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What Does Max Kepler Have to Prove in 2022?


Twins Daily Contributor

Max Kepler has been a mainstay in the Twins lineup since 2016. Over that time, he has become one of the popular heartthrob faces on the Twins and a clutch power hitter among many. Still, 2021 was a down year for Kepler. What can he prove in 2022 to show his performance from last year was only a fluke?

 

Kepler’s role in the Twins lineup had become established in his 2019 campaign. A power-hitting corner outfielder can lead off a game with power and play strong defense in the right field. 

2021 was Kepler’s worst season since becoming a full-time Major Leaguer in 2016. He only posted a .211 batting average, a.306 on-base percentage, and a .719 OPS ( 98 OPS+), all numbers below or even well-below league average. Kepler also missed 41 games in 2021, having spent time on the COVID list and IL with an adductor strain that carried over from 2020. 

As long as the Twins do not trade Kepler once the MLB lockout lifts, his spot in the right field is guaranteed, assuming he is healthy. The bigger question lingering over Kepler for 2022 is, can he prove that he can get his triple slash at or above league average if playing every day?

In 2019, Max Kepler had the best season of his career. He hit .252/.335/.519 (.855), 32 doubles, 36 home runs, and 90 runs batted in. His .855 OPS was 23 percent above league average that season. 

At this point, Kepler has shown he will not be a contact hitter in the Majors as he was in the minors. Twins fans have come to expect more power in his bat than anything when he makes contact at the plate. 

Kepler’s most considerable improvement to make for 2022 is his ability to hit off left-handed pitchers. His career numbers off lefties (.209/.282/.350 with a .632 OPS) dip significantly compared to right-hand pitchers (.242/.330/.472 with a .802 OPS). 

2021 brought his numbers against lefties down considerably as Kepler only hit .157/.248/.261 with a .509 OPS against left-handers. For Kepler, 2022 needs to see a triple-slash above the Mendoza line and bring his OPS against lefties closer to the high .600’s.

One thing that could help Kepler become a more consistent player at the plate is finding a regular spot in the lineup card every day. Not to say he will play anywhere aside from right field or center, but where he ends up hitting. Kepler bounced around to every spot in the lineup 1-9 in 2021, finding the most plate appearances leading off with 137. A significant drop from his 2019 plate appearances led off with 496 in 2019. 

With the drop in his triple slash in 2021, Kepler will likely see less time hitting lead-off. In a more traditional sense, Kepler makes much more sense as a guy hitting in the fifth or sixth spot in the lineup because of his power and lower contact rate. And if Rocco Baldelli is more committed to keeping Kepler in a traditional spot where his bat makes sense, it may help him to prove the 2021 drop-off was just a fluke and not an early career decline. 

Kepler turns 29 later this month and will still be under contract with the Twins for two more seasons. The two remaining seasons for Kepler with the Twins still have him at an age where he has yet to reach his peak. If Kepler can improve himself in 2022 compared to his on-field performance in 2021, then he perhaps will not hit his peak sometime in the next two seasons while he remains a Twin. 

What is your confidence level in Max Kepler getting back, or at least getting closer to his 2019 form? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

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Kepler is one of my favorite Twins and plays well along side Buxton. He had a great juiced ball 2019 season but he's not coming close to those #s especially on BA because of the shift. He might have some improvement if he sticks to RF but I don't see increasing his ABs or moving him around in the order will help. Unless he magically finds a way to increase his distance to compensates for the deader ball or adjusting by going the other way (which goes against the Twins focus), I don't see him getting better. A place like CO would greatly benefit him if the Twins would choose  to go that route

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Kepler has nothing to prove. He's an average starting right fielder right now who is cheap, and that's valuable enough to keep a job.

If Kepler stumbles further this year, his value will drop off so in that regard, he doesn't have a lot of wiggle room.

That said, Kepler needs two consecutive years of increased performance against the shift and to regain a step in sprint speed to elevate himself to being viewed as All Star caliber again. An improvement just this year will be met with skeptisicm.

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While he is an asset in the field he has become a liability at the plate. The 2019 Bomba Squad did more to ruin the players on the Twins roster than it did to help them. Too many guys are going up to the plate looking to pull the ball and only hit Home Runs when they should be trying to just make good solid contact and hit the ball to all fields. There needs to be a dramatic shift away from being pull happy and home run happy for the Kepler's and Sano's to become successful again. If they don't change their approach at the plate the results will stay the same..... Batting averages around .200,  with high strikeouts or hitting into shifts for easy outs. The biggest thing in baseball is making adjustments. The successful players do it, the ones that don't fail. Kepler needs to adjust.

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What I would like to see Max address is, 1) indicating he is aware that he needs to make changes to combat the shifts; and 2) implementing those changes.

