Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Did The Twins Clone A Marlin?

At age 24, Max Kepler has now played 167 major league baseball games. The German-born product has a full season of big league experience under his belt, and the $800k investment Minnesota made in him looks to be paying off. When projecting what he could be in the future, there's one player that I can't seem to get out of my head. Enter the Marlins Christian Yelich.

I began making this comparison back in March of 2016, suggesting that Kepler could be a better version of the Marlins outfielder, or if nothing else, a very similar player. Now through 51 games in 2017, we're starting to see that come to fruition. Yelich was a top 25 prospect in all of baseball prior to 2013, while Kepler check into the top 50 just once (and only among two national outlets). However, their skillsets seem quite similar, as do their frames, and the numbers are starting to bear that out.

Through June 6, Chistian Yelish owns a .270/.348/.407 slash line with 14 extra base hits, seven of which have been homers. He's worked a 40/23 K/BB ratio, and he's driven in 25 runners. On the flip side, Max Kepler has compiled a .269/.348/.462 line in 2017, along with 21 extra base hits, also of which seven are homers. He owns a 40/21 K/BB ratio and has 25 RBIs to his credit.

Opening up the hood just a bit further, the underlying peripherals are all virtually the same as well. To illustrate just how close we're talking, take a look at some of these numbers:

Yelich- 9.7 BB% 16.8 K% 33.9 Hard% 24.1 O-Swing% 81.6 Contact% 7.8 SwStr%
Kepler- 10.0 BB% 19.0 K% 37.4 Hard% 24.9 O-Swing% 77.9 Contact% 9.1 SwStr%
When looking at their spray charts, things continue to remain in line. Sure, Kepler pulls the ball to right field a bit more, but he is also a bit more uneven in his splits against opposite handed pitchers. While facing righties, Kepler owns a .901 OPS compared to a .463 OPS against lefties. Yelich remains more balanced with a .768 OPS against righties and a .665 OPS against lefties. For the most part however, they continue to work the same.

Defensively, things remain comparable as well. In 2017, Yelich has operated solely as the Marlins centerfielder, moving over from left. Kepler has played mainly right field for the Twins, but has sprinkled in some time in center. To date, Yelich has been worth 4 DRS with a UZR of 3.0 and RngR factor of 4.7. Kepler has compiled 7 DRS for Minnesota while totaling a 4.0 UZR and a 2.3 RngR factor. A season ago, both players checked in with UZR totals right around 0.0, while being worth 6 DRS apiece.

So, what do we make of it all, other than the Twins might have their own version of Christian Yelich? Well, at this point, that doesn't mean all that much. Yelich is a really nice player, and he's got a Gold Glove to his credit, but the accolades pretty much end there. In 2016, he did win a Silver Slugger and came in 19th among the NL MVP voting. He's never been an All Star, and while being a household name, he's not necessarily regarded as among the best in the game.

While no doubt overshadowed by his teammate Byron Buxton, Max Kepler is in the conversation with Aaron Judge defensively among right fielders. Unfortunately Mookie Betts exists and is running away with Gold Glove consideration for AL right fielders, but Kepler should be a finalist at the end. He's always going to have stiff competition for Silver Slugger awards, but he very realistically could be a 20/10 or even 20/20 guy (with work on the basepaths).

Given what was expected of Yelich coming up as a prospect, and the arc of his career thus far (he just started for Team USA in the WBC), allowing Minnesota to have their own version is far from something the Twins would scoff at. Kepler is not all that far removed from a .734 OPS in 113 games during his first big league season, but as he's settled in, the height of his play has risen as well.

Derek Falvey and Thad Levine had to be salivating at the opportunity to build a core around Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, but Max Kepler is far more than a throw in. We're seeing him turn into a legitimate name in this league, and it may just be the beginning.