likely be an all around better situation.

I once found Kepler to be one of the most exciting players on the Twins when thinking about his future. At 28 years old however it’s become far too obvious that he’s not a future star and likely shouldn’t be thought of as one of the “core” pieces of the next great Twins team. He’s a solid player who can succeed in specific situations if you manage around his shortcomings to get him there. It’s time for big changes. Max Kepler is not an everyday difference maker in this Twins lineup, and it’s time they stop treating him that way.

 

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Good analysis. Unfortunately, we now know what Kepler brings to the tablein a normal year- 2019 being the outlier- verygokd OF defense and a below average slash line of around .235/.315/.425 (.740). He's even worse this year but Im hoping this tear is the bad outlier the way 2019 was the good outlier. Can’t hit left handed pitching to save his life. Sounds like a platoon player at best, really a 4th OF on a good team.

So, what to do now? Probably nothing. Trade him if you can get a good return, but we probably can’t. We don't have anyone pushing him that hard since Sano is so bad he’s giving up 1st base to Kiriloff. Keep him and see how much we need him next year unless we get a good offer.

 

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It’s no fun to admit it, but he just looks like this is going to be what he is.

His approach at the plate seems so disciplined and mature. It looks like he knows how to maximize his ability, yet, the production is just okayish at best.

It’s a shame. I think we had reason for high hopes once, but his numbers don’t give much reason to hope anymore.

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5 minutes ago, wavedog said:

I can see him potentially as a 4th outfielder/platoon ie upgrade over Cave.    With our current OF situation he is our best defender outside of Buxton which has value.   

By no means disagreeing with your assessment, but its pretty sad to be thinking of Kepler as a 4th OFer when he's guaranteed $15.25mill over the next 2 seasons (6.75 in 2022/ 8.5 in 2023).

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10 minutes ago, wavedog said:

I can see him potentially as a 4th outfielder/platoon ie upgrade over Cave.    With our current OF situation he is our best defender outside of Buxton which has value.   

Are we convinced he’s an upgrade over Cave.

Without looking, which career stats are Cave and which are Kepler?

.243/.311/.428 

.235/.318/.440

I mean, that is near identical production. They are both 28. Should we be convinced Kepler is the better centerfielder? Maybe. But consider the Twins management has chosen to position Cave in CF 83% of his games played and Kepler in center 20% of his games played.

They’ve certainly chosen to give Kepler a lot more playing time and signed him to a multi-year deal, so they obviously view him as the superior player. But is he?

 

 

 

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I think his biggest problem is he can’t or won’t use the whole field like Larnach and Kirilloff. My theory is that he became pull happy after the 36 home runs and wants to beat the shift by hitting over it. Now, disturbingly he’s striking out a lot too. I agree, he should almost never bat against a lefty. So many times he could have an easy single if he would just bunt to the left side with the extreme shifts leaving half the left side of the infield open. .199 or just over .200 just won’t cut it.

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2 hours ago, mikelink45 said:

This is very sad and it falls on the Twins who have failed to take Sano, Kepler, Polanco to the next level.  They were the building blocks and we did not coach, lead them to their potential. 

Agree, it is sad. Max seems like a good guy. Does he have as much talent as Larnach or Kirilloff? I thought so but it appears not. He needs some good coaching and a willingness to change his approach. It may be time to cut ties.

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8 hours ago, Greglw3 said:

I think his biggest problem is he can’t or won’t use the whole field like Larnach and Kirilloff. My theory is that he became pull happy after the 36 home runs and wants to beat the shift by hitting over it. Now, disturbingly he’s striking out a lot too. I agree, he should almost never bat against a lefty. So many times he could have an easy single if he would just bunt to the left side with the extreme shifts leaving half the left side of the infield open. .199 or just over .200 just won’t cut it.

He was never all that great at going to the opposite field.  It drives me crazy that he and the coaching staff allow teams to put on an extreme shift.  Rod Carew would have batted 900 against that shift.  It drives me crazy that he can't take advantage of the enormous hole they leave him.  He would not even need to control the distance.  He could just bunt as hard as he likes.  Had he learned to bunt, he would have negated the shift and his average would be considerably higher.

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5 hours ago, mikelink45 said:

This is very sad and it falls on the Twins who have failed to take Sano, Kepler, Polanco to the next level.  They were the building blocks and we did not coach, lead them to their potential. 

The list of guys that never made it to "the next level" is endless.  I doubt the problem is massive failure throughout the entire league to develop players, especially the last few years.  The development effort and practices have been advanced and intensified.  It's always possible something different could have been done to help but these three were not top prospects who failed to reach their expected level.  Fans just feel better blaming it on "management".

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12 hours ago, Greglw3 said:

I think his biggest problem is he can’t or won’t use the whole field like Larnach and Kirilloff. My theory is that he became pull happy after the 36 home runs and wants to beat the shift by hitting over it. Now, disturbingly he’s striking out a lot too. I agree, he should almost never bat against a lefty. So many times he could have an easy single if he would just bunt to the left side with the extreme shifts leaving half the left side of the infield open. .199 or just over .200 just won’t cut it.

And if he bunted to the left side a few times (or shortened up his swing and punched a few singles that way), they would stop shifting so extremely and he could have more chances to get hits going to his more comfortable right. This isn't a difficult concept. Why do so few players do it?

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25 minutes ago, PDX Twin said:

And if he bunted to the left side a few times (or shortened up his swing and punched a few singles that way), they would stop shifting so extremely and he could have more chances to get hits going to his more comfortable right. This isn't a difficult concept. Why do so few players do it?

I see players on other teams hitting to the vacant spot at second base a lot but not as much on the Twins. That shift, had it been employed against Rod Carew would have lasted no more than one game!

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14 minutes ago, Greglw3 said:

I see players on other teams hitting to the vacant spot at second base a lot but not as much on the Twins. That shift, had it been employed against Rod Carew would have lasted no more than one game!

Agreed 100%.  Why are players not taught to bunt anymore?  To me, the game is not evolving, but instead regressing.  Is it coaching, or has the approach to the game changed so much that it sometimes has me gagging?  As a traditionalist growing up watching baseball in the 60's and 70's,  I hate all the new and extreme rules changes, like 7 inning doubleheaders, and the baserunner to start extra innings.  Getting as bad as Nascar.  Getting back to Kepler,  how about going back to the basics of hitting, bunting, walking.  He will never be a Carew type, and he shouldn't.  But he could be more of a Cuddyer type, which I think is reasonable.  

 

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Kepler this year could use a reset in St. Paul for a little while. It’s too bad Refsnyder and others are injured to not take advantage of the situation. 
 

Kepler moving forward is a good 4th OF on a contending team. He’s not overpaid if it turns out that is his most efficient role.  
 

Just so I’m keeping proper score, people want both Buxton and Kepler traded? That would be a huge disservice to the pitching staff, and whoever the CF is after Buxton. Larnach, Kirilloff, and Arraez in the corners means everything including raindrops falls for a hit. 

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17 hours ago, Hosken Bombo Disco said:

He could be part of a trade package this month for MLB-ready starting pitching?

But where is that pitching going to come from? Everyone needs pitching. No good one will be cast adrift at the deadline.

The Twins may definitely be toast this year, but just offloading talent now, when they know they won't get value I don't think is the solution. The team will be a loser whether they trade now or not. So the question would be....how many years do you want to be 'rebuilding' and pretty much non-competitive? I go back to...I have to think, if you are a young fan, you are willing to sacrifice years perhaps. If you are older (ahem) time becomes more valuable and waiting around for a suspect to maybe float to the top isn't a happy thought! So Twins need to be somewhat practical and not knee-jerk...at least not without just giving away what talent they do have.

They need pitching...they won't get it on July 31st...

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He would at least be the busy side of a platoon, but then who is the other side? What does that look like? An outfielder that hits lefties well enough to be in the lineup, can defend when he's out there, but hits righties poorly enough to use Kepler instead? That's  a specific pedigree, and maybe not useful enough for a roster spot. Platooning is how you make do with the roster you have. It's a real hard way to build a roster.

As to whether better development is to blame, that's hard to know. But the ease with which effective staffs keep all the Twins off the bases is worrisome

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I've been a fan and supporter of his since day one and have remained hopeful of what we would see after 2019. I didn't exactly expect him to continue mash in the same way but thought we would get something close as the new normal for Max going forward. Alas, it just may not be.

You can call me an apologist if you want, but I give Kepler, and about anyone else who had a poor 2020, a free pass. There were so many variables in such a weird and short season that calling 2020 an "aha" season just isn't right or fair. But no question his production has been a real bummer. And unexpected IMO.

Part of the reason I just don't want to pencil Kirilloff in at 1B permanately is he's also a solid OF and I want flexibility in case Kepler is traded or his role changes.

I'm OK with the right trade a good trade if one is available, I believe the entire FO and staff are going to be looking at changes from tweaking the roster to tweaking certain approaches to maybe tweaking the coaching staff. (Hitting instructors).

Max is still a bounceback candidate and I sure wouldn't want to sell low on him. I agree that a good, solid RH bat to complement what we have on hand could be really smart and allow Kepler to be a part time starter and back up CF while still not being expensive. And maybe that's the best approach to take in order to maximize the roster and not sell low.

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While I really like Max though I have been touting trading him to the Yankees who desperately need a lefty hitter and Max can take advantage of the short porch in Yankee Stadium, I do hope he stays with the Twins and plays about 120 games a season against right handed pitching. He could hit .260 with 25 home runs and 75 RBI if he can do that though that may be his ceiling. He's also a good defender. Part of the problem is we don't know who else we have. I am not a fan of Larnach though he's just a rookie and wonder why he is batting so high in the lineup. If the Twins do trade him, I would hope we can get something decent for him.

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7 hours ago, insagt1 said:

But where is that pitching going to come from? Everyone needs pitching. No good one will be cast adrift at the deadline.

The Twins may definitely be toast this year, but just offloading talent now, when they know they won't get value I don't think is the solution. The team will be a loser whether they trade now or not. So the question would be....how many years do you want to be 'rebuilding' and pretty much non-competitive? I go back to...I have to think, if you are a young fan, you are willing to sacrifice years perhaps. If you are older (ahem) time becomes more valuable and waiting around for a suspect to maybe float to the top isn't a happy thought! So Twins need to be somewhat practical and not knee-jerk...at least not without just giving away what talent they do have.

They need pitching...they won't get it on July 31st...

The starting pitching is going to come from, first, 1) a trade, and then 2) a free agent signing. They need two additional starters on par with Berrios and Maeda, or better to be competitive in 2022. It can happen. On July 31st this year? Not sure. 

1. The pitcher to trade for? I don’t know. They do need to get it right. So maybe make two trades, deadline or offseason. The front office assures us that competitiveness is sustainable, meaning that good position players are always coming up and fighting for playing time. That does seem to be working. To me, it really shouldn’t matter who they trade away, Kepler would be a candidate, even Kirilloff or Larnach (but not Buxton or Berrios, and I would not trade Lewis either). All in all, the front office has done a good job filling the lineup, in my opinion. 

2. The free agent? Again, I don’t know. It sure looks like the Twins passed on the better options in free agency in recent years that would be making a difference now (Darvish, Wheeler). Keep in mind, with one year deals, you get what you pay for. 

Relievers are important too, but I’d start with the starters. Maybe Duran can start as a bullpen guy. 

I am optimistic this can be turned around in time for 2022!

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11 hours ago, Hosken Bombo Disco said:

The starting pitching is going to come from, first, 1) a trade, and then 2) a free agent signing. They need two additional starters on par with Berrios and Maeda, or better to be competitive in 2022. It can happen. On July 31st this year? Not sure. 

1. The pitcher to trade for? I don’t know. They do need to get it right. So maybe make two trades, deadline or offseason. The front office assures us that competitiveness is sustainable, meaning that good position players are always coming up and fighting for playing time. That does seem to be working. To me, it really shouldn’t matter who they trade away, Kepler would be a candidate, even Kirilloff or Larnach (but not Buxton or Berrios, and I would not trade Lewis either). All in all, the front office has done a good job filling the lineup, in my opinion. 

2. The free agent? Again, I don’t know. It sure looks like the Twins passed on the better options in free agency in recent years that would be making a difference now (Darvish, Wheeler). Keep in mind, with one year deals, you get what you pay for. 

Relievers are important too, but I’d start with the starters. Maybe Duran can start as a bullpen guy. 

I am optimistic this can be turned around in time for 2022!

I hope you are wrong.  By far the most effective way to build a team is by producing starting pitching by drafting or trading for SPs before they are established.  When you are a mid or small market team it's essential.  The Twins at least have enough revenue that they can supplement a home grown staff with a free agent.  IMO, the failure to develop homegrown pitching is one of the primary reasons the Twins have not had a deep playoff run in 30 years

I also do not align with your pessimism where are SP prospects are concerned.  As of now, I think there is very good reason to believe Winder and Balazovic can be impact SPs.  Duran has a lower ceiling (RP) but he probably has the highest ceiling. Canterino / Enlow / Sands all seem to have mid rotation potential.  Ober is a bit of a mystery to me.  I would think he can be a solid 4 if he can maintain the plus command he has been known for in the minors.  There are a couple other guys with potential too.  That’s a lot of guys with MLB potential to dismiss.

I also am not in the camp that seems to assume trades for SPs always work out.  There were a lot of people ardent about trading for Snell who is now boast an ERA of 5.29.  For the record, I don’t think it is remotely accurate to say the Twins passed on Wheeler.  Wheeler was their #1 target.  He was very firm in his desire to be in the NE.  Fans sure to like to ignore any information that does not fit the narrative of we should have signed XYZ player.  For example, Wheeler did not want to here or the fact that Philly's strategy which is what you are promoting has failed.  They have been at or below 500 during the stretch where they signed Harper / Degrom / Wheeler / others and traded & resigned Realmuto.  They can't make it work with $100M of incremental revenue on the Twins so is this really the best strategy for the Twins?
 

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