Monday, February 12, 2018

Breakout Or Break Off With Max Kepler

Over the weekend, the Minnesota Twins missed out on Yu Darvish as he joined Chris Gimenez and the Chicago Cubs. While I feel a bit disappointed Derek Falvey and Thad Levine didn't position themselves better with a six year offer, it's now a moot point. At this juncture a pivot to available free agents and the trade market has become a new reality. On the latter point, Minnesota's most available asset seems to be Max Kepler. It's worth wondering though, is that a good thing?

A season ago, Kepler put up his highest OPS in the big league (.737), and got in his first full major league season. Coming into the 2016 season, Kepler debuted on all three (Baseball America, MLB, and Baseball Prospectus) Top 100 prospect lists, and ranked 30th, 44th, and 60th respectively. After putting together a steady upward trend in the minors, the belief was there that Minnesota had a real big league talent on their hands. While the .737 OPS is more than serviceable, it also leaves a bit to be desired. What I'm nearly certain about, is that Kepler is capable of harnessing that ability.

In 2017, Kepler became a platoon player down the stretch. With the Twins in the midst of a postseason race, Paul Molitor decided he simply couldn't have a player with a .453 OPS against left-handed pitching garnering significant at bats. Despite the .828 OPS against righties, only two of Kepler's 19 homers came off of southpaws, and he racked up a 40/7 K/BB ratio. Looking back to 2016, the numbers improve but hardly jump off the page. In his rookie year, Kepler compiled a .595 OPS against lefties with two of his 17 homers and a 34/10 K/BB. In short, Kepler owns a 74/17 K/BB against same-handed pitchers in the big leagues, and he's hit just four of his 36 longballs off of them.

You'd be hard pressed to argue Kepler deserves more than a platoon situation with those numbers (though I did find it frustrating at times in 2017). What's also fair to suggest is that he's a 25 year-old unfinished product who's shown an ability much better than what the big leagues have seen. Having never played Triple-A, Kepler's two best seasons in the minors came at Double-A in 2015, and High-A in 2014. Against lefties in those two campaigns he posted an .863 OPS (1 HR 15/12 K/BB) and a .691 OPS (1 HR 26/3 K/BB) respectively. The Double-A numbers are inflated some due to a season with 13 triples, but they are also buoyed by an approach that saw him walk more times than he struck out for the first time in his big league career.

During 2017, Kepler slightly decreased his chase rate, with slightly increasing his swinging strike percentage. His contact slipped slightly, but was on par with his career averages. His hard hit rate remained static, and the only notable dip among batted balls was a 3% drop in HR/FB ratio. What could be an untapped area of improvement is one of contention for Kepler, his launch angle. In 2016, the average on base hits fell at 10.4 degrees. That number came in at just 8.8 degrees a year ago. Parker Hageman of Twins Daily actually looked in depth on this topic as it pertain to Kepler last March. Kepler's approach is to line the ball, with backspin, or get right with ground balls. With the power and stroke he has, a heightened launch angle would likely bring a good deal more success.

What should be somewhat common sense is that a 25 year-old, highly regarded prospect, is far from a finished product. For Kepler to maximize his output in Minnesota however, the results will first need to change against pitchers attacking him from his side of the plate. There's a few keys for him to get there, with contact and launch angle being two of the avenues. What wouldn't be shocking is if it came together relatively quickly, and the German born big leaguer had a breakout season in front of him.

After making his way through Elizabethton at age 19, it took him stops at Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers before truly settling into his own. It wasn't until 2015 as a 22 year-old at Double-A that Kepler posted his first full season .800 OPS on the farm. That's hardly a knock on ability as much as it is a highlight of a growing process. Entering his third season with the Twins, and just the second as a regular out of the gate, seeing another leap forward would hardly be a miracle. That's where the crossroads of what to do next comes in.

Although there's still ample arms available on the market, Minnesota has been heavily connected to the trade market. With names like Chris Archer, Julio Teheran, and Jake Odorizzi among those thrown about, Kepler could be an enticing return. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will have to decide what they see going forward however. In any trade scenario, you're going to have to give to get, but is the breakout coming for Max and just how big will it be.

For me, I'm still a bigger believer of Kepler's long term future than I am of Eddie Rosario. Kepler's trajectory suggests one of growth, while Rosario's has some gaping holes that can continue to be exploited. If Minnesota is to deal Max for pitching, I'd hope the return is also substantial and that he's viewed as a cornerstone piece. Zack Granite and LaMonte Wade are both nice fallback options, but I'd hesitate to put them in the same realm as Kepler projects to be. With just over a month until meaningful games get started, I assume we'll have clarity which direction this narrative falls soon enough.

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