Thursday, July 14, 2016

Outfielder Of Intrigue Down The Stretch

Coming into the 2016 Major League Baseball season, the Twins outfield was expected to have plenty of youth. Phenom Byron Buxton had taken over in center field, while slugger Miguel Sano was being asked to play in right. Expectations for Buxton to compete in the Rookie of the Year race were there, and the Twins had high hopes. Through the first half, it's been the guy who came up last, Max Kepler, that may have stolen the show.

Making his MLB debut on September 27, 2015, Max Kepler had seen the bright lights and big stadiums a year ago. This time though, it wasn't a September cup of coffee, and with the way that Minnesota's outfield had shifted, there was absolutely room for him to stay.

Kepler received a quick call from the Twins this season. After playing in just two games for Triple-A Rochester, he was summoned to the show. A brief seven game stint in which he was only giving 12 at bats quickly saw him back down on the farm. When he returned to Rochester, he did what he has done most of his minor league career, he hit. Slashing .288/.380/.471 across 28 games, Kepler had again earned the Twins attention and was given the call.

Fast forward to today, and Max Kepler has been up with the Twins during his second stint of the season for 36 games. His slash line of .244/.322/.496 leaves room for improvement, but that .818 OPS is indicative of a guy that's given Paul Molitor much more than he could have imagined. Through 150 plate appearances since his promotion, Kepler has nine doubles and eight home runs. His 33 runs batted rank fourth on the club, and behind only Brian Dozier, Eduardo Nunez, and Miguel Sano (all guys that have spent the entire season in the big leagues).

If you've been following me on Twitter for any amount of time (if you're not, you're missing out), you know that I've been high on Kepler for quite some time. While I have always suggested that Buxton has the higher ceiling and will likely see more accolades over his career, it's Kepler who's the consistent and projectable star. With All Star level talent, Kepler is far more than just a guy to fill out a spot on the 25 man roster.

When trying to figure out the formula for success that Kepler is currently operating under, it's hard to look much further than his smooth stroke. With hands that get to, and drive through the baseball, his swing plane produces gap power that plays all over the field. Thus far this season, he's making hard contact just under 40% of the time. His pull tendencies aren't heavy using the center of the field a solid 37% of the time. Generating line drives with just under 19% of his batted balls, the power generation from him driving through the ball has equated to an incredible 19% of his fly balls leaving the yard.

Not a traditional power hitter, there's no doubt the Twins and Kepler himself would like to see his 79.1% contact rate rise some. In doing so, he'll see a relatively significant boost in his batting average. The fact that he's swung at pitches outside of the zone just 30% of the time, and missed only 9.2% of the time suggests that he'll barrel the ball more often as he acclimates to the big league level.

As things stand currently, Kepler has put himself in a very good position. He's erupted onto the Twins scene and he's making a name for himself. There's plenty of room for improvement, and he's got just under 80 games left ahead of him to continue to accomplish that. Kepler is going to need to keep making tweaks and see the results follow if he's going to make a serious Rookie of the Year push. Regardless, he's been given the keys to right field for the Twins, and settling in for 2017 is a must.

As Byron Buxton starts to turn a corner in the final stretch of the 2016 season, he'll have a teammate that is just a bit ahead of him in that process. Kepler has been an exciting development for Minnesota this season, but if it was unexpected, you were looking in the wrong places all along.

The son of German ballet dancers, Max Kepler has arrived, and the show has only just begun.

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