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Champ or Chump: Max Kepler and Josh Bell


If you're in the top third or so of your league's standings, you've probably had more than a couple sleeper picks work out well. Good for you! Of course, sorting through all of those 2019 breakouts represents something of a first-world problem: who's for real, and who's extended hot streak is about to end in a storm of regression and mediocrity?

This column will take a closer look at two 2019 success stories: Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins and Josh Bell of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Both had their believers heading into 2019, but neither had done much to differentiate themselves before posting All-Star production over the first three months. Will their effective play continue?

Keep in mind, our Champ / Chump conclusions are based on whether we think a player will outperform their expectations. For example, a pitcher we view as "Tier 2" can be a Champ if they're seen as a Tier 3 pitcher, or they could be a Chump if they're perceived as a Tier 1 pitcher. All ownership rates are from Yahoo! leagues unless otherwise noted. Let's take a closer look at Kepler and Bell, shall we?

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Max Kepler (OF, MIN)

81% Owned

Kepler clubbed 20 homers over the entirety of the 2018 campaign, so seeing him hit .279/.362/.566 with 18 HR in his first 290 PAs of 2019 is certainly a surprise. His contact quality has improved, suggesting that his power production is likely sustainable. Unfortunately, his profile suggests that he will be a drag on your team's batting average moving forward.

Let's start with the positive side of the equation first. Kepler's 18.9% HR/FB is easily a career high (13% career), and the spike is supported by a spike in fly ball Pull% (46.3% vs. 32.4% career). Statcast also concurs, as his 94.8 mph average airborne exit velocity and 10.5% rate of Brls/BBE are both career highs. Kepler's previous Statcast profile was lackluster, as his average airborne EV (90.9, 92.3, 93.8) hovered around league average from 2016-2018 while his rates of Brls/BBE (3.9%, 4%, 6.6%) were consistently below average in the same time frame.

An optimist could have looked at the above data and saw steady improvement in both metrics, but the fact that neither actually became interesting before this season required a certain degree of blind faith. That faith has been beneficial thus far, but Kepler is not a .280 hitter.

Some might see favorable regression in store for his .271 BABIP, but the 26-year old is actually beating his .259 career rate. Kepler has always been a big fly ball guy, and this season's 45.2% fly ball rate is actually just shy of his 46.2% from a year ago. This means that an improved HR/FB helps him more than most, but it also makes his 15.8 IFFB% (11.3% career) produce a lot of useless pop-ups. Both fly balls and pop-ups are bad for BABIP, explaining why Kepler's is always so low.

His new pull-centric approach also seems destined to turn him into shift bait. While Kepler is a .284 hitter against the shift for his career, his current ground ball Pull% of 69.3% is significantly higher than his career rate of 59%. It hasn't affected him yet (.289 vs. shift in 146 PAs) thanks in part to elite exit velocity on ground balls (90.3 mph), but the shift always beats these guys in the end. Kepler would be lucky to finish the campaign with a BABIP on ground balls of .222 (his career rate), to say nothing of his current .267 mark.

Kepler's career-best 19 LD% is still two points shy of the league average, so he can't count on line drives to prop up his BABIP either. His plate discipline metrics are virtually unchanged from 2018, so his 15.5 K% looks sustainable. That will help, but Kepler's average is likely to be dicey moving forward.

Kepler also leads off most of the time for the Twins, a terrible role for a power guy since it limits his RBI upside. When he doesn't lead off, he's buried in the bottom of the order to hamper his counting stats further. Kepler is likely to make a run at 30+ HR this year, but isn't as well-rounded as his stat line makes him look. If you can extract a star price for him in trade, you should probably do so.

Verdict: Chump (based on batting average downside and a sub-optimal lineup role)

 

Josh Bell (1B, PIT)

89% Owned

If you projected Bell to hit .319/.385/.656 with 20 HR to kick off the 2019 season, raise your hand. Everyone raising their hand right now is a dirty liar, because this came out of left field. Somehow, his production to-date also looks more real than not.

The primary knock on Bell has always been a low FB% (32.3 career), but he's improved that number somewhat in 2019 (36.1 FB%). He's also pulling more fly balls (26.9%) than he ever has before (19.4% career). More importantly, his Statcast power indicators are way up. His 96.9 mph average airborne EV ranks 24th out of the 362 MLB players with at least 50 batted ball events this season. Furthermore, his 14.4% rate of Brls/BBE ranks 33rd in the same sample. His 25.6% HR/FB might be due for some regression, but not all the way to his career rate of 16.2%.

Bell had never previously hit the ball this hard. His 94.2 mph average airborne EV was solid last year, but his 7% rate of Brls/BBE was meh. Both metrics were meh in 2017 (92.2 mph, 6.7%) and 2016 (93, 5.4%), suggesting that Bell has unlocked a new level.

He's done it by adopting a more aggressive approach at the plate. His current 49.5 Swing% is substantially higher than his career 42.9% rate, as he's swinging at (and doing damage on) more pitches in the zone (81.2 Z-Swing% vs. 67.8% a season ago). Chasing a few more balls outside of the zone (30.5% vs. 26.7%) is a small price to pay for such a substantial power increase, even if it has both his BB% (9.9 vs. 11.7 career) and K% (20.5 vs. 18.2 career) slightly worse than his career norms.

Similarly, Bell's new profile is better than his .301 career BABIP even if his current mark of .347 is a bit much. For example, his .253 BABIP on ground balls is rooted in elite ground ball exit velocity (90.9 mph) and a complete indifference to the shift (51.7 Pull% on ground balls, .359 in 105 PAs against it), rendering his .239 career mark moot. He's also raised his LD% to the league average (21.8%) after struggling to do so for most of his career (19.2 career LD%).

Unlike Kepler, Bell has hit cleanup exclusively this season, ensuring that he gets all of the counting stat opportunities the Pittsburgh lineup can provide. Some regression is likely just because anybody as hot as Bell to bound to cool off eventually, but he has emerged as a star player for years to come.

Verdict: Champ (based on clear approach changes that should lead to sustained success)

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