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Max-imizing Kepler's Value


It has been a disappointing offensive season for the Twins' right fielder, whose future could be much more valuable if seen in a different role. 

Max Kepler was a catalyst for the record-breaking Twins in 2019, bashing 36 homers while mostly leading off for the 101-win division champions. Kepler had been a below-average hitter (96 OPS+) in 419 games before his magical hiatus from the trenches of BAbip hell. 

It was somewhat odd to see. Kepler hit a modest .233/.313/.417 over the first three-plus years of his career. His 93 wRC+ paled in comparison to other right fielders, as the position hit .261/.333/.441 (107 wRC+) leaguewide over that same span. 

Even with his relative struggles at the plate, Kepler provided value with a strong glove. He saved 22 runs from 2016-2018, tying him for third among qualified right fielders. Kepler was worth 5.4 Wins Above Replacement even with a negative WAR mark offensively. 

Recognizing a chance for upside, the Twins inked the instant fan-favorite to an extension and initially looked brilliant for doing so. Kepler broke out in 2019 with elite power and an increased ability to reach base. 

But it wasn't a breakout. Kepler has since gone back to his unremarkable roots at the plate.

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There’s no doubt that the numbers look uglier than they should. His barrel rate is higher than ever. He’s hitting the ball harder and more than he did in 2019. His strikeout rate is fantastic, and he’s walking in nearly 12% of his plate appearances.

So what happened?

Outside of the obvious in 2019 (juiced ball), his few weaknesses have capped his upside overall. He's pulling and pulling rather weakly, contributing to that previously-mentioned BAbip purgatory. Plus, there’s the deadly platoon factor. Kepler's line is impacted by his inability to hit lefties, but even if he were facing only right-handers this season, he'd still be below-average among left-handed right fielders in those matchups. 

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Kepler leads right fielders this year in Outs Above Average (7) and is tied for 10th among all qualified outfielders. Even though he’s well below the position average offensively, he ranks 21st out of 30 right fielders with at least 300 plate appearances in fWAR (1.5). He’s not a hindrance per se, but he’s no longer a solid plus-piece in his current spot. 

Often lost in value analysis is his ability to play centerfield. In 80 games in centerfield since 2019, Kepler’s been worth three Outs Above Average. Still, the Twins have often turned to others when Byron Buxton is out, focusing on keeping Kepler fresh. 

There’s room for increased value here. If the Twins decide to trade Byron Buxton, wouldn’t Kepler then become the centerfielder where his subpar bat would play much better? In this case, he’s much more valuable. Kepler would be close to an average hitter as a primary centerfielder in 2021 but is 16% below league average in right. 

Understandably, the Twins want to keep him fresh, especially since he’s had a history of hamstring injuries. Winning in baseball also requires maximum value at each position. Kepler, while still passable in right, is not being maximized. Keeping him in a corner will limit the Twins offensively unless he finds a way to beat the shift or hit lefties again. 

On the flip side, if the Twins keep Buxton, marketing Kepler as a centerfielder via trade will help them reach his maximum value in return. It’s great to have both in the outfield, but it’s been more a defensive luxury than a damaging duo in the lineup. 

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I think we can come up with a better solution and counting him and center field actually overvalues him. We have others coming up who can play center field.

 

It's unfortunate but he just never grew with his position. And the stubbornness of batting him first or second for so many games is still one of the question marks of management for me

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Despite the contract, he needs to be platooned, starting only vs RH, then coming in late in games a LH started to face RH and play D.  I agree he'd have more value doing this as a CF, and then would get the precious rest with the platoon idea, letting the 4th, letting Celestino play and justifying his spot.  We don't know "for sure" about Larnach and Kirilloff vs LH, and I'd really prefer Buxton be on the squad and Kepler moved for an upside pitching piece (ie gamble, a trade of problems if you will) but we will see what management wants to do.  I also feel the same way about Arraez, the lack of def and inability to hit LH take away from his great bat (mostly bavg now that teams position against him better, reducing his XB) vs RH; I think we have the troops coming to replace them.  I do hope they don't give one of them away and pay half of Donaldson's salary to move him for a meh pitcher....

