Max Kepler’s Not-So-Obvious Breakout

At first glance, Max Kepler had a very Max Kepler year. In several key categories, he was pretty much the same player he’s always been, which is to say that he once again came close to, but failed to achieve, league average offensive output:

Max Kepler (2016-18)
Season AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA wRC+
2016 .235 .309 .434 .189 .313 93
2017 .243 .312 .425 .182 .315 93
2018 .224 .319 .408 .184 .316 97

Where it really counts, in wOBA and wRC+, Kepler has been consistent—but consistently underwhelming. Skimming over these results, one would be inclined to conclude that the Twins are still waiting for Kepler to break out.

But ask anyone in the Twins front office, and they’d likely say that Kepler broke out last season, beneath our noses. And indeed, looking under the hood, we find several reasons to reach that same conclusion for ourselves:

Max Kepler, Under the Hood (2016-18)
Season BB% K% Barrel % Launch Angle xwOBA
2016 9.4% 20.8% 3.9% 8.3 .291
2017 8.3% 20.1% 4.0% 12.7 .306
2018 11.6% 15.7% 6.6% 16.1 .322
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

There were improvements across the board—and improvements that weren’t so obvious based on the data presented in the first table. But why didn’t these improvements translate into actual results? The answer lies in Kepler’s platoon split history.

Entering 2018, Kepler was probably not someone the Twins expected to feel great about having at the plate when there was a lefty on the mound. In fact, here is a list of the five left-handed hitters with the worst wRC+ against left-handed pitching from 2016-17 (min. 250 plate appearances):

Lowest wRC+, LHH vs. LHP (2016-17)
Name wRC+
Max Kepler 37
Nomar Mazara 48
Rougned Odor 52
Jake Lamb 53
Denard Span 57

Kepler was the very worst, and it wasn’t particularly close. The good news for him, and indeed, the primary reason he found himself in a major league lineup nearly every day in 2018, was that he entered the year with a healthy 112 wRC+ against righties. That, combined with his youth and impressive set of tools, made him a compelling player, albeit an imperfect one who seemed destined for a future as a platoon player.

But Kepler, evidently, wasn’t ready to submit to that narrative. Here’s how he fared in some key areas against lefties in 2018, compared to 2016-17:

Max Kepler vs. LHP
Season BB% K% GB/FB Hard% BABIP wRC+
2016-17 6.3% 27.4% 1.6 27.0% .232 37
2018 9.0% 21.6% 0.8 39.8% .287 101

He increased his walk rate, decreased his strikeout rate, halved his GB/FB ratio, and hit the ball significantly harder. None of these improvements are easy to fake, so Kepler is probably no longer in the conversation for baