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Maxing Out - Is 2019 Time for Max Kepler's Breakout?

The once prosperous Minnesota Twins have struggled to regain the dominance that they established at the beginning of this century. Penciled in as a division favorite every year, since the turn of this decade it’s been a much different narrative. With old faces in Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter long gone and enjoying life on the other side of baseball; there's been a new crop of young faces that are being embraced by the Twins.

One of these faces is 25-year old Max Kepler. Signed in 2009 as a 16-year old out of Germany, Kepler has been adapting to life on a new continent for nearly 10 years. After hitting his way through the minor league ranks, Kepler now has three big league seasons under his belt. It’s been a modest level of production in the majors so far for Kepler, but we’re far from seeing the peak in the youngster’s bat.

After an obscure 2018 where he batted .224 with 20 HR, 80 R and 58 RBI, Kepler is still refining his overall game. Displaying flashes of excellence and continuing improvements in his skillset, 2019 is shaping up to be the year where the European could breakout for a career season in the Twin Cities. Let’s take a look at everything that makes up the 6’4” German.

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Plate Discipline

Possessing good plate discipline skills is not something that's easily taught. A keen eye and the split second instinctive skills to decide when to swing is hard-wired differently into every player's brain. The wiring checks out regarding Kepler, who posted a career 15.4% K% in the minors to go along with a 10.6% BB%.

Kepler didn’t transfer these commendable numbers to the majors immediately, but his rates were still above the major league average. Kepler posted a 20.4% K% and 8.8% BB% through the 2016-17 seasons. A decline in these categories, compared to his minor league numbers, came as a result of him chasing 27.9% of pitches out of the strike zone. A big part of this swing-and-miss in his game was his inability to hit the curveball as he whiffed on 37.5% of his swings.

The lefty swinger took a substantial leap in 2018 on these statistics which bodes well for his value moving forward. Cutting his Chase% to 21.0%, Kepler reduced his whiffs/swing on curves to 24.2% as well. The results of this contact saw his strikeouts drop to 15.7% and his walks elevate to 11.6%. The restoration of his excellent plate discipline put his 0.74 BB/K in the top 15 of all MLB. Although he excelled in this category, he had the lowest batting average (.224) of anyone in the top 40. A bizarre mark with his improved discipline, a few things will have to be looked at next.


Batted Balls

Before we get into Kepler’s 2018, his previous history must be acknowledged. A career .322 hitter in Double-A, he batted .282 in 30 games at Triple-A before getting his big league call up in 2016. He consistently maintained a BABIP of over .300 across every level before these numbers plummeted in the show.

Swatting a .235 AVG with a .261 BABIP in his rookie season, Kepler saw better results in 2017 with .243/.276 marks. He drove the ball into the ground 44.7% of the time during these two years which was a mark he hadn’t exceeded across all his minor league stops excluding Rookie ball. Perhaps Kepler saw some growing pains from facing more elite big league talent, but these numbers were still too far off his minor league figures.

Kepler’s reverse splits were odd to see in 2018. In the combined 2016-17 seasons, Kepler hit .177 against southpaws and .262 versus righties. Last season, he flip-flopped his splits and hit .245 against lefties and .216 facing right-handers. A puzzling feat, the success he saw versus left-handers came because he hit more line drives and harder hit balls than ever before off them. Other than an increased fly ball approach, there’s nothing in his numbers that scream a reason for this massive reduction against right-handers. Kepler’s BABIP against these pitchers was a putrid .219 in 2018, nearly .80 points down from his 2017 number (.296).

As a result of the puzzling inefficiency against righties, Kepler’s .224 AVG and .236 BABIP in 2018 were both career lows since he made the journey to North America. The BABIP mark is stunningly small, and it was third-lowest in the league last season. Chalk some of it up to bad luck, but as mentioned he also hit the ball in the air more which would have a small effect on the result. Down from his previous 44.7% GB% was a mark sitting at 37.8% in 2018 resulting in his FB% to hit a new high at 46.2%. This developmental approach resulted in him eclipsing the 20-HR plateau for the first time in his short career, and more metrics show the power is here to stay.


Power Metrics

Kepler doesn’t possess earth-shattering power numbers for a player as big as himself. His best power season in the farm system was his Double-A year in which he hit nine bombs in 112 games as he slugged .531. He’s shown a steady rate of improvement through his three big league seasons, bashing 17, 19, and 20 HR per year. Kepler's 2018 year end number wasn’t the only stat that enhanced for the tall lefty.

His 4.0 Barrel% in 2017 scooched up to 6.6% last season, and he also upped his launch angle from 8.3 in his rookie year to 16.1. Coupled with the new fly ball approach was a surge in Hard% which he established a new career high in as well at 37.1%, up from his previous rate of 33.0%. Shockingly, his HR/FB took a nosedive despite the more power-driven approach. Kepler’s previous career rate of 13.4% tumbled to 9.9% last year, possibly due to failure to pull the baseball.

Hitting the baseball to the pull side is the easiest way to knock it out of the park, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out. Kepler did a good job pulling his fly balls in his first two seasons at a 33.9% rate, but in 2018 it fell to 24.1%. Instead of hitting to the pull side, more of his batted balls flew to the deeper part of the park as he hit the ball to center field much more often. If Kepler can find the happy medium of pulling his fly balls while maintaining his 2018 FB%, his HR/FB should return to his career rate or possibly even higher.


Putting It All Together

In 2019 the Twins will strut out a pretty formidable lineup. Acquiring power bats in Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron, this adds to a batting order already featuring 2018 breakout Eddie Rosario and the potentially dangerous Byron Buxton. Whether or not Buxton can live up to his hype is another conversation altogether, but with the departure of Brian Dozier, the Twins lack options at leadoff. The only other players that can match Kepler’s on-base percentage are Jorge Polanco and Rosario, who will likely remain in the third spot. It’s a situation to monitor but having Kepler at the top of the order will undoubtedly boost his overall value.

Seeing the majority of his playing time in 2018 between the five through seven spots, he’ll remain in that range if the Twins decide to go a different route at the top of the order. With the continued plate discipline skills and the likely positive regression in BABIP, he should have the best hitting year of his career. Assuming a normalization in success against right-handers and his new gainful approach against left-handers further reiterates this point. Although he stole 18 bags in his Double-A year and he has good speed, he can only be counted on for a handful of thefts in 2019.

Staying locked in on hard contact and barrelling up the baseball, a new best in home runs is more than attainable. A maturation in strength entering his age 26 season will also help him push the ball out of the park, especially if he can return to his pull-happy ways. Currently a model of terrific health, you can expect him to play every day and watch his counting stats climb.

Currently being selected at an ADP of 258, he’s going around outfielders with some playing time concerns like Randal Grichuk, Ian Happ and Jay Bruce. At this point in the draft, Kepler is a safe option to provide you with your counting stats and to fill out your final outfield position(s). With a secure floor, he has a ceiling that has still yet to be determined. Aware of how it could all click for him this year; the return value on Kepler will be lucrative.

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