 

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Until one of the newbies proves themselves to be better, and until we sign Buxton long term (?)  I don't have a problem with keeping Max for awhile.  Work with him on bunting down the third base line when he is shifted on,  and things might open up more.  And the fact he can play both right and center at a pretty decent level is quite the insurance policy for Buxton leaving (?) or the newbies taking more time than anticipated.  I think he is a reclamation project worth working on, especially at his price.  And if the guys coming up beat him out, a trade can be worked out, but what's the hurry?   Now, if we can get a decent pitcher for him...........I will deny I ever wrote this.  :) 

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Kepler needs to spend the off-season learning to bunt!  Teams put on this extreme shift because he’s a extreme pull hitter especially in the ground.  Bunt get on base and get teams out of the extreme shift against you.  Take the bunt single when they are just giving it to you. 
this will also open up the hard ground ball up the middle that is an easy out right now. 
 

He could go from .210 to .280 from bunting and what that opens in the infield.

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Order Kepler to hit the ball to the left side whenever the shift is on him. That will raise his batting average a lot and get him on base to score more runs. I think he hit for high averages in the high minors (.318 in AA and .282 in AAA). Is that because the shift was not used then in the minors? I totally blame the low batting average Kepler's inability and/or unwillingness to bunt toward 3B and to just stroke the ball toward 3b every time the shift is on him.  Maybe Kepler could ask Cruz (after the world series) and Sano for some tips. Sano has been doing hitting to the opposite field much more this season. Thank you very much. 

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6 minutes ago, High heat said:

Kepler needs to spend the off-season learning to bunt!  Teams put on this extreme shift because he’s a extreme pull hitter especially in the ground.  Bunt get on base and get teams out of the extreme shift against you.  Take the bunt single when they are just giving it to you. 
this will also open up the hard ground ball up the middle that is an easy out right now. 
 

He could go from .210 to .280 from bunting and what that opens in the infield.

Yes ! Exactly what High Heat said. 

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Agreed the shift is absolutely killing Kepler, but I disagree Kepler playing CF overvalues him. Kepler can cover center field adequately and if he's playing it, he's producing value by doing so. Of course, I don't think Kepler should be looked at as a starting center fielder.

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Good analysis. This article points out something we all kind of know and supports it with real data. Kepler is an above average fielding corner outfielder with a well below average bat. I don't think moving him to centerfield really helps a lot because tat minimizes his one asset, an above average glove, because he would be an average at best centerfielder. The problem is he just can't hit and for some reason he is unwilling to do anything other than pull the ball on regular basis. He's got to be the easiest guy in the American League to shift against.

With these flaws, I think it's unlikely that we would be able to trade him for much pitching unless we included an upside prospect with him in a package. Maybe somebody who is not an elite or even strong prospect but projects to be a possible mid to back rotation starter or solid bullpen piece regarding whom there is still some doubt. That might be someone like Winder or Strotman or, if we are willing to take more risk on the return side, maybe someone like Jax or Barnes. 

I will say that if I'm right on the possible return, Kepler probably has more value to the Twins than he does to anybody else. We are probably still a year away from having a capable replacement given the somewhat gaping hole we presently have in left field. Even if Kirilloff becomes our regular leftfielder and continues his development as a solid or better than that hitter, it's not like we have another outfielder banging on the door to take Kepler's place in 2022. Larnach wasn't quite ready when he came up this year and neither is Celestino or Rooker.

I think the best thing for Kepler is to continue to work with him on learning to hit the ball to left field while at the same time effectively platooning him with who we think is our best right-handed hitting outfield prospect to give that player a chance to develop. In my view, that's probably Celestino given how well he hit at AAA when he went back down. We use the 1st half to two thirds of 2022 to see if the younger player can develop and/or if Kepler and finally gets a better approach at the plate and each of them and effectively also functions as the backup centerfielder. I just don't think trading him makes sense because of the low likely return and I do think the Twins highest priority in the off-season is to re-sign Buxton

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I agree that the shift is killing Max. He is a good athlete that should be able to beat the shift. Yes bunting down the 3rd base line would be one way, but why can't our hitting coaches help him learn to go with the pitch the other way to left field? I really believe if he could improve that he would get more pitches he could pull and use some of his power to right again. I think a .270 avg. with 15-20 homeruns would look a lot better then his present stats, and with a few more base hits to left (or bunt singles) he's shown he has the ability to steal a few bases.

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Kepler came up through the Twins' system during the Terry Ryan era. My recollection is that the Twins were much more focused on hitting the ball hard to all fields in those days, which explains the high average in the high minors. But now he seems to have bought totally into the "hit it as hard as I can to right field" philosophy and it has (IMO) ruined him at the plate in exchange for a few extra HRs each year. Can he go back to his foundations? Should he?

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2 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

Order Kepler to hit the ball to the left side whenever the shift is on him. That will raise his batting average a lot and get him on base to score more runs. I think he hit for high averages in the high minors (.318 in AA and .282 in AAA). Is that because the shift was not used then in the minors? I totally blame the low batting average Kepler's inability and/or unwillingness to bunt toward 3B and to just stroke the ball toward 3b every time the shift is on him.  Maybe Kepler could ask Cruz (after the world series) and Sano for some tips. Sano has been doing hitting to the opposite field much more this season. Thank you very much. 

It isn't that easy. Really. If players could hit against the shift, they would. But all the data shows they can't.

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Max is who he is.  After 6+ years in majors, he has not shown much improvement.  With the Twins dire needs for pitching, his greatest value now is a trade piece in procuring a young, major league pitcher with some demonstrated success in the bigs.  No, he would not be the centerpiece, but a vital cog in a package deal.  While our OF situation is far from settled, assuming Bux is resigned, we have a promising backup in Celestino, and a bevy of prospects like Kirillof, Larnach, Rooker, and even Gordon now who can play a decent corner OF with at least the same offense that Max has provided.  Withb a great fielding CF like Bux or Celestino, the Twins can afford to sacrifice some corner defense if it leads to overall team improvment.

If this FO is agressive, a Kepler, Arraez or Jeffers/Garver + one of our 10 good pitching prospects should yield a top arm.  Could Kepler go on a tear in the future?  Sure, but unlikely.  He is a much more valuable trade piece - relatively young, cost controlled, ability to play multiple positions with decent power.  That combination is still worth something.  It's up to the FO to Max -imize this value.

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3 hours ago, mike8791 said:

If this FO is agressive, a Kepler, Arraez or Jeffers/Garver + one of our 10 good pitching prospects should yield a top arm. 

Good post, but I politely disagree. The way this FO evaluates talent, the "one of our 10 good pitching prospects" that they give up will become far better than anything they get back in such a trade.

I would welcome a Kepler trade, and I always thought he'd make a good Yankee. But up-and-coming contenders looking for an offseason trade don't typically need the kind of guys we'd have to offer. With the exception of a good catcher.

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5 hours ago, mike8791 said:

Max is who he is.  After 6+ years in majors, he has not shown much improvement.  With the Twins dire needs for pitching, his greatest value now is a trade piece in procuring a young, major league pitcher with some demonstrated success in the bigs.  No, he would not be the centerpiece, but a vital cog in a package deal.  While our OF situation is far from settled, assuming Bux is resigned, we have a promising backup in Celestino, and a bevy of prospects like Kirillof, Larnach, Rooker, and even Gordon now who can play a decent corner OF with at least the same offense that Max has provided.  Withb a great fielding CF like Bux or Celestino, the Twins can afford to sacrifice some corner defense if it leads to overall team improvment.

If this FO is agressive, a Kepler, Arraez or Jeffers/Garver + one of our 10 good pitching prospects should yield a top arm.  Could Kepler go on a tear in the future?  Sure, but unlikely.  He is a much more valuable trade piece - relatively young, cost controlled, ability to play multiple positions with decent power.  That combination is still worth something.  It's up to the FO to Max -imize this value.

I seem to remember hearing an argument about letting Rosario go because of his less than average corner defense.  And what replaced him?  IMO, even less than Rosario corner defense without Rosario's run production.  I am now hearing the same argument for packing Max and sending him out, as well.  All I am saying is until someone actually proves himself better, don't repeat history and end up with both corners being unsettled (unless, of course, he brings a quality arm).   Because if Bux walks as well..........?

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5 hours ago, Mike Sixel said:

It isn't that easy. Really. If players could hit against the shift, they would. But all the data shows they can't.

It's not that hard. I used to do it all the time in Babe Ruth and High School and church league softball, but then I wasn't facing major league pitching. But guys, it isn't hard to do , especially on outside pitches. Forget the macho swings and just hit 'em where they ain't. 

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7 minutes ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

It's not that hard. I used to do it all the time in Babe Ruth and High School and church league softball, but then I wasn't facing major league pitching. But guys, it isn't hard to do , especially on outside pitches. Forget the macho swings and just hit 'em where they ain't. 

And yet, the stats don't bear that out. If it was, teams would be doing it....and they aren't. 

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With the fans, Kepler has more of a perception issue than a performance issue. He is getting paid like a league average player and providing league average value. Fans were hoping for, even expecting, him to overperform that contract and he hasn't...but he has played up to it. 

From a team perspective, Baldelli keeps treating him in the lineup (until just the last couple of weeks) like one of their core stars. It reminds me of Gardy and Punto. Kepler is better than Punto, but is still getting asked by his manager to provide more value than he can. 

Bat Kepler somewhere in the 6-8 spot in most years and I think our perception of him changes. In those two or three 90th percentile seasons. like 2019, feel free to move him up...but don't expect that to be the norm. 

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He simply cant be in the lineup against lefties.  A sub 500 OPS is a complete black hole in the lineup on par with a having a pitcher hit.  Good right field play ain't making up for that.  An average hitter and really good fielder is a solid piece - which is only a reality vs a RH pitcher.....

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Kepler isn't having a great year, but his career line vs. lefties isn't unplayably bad .211/.285/.354 OPS .639. That comes with a 7.9% BB rate and a 22.2% K rate.

Replacing his actual AVG and SLG with the expected numbers .251/.332/.437 OPS .769, where he'd again be an above average hitter with excellent corner defense. He'd be somewhere in that 2.5-3.0 WAR area. The shift is absolutely killing him, no doubt. Bunting feels like a novel approach to bring the shift down. I think it's worth it, but I doubt Baldelli will call for it.

Kepler is not the issue with the Twins. He's good, not great and he's cheap.

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I've thought about this a bit.  Nothing frustrates me more watching the Twins than Max Kepler's inability to make teams PAY for shifting on him (well, maybe Colome closing and Shoemaker/Happ).  If I just go by what Baseball trade Values has for Kepler his value has fallen too much to be any kind of a factor in a trade except as a thrown in.  He's worth more than that to the Twins.  I just can't buy the idea that he can't play CF because the Twins don't want to "wear him down."  Come on.  Should the Giants have played Willie Mays in the prime of his career in RF so they wouldn't "wear him out"???  

Anyway, I'm fine with Max in RF and subbing in CF when Buxton gets hurt.  But someone (a NEW hitting coach??) needs to work on his approach.  When the "D" is GIVING you a hit if you can just push it to the left side, you NEED to adjust.  It's not like Max is Joey Gallo (38 HR's).  He needs to learn to push a bunt down the 3B line and go with an outside pitch.  Heck, there's nothing wrong with DOUBLES.  I could certainly see a platoon with a RH hitting OF'er as well.  Until we see more positive things from Kiriloff & Larnach I would hold onto Max and work on his approach.  I'd be more open to trading Arraez (who Rocco refuses to hit leadoff consistently) and Arraez has much more value as a trade piece with other prospects coming up who can play 2B, 3B, LF at the same value as Arraez.  

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4 hours ago, TopGunn#22 said:

But someone (a NEW hitting coach??) needs to work on his approach. 

I want to believe this would help, but I think the FO has a philosophy in place for both hitting and pitching, and a coach who tries to go against it wouldn't last very long.  It goes beyond any one coach.

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I agree that we need to have someone beat him out for his role before we just ship off a moderately talented player on a team friendly deal when we lack moderately talented players. Same argument for Donaldson though he is more talented but also a chunkier contract. I feel the argument to move off of Sano is stronger than Kepler.

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