Would love to see him step up to the plate in this year's first series, whenever that will be, observe where the infielders are playing, and laying a bunt down the third base line.  Do that once in every series for the first couple weeks and holes will begin appearing, holes for some of his ground balls to reach the outfield.  One extra hit a week is what, .050 added to his batting average?

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Kepler has not played like a full time regular the past couple of years. A platoon with Rooker or Celestino, a pair of right handed hitters, might give the Twins good coverage in one corner spot. Use Larnach or Kirilloff to cover the other corner. Kepler might also come in as a late defensive replacement if the situation warrants it.

Kepler has never been consistently strong against lefties and after 6 years in the majors he doesn't appear to be able to make the adjustments. Some guys can't. People want to dream on 2019 as if that was the expected Kepler, but it really hasn't been.

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36 minutes ago, gman said:

Kepler has not played like a full time regular the past couple of years. A platoon with Rooker or Celestino, a pair of right handed hitters, might give the Twins good coverage in one corner spot. Use Larnach or Kirilloff to cover the other corner. Kepler might also come in as a late defensive replacement if the situation warrants it.

Kepler has never been consistently strong against lefties and after 6 years in the majors he doesn't appear to be able to make the adjustments. Some guys can't. People want to dream on 2019 as if that was the expected Kepler, but it really hasn't been.

Yeah I like the Platoon idea with Kepler especially if Celestino proves ready as then we still get good defense and both players get to play to their strengths in the batter box.

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IIRC, Kepler's power in 2019 was legit -- that is, not solely attributable to the juiced ball.

What I liked best about this story was that Max was working out with Alex and Dave Kirilloff.

I'm OK with him until the Twins come up with 2 better overall corner outfielders.

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Love Max and would like nothing more than to see him get his mojo back.

Having said that, if two or more of the following circumstances are in place before the deadline:

1. he doesn’t perform;

2. at least two of Larnach, Celestino, Martin and Lewis look solid; and

3. the Twins are not contending;

then the sad fact is that the team will look to move Max by the deadline. 

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Can anyone please explain to me the value of not hitting where the shift is located?  Is it because you get extra credit when you have high exit velocity, no matter where the ball goes. Is velocity > location on long fly balls against a shift? I'm not trying to make a point here, I just want to know why any player would not try to hit differently against a shift? Maybe they are trying but just cannot do it. I really don't understand it, which makes at least two things in this time of statistically preventable covid deaths, which  I can not understand.

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I love Kepler and have been a follower and fan since the day he signed and have followed his career closely. But even as a fan, I've just never understood how a guy with his athleticism, a decent eye, and such a smooth stroke with power simply can't find a way to spray the ball better. He's young enough, talented enough, smart enough that there is still room to improve. And maybe he just needs the right coach to help the light bulb crank up to full brightness?? 

And I don't know that laying down some bunts are the answer. And I don't expect him to magically develop an Arraez kind of ability to control his bat. But couldn't he still get "old fashioned" and choke up a bit at times? Couldn't he learn to just decrease that smooth thing velocity wise and go the other way once in a while? If so, he BA and BABIP suddenly changes. 

What does he have to prove otherwise? Simply that while he may never be the 2019 version of himself again...and we all hope he does...he's NOT the 2021 version of himself, fully healthy, going forward. His "normal" self is a .240-.250 BA with power, defense, and an OK OB. His numbers are probably better if he can sit once in a while against strong LH pitching. The "normal" Kepler is a good and valuable player. Facing fewer LHSP makes him better. Approaching 30, learning and adapting a little different "spray" approach makes him a great player.

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BBRef had him at 2.1 WAR in 2021, or slightly above the 2 WAR needed for a "starter" according to the chart. I hate the saying, but.... maybe Max "is what he is", which is an average starter on an MLB team. They can't all be All-stars or Hall of Famers.  There's a place for players like Max on winning ball clubs. 

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I like his fielding a lot and have always had faith in his nice swing. But the new age 3 outcome approach has not benefited him. He seems to think the best approach is to hit the ball over the shift which I believe is the prevailing mantra but he can’t do it. That should be clear to him. If he doesn’t try something different he will be scrounging around for a make good contract in two years. 
You can forget about trading him. If he starts hitting you keep him because then he is a really good player. If he isn’t hitting you will get nothing in return and the chance that he figures it out will be more valuable than the lottery tickets you will get in trade. 

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"You can forget about trading him. If he starts hitting you keep him because then he is a really good player. If he isn’t hitting you will get nothing in return and the chance that he figures it out will be more valuable than the lottery tickets you will get in trade."

