Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Kepler's Power Is A Product Of Process

When looking at the 2016 Minnesota Twins, there's been plenty to be down about. The majority of the season has been spent in the cellar, and the club has failed to live up to its lofty expectations. Now in August though, the biggest storyline of late for this group is the emergence of Max Kepler. The German born prospect has burst onto the scene, and his power has been on full display. The question though is whether or not it should have been expected.

Kepler was signed by the Twins as an amateur free agent and debuted in the organization at the age of 17 in the 2010 season. He played three seasons at the rookie level before heading to Cedar Rapids in 2013. At the end of 2015, Kepler made his major league debut with the Twins, and was considered to be a semi-regular contributor for Paul Molitor's team this season. Throughout his minor league tenure though, he flashed speed and positional flexibility. He displayed gap power, but had never hit more than 10 home runs in a single season (back in 2012 for Elizabethton).

Looking back at some of Kepler's scouting grades as displayed by Fangraphs, there's plenty of room for the ceiling to be raised. On the 20-80 scouting scale, Kepler was seen as just a 45 future value player. His game power was graded out to top out at 50, in line with his raw power. Kepler has above average speed, but was always expected to play on the corners more than up the middle in the outfield. Fast forward to where we are now, and it's looking like a re-evaluation may be needed.

Through 63 games with the Twins this season, Kepler owns a .903 OPS and has hit 15 home runs. Using ISO (which measures raw power by excluding singles), Kepler's .302 mark (had he qualified) is good enough for 3rd in the major leagues behind only David Ortiz (.319) and Jake Lamb (.305). What Kepler is doing though in hitting home runs, isn't a vastly different from his typical approach.

At the plate, Kepler has hit for average at nearly every level in his big league career. His swing plane and quick hands allow him to get the bat head to the baseball, and then drive through the hitting zone at an accelerated pace. He can cover the inside of the plate, while sitting back on pitches and going the other was as well. As a whole, Kepler's approach has been conducive to gap power throughout his career, but more could have always been predicted.

In the minor leagues, Kepler was doing most of the work. Although he'd face pitchers throwing in the mid to high 90s at times, that's typically not the norm. At contact point, it was Kepler's swing and bat providing most of the reaction force and energy put into the baseball. Now at the big league level, his quick hands still getting to the baseball, are meeting pitches in the mid 90s on a regular basis, and the result are balls put in play at a significantly harder speed.

Max Kepler's launch angle on HR
To further illustrate exactly what I'm explaining, we need to look no further than the launch angles of Max Kepler's home runs. Over the course of his 15 home runs hit during 2016, Kepler has hit just three home runs with a launch angle over 30 degrees. With 12 of his home runs coming in at launch angles below 30 degrees, he's also parked three dingers that have had launch angles below 20 degrees. What that tells us is that Kepler's point of contact cuts the ball in half, providing a more powerful line drive result as opposed to a looping longball.

On top of his launch angle, Kepler's exit velocity numbers have been indicative of a line drive swing as well. Seven of his 15 homers have been hit with exit velocities over 100 miles per hour, with three of them clocking in at 105+. Looking at his production as a whole, Kepler has put 160 balls in play this season. 23 of them have had exit velocities over 105 mph, and he's yet to fly out on a single one of those occasions. When expanding the exit velocity to at least 100 mph, Kepler has hit 28% (44-160) of his batted balls at that speed.

Kepler's spray chart for balls w/ 105+ mph exit velo
With 40.6% of his batted balls put in play with "hard" contact, Max Kepler ranks 24th among MLB hitters with at least 160 plate appearances. In the American League alone, that number ranks him 8th. Despite just a 15.8% line drive rate, Kepler has hit fly balls just 39.2% of the time, and 24.2% of the time those fly balls turn into home runs. Once again, his power reflects a compact and powerful swing that uses what effort pitchers put forth and translates it into results.

At the end of the day, Max Kepler has been everything the Twins could have hoped for and more this season. His 15 home runs through 63 games give him a 39 HR/162 average. That's probably an unrealistic total to expect. What isn't unfair though, is to assume that if Kepler is able to repeat his consistent swing process while replicating his hand path and swing plane, plenty of consistently hard contact will be made. As we've seen thus far in 2016, that can lead to results that plenty likely would have considered out of reach.

Max Kepler is dropping bombs all over major league ballparks right now, and if he continues to make contact as he has, you'd be foolish to bet on that ceasing any time soon.

All charts provided courtesy of BaseballSavant.com

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