Breakouts That Didn’t Happen: Max Kepler

Max Kepler wasn’t an incredibly popular sleeper heading into the 2017 season, but I was certainly far from the only analyst who was high on the young German. The 24-year-old was coming off a productive yet unspectacular rookie campaign, and was just one year removed from a breakout year in Double-A that made him a fixture on top prospect lists.

Kepler’s 2016 wasn’t eye-popping, but there were many positive signs for the rookie. His power had just started showing up in games in that breakout Double-A season a year before, and now he was taking the next step and hitting the ball over the fence (17 HR in 447 PA). It certainly wasn’t out of the question to predict another step forward in that department, perhaps to a 20-25 HR season in 2017.

He stole just six bases in the majors in 2016, but the fact that he’d swiped 19 bags in the minors the year before was reason for optimism. Furthermore, his .235 batting average was held down by a .261 BABIP, which seemed far too low for a player with pretty good speed.

In short, it wasn’t hard to envision something like .275/25 HR/15 SB if everything came together in 2017. Despite being an unproven option at a deep position, Kepler was drafted in well over half of Yahoo leagues. Like I said, not a super-popular sleeper, but not flying under the radar either.

Unfortunately, Kepler was nearly the exact same hitter he was in 2016, which isn’t what anyone who drafted him was hoping for:

  • 2016 (447 PA) – .235/.309/.424, 17 HR, 6 SB, .189 ISO
  • 2017 (568 PA) – .243/.312/.425, 19 HR, 6 SB, .182 ISO

Against righties, Kepler did in fact take a small but noticeable step forward. In fact, it probably would have been rather significant if his pop-up rate against right-handers hadn’t nearly doubled, from 6.0% in 2016 to 11.5% in 2017. Even with that anomaly in his data, he maintained his 2016 production in every meaningful way, making some small improvements along the way:

  • 2016 vsR (314 PA) – .248/.325/.468, .219 ISO, 10.2% BB, 18.8% K
  • 2017 vsR (431 PA) – .272/.343/.484, .212 ISO, 9.3% BB, 17.2% K

Digging into his batted-ball profile a bit, Kepler hit more balls in the air last year (0.98 GB/FB vsR in ’17) than he did the year before (1.22 GB/FB vsR in ’17), always a good trend for a burgeoning power hitter. Additionally, he got a bit better at using the whole field (18.9% Oppo vsR in ’16, 24.5% Oppo vsR in ’17), which likely played a role in his increased AVG against righties as he became harder to shift.

At that point, it all came down to the age-old question with young lefties, which is of course whether they’ll ever figure out same-handed pitching. The Twins being contenders in 2017 might have hurt Kepler’s development a bit in the short term, because he lost playing time against lefties as the season wore on, instead of getting the chance to work it out on the field with a rebuilding team.

In the latter half of the season, he often found himself the odd man out when the team faced lefty starters, and the Twins also sometimes removed him for pinch hitters against lefty relievers. Not only did this deprive him of chances to prove himself against southpaws, but it also limited his sample size against lefties (single-season samples vsL are small enough to begin with).

Still, there’s no way around how truly horrible Kepler was against lefties last year, and his numbers against southpaws represented a significant step in the wrong direction across the board.

  • 2016 vsL (133 PA) – .203/.273/.322, .119 ISO, 7.5% BB, 25.6% K
  • 2017 vsL (137 PA) – .152/.213/.240, .088 ISO, 5.1% BB, 29.2% K

The underlying numbers behind those surface stats don’t look any better. Kepler hit more balls softly (23.0%) than hard (21.8%) against same-handed pitching last year, and his 1.6 GB/FB vsL certainly didn’t help.

Southpaws threw him a never-ending supply of pitches away, with few even bothering to test him inside. Far too many of those plate appearances ended with Kepler either striking out, or harmlessly rolling over a pitch on the outer half for a soft groundout. All those weak grounders added up, and it’s really what killed his AVG last year, as his BABIP against lefties was a startling .202.

However, we’re still talking about a small sample here. After all, Kepler still has just 271 career major-league plate appearances against lefties. While I definitely wish he had something better than a .520 OPS vsL, it’s important to keep in mind that he’s a 24-year-old who spent his youth playing baseball against low-quality competition in Europe. Some aspects of the game might just come a bit slower to a player who missed out on a decade or more of potential development.

There are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic, starting with the fact that 2018 will be Kepler’s age-25 season. He still has strong plate discipline and good swing mechanics. He’s still faster than a guy who only steals six bases a year, and his 6’4″ 205 lb frame is still capable of generating significant power.

In the long run, I do think there’s a legitimate breakout somewhere inside Max Kepler, and he’s so young that he’s still got a few years to get there. My hope for this coming fantasy season is that he either shows marked improvement against lefties, or continues his development against righties enough to become a strong platoon option. Either would be enough to make him a valuable fantasy commodity.

On the chance that he puts it together sooner rather than later, he’s a guy I’ll again be targeting near the end of my mixed-league drafts in 2018.

Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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Unless Molitor lets him play against lefties he’s a platoon bat but he is on the right side of the platoon. I won’t be chasing him in our AL only auction but can see going after him as my 4th or 5th OFer if the bidding stops under $8 (we have 25-35% inflation).