Isn't this the situation with any player? It is only when you have multiple options at a position does it become feasible to trade that player when he is performing at a high level so other teams would give you a good return in exchange. The Twins have that currently with Arraez. He is a really good hitter but doesn't have a home in the field. Polanco and 2B, Donaldson at 3B. He can't play SS. Sano and Kirilloff have 1B covered. Buck and Kepler in CF and RF. That leaves LF and he showed us last year he's not an outfielder. I love Arraez but unfortunately his best position is 2B and Polanco isn't going anywhere. Between Donaldson, Arraez, Sano, Kirilloff, and probable new comer Miranda there will be 5 guys to fill 3 spots. That's where the trade bait needs to come from. So who goes?

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Looking at the video again, it seems that Kepler is hitting the other way, the way it's looks coming off his bat. Happy that a veteran like Kepler is taking tips from a rookie's Dad. Some seem to think that coaching (whether hitting or pitching, good or bad) has no bearing on veteran's production. Hope this does.

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Only way Max gets traded is for an upper tier SP with team control for 3 years or more. Not that this video means everything but I saw almost all the balls hit the other way. It is time for Max to make the adjustment... if so with his defense he will have a very good season. I look for him to get more rest against tougher left handed pitching. Very important for him to have early success and get off to a good start.

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Kepler is who he is.  He is not going to out of no where become some great hitter that gets MVP votes.  He will be serviceable with good defense. He will not out of no where rake against lefties.  He tried to change his approached last year to be more complete hitter, only to struggle and try to go back to old style.  If he can get back to who he was before his attempted adjustment he will be fine.

I am a fan of trying to adjust to get better, but some players just need to be who they are.  I remember Jaques Jones years ago as lead off hitter was not typical.  He would attack first fastballs, similar to Kepler.  Jones was great at attacking first fastballs.  Then he said he was going to take more walks and work counts more.  He did this and got many more walks, but his average dropped and his OBP dropped too.  His walks doubled.  This happened because he was not attacking first fastballs, which many times is best pitch to swing at.  His change in approach hurt him overall, because the pitchers did not change their approach to him, he just was trying to change his to get better, but it backfired. 

Sometimes if things are not broke, do not fix it.  Yes, getting better should be the goal, but sometimes it does not work and you need to return to what does. 

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2 hours ago, miller761 said:

Only way Max gets traded is for an upper tier SP with team control for 3 years or more. Not that this video means everything but I saw almost all the balls hit the other way. It is time for Max to make the adjustment... if so with his defense he will have a very good season. I look for him to get more rest against tougher left handed pitching. Very important for him to have early success and get off to a good start.

I would hope the twins would also trade him for a good young SS.

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3 hours ago, miller761 said:

Only way Max gets traded is for an upper tier SP with team control for 3 years or more. Not that this video means everything but I saw almost all the balls hit the other way. It is time for Max to make the adjustment... if so with his defense he will have a very good season. I look for him to get more rest against tougher left handed pitching. Very important for him to have early success and get off to a good start.

There is no chance Max  returns an upper tier SP with 3 years of control. None.  you would have to add a LOT more........

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22 hours ago, Major League Ready said:

It just perplexes me that a MLB player can't bunt with the entire left side of the infield open.  The shifts on him have been extreme for 3 years so he has had plenty of time to work on it.  Rod Carew would have batted 900 against that shift..

It's not that they can't, it's that they won't.

They will get one in the ribs should they do this consistently. 

 

Stupid IMO, but that has to be the reason. Even slow guys can get base hits with good bunts against some of these extreme shifts.

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I wish the best for Max.  I do agree he is who he is.  I recall so many articles stating once his BABIP headed more towards the meen..look out.  Many times described as "unlucky" on his batted balls.  Would love to see him adjust.

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On 2/4/2022 at 8:11 AM, Doctor Gast said:

Looking at the video again, it seems that Kepler is hitting the other way, the way it's looks coming off his bat. Happy that a veteran like Kepler is taking tips from a rookie's Dad. Some seem to think that coaching (whether hitting or pitching, good or bad) has no bearing on veteran's production. Hope this does.

I love Kiriloff's swing and more than likely he got that swing from his Dad. I'd love if the Twins could change their focus of big HRs, HRs, HRs which results in fewer hits more ridiculous SOs and FOs, to a Kiriloff type of swing. Buxton, Polanco, Cruz and Donaldson had their swing down and were not affected with Garver able to make that adjustment and hopefully Sano'. Hopefully Kepler will now make that adjustment. I just think that Dave Kiriloff type would make a better head batting coach for the team as a whole.

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Max is a fav of mine as well, and that's why I he's all the more frustrating for me to watch.  He's simply GOT to figure out a way to use the whole field and not be so pull happy.  He will probably never be anything but BAD against LH pitchers because they just go soft-away and he just grounds out to the right side.  It's as predictable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.  I think he's smart enough to figure out how to beat the "shift" but is he "willing??"  The brief video seems to indicate he's "working on it" but if nothing changes from last season he will probably play no more than 3 more years in MLB.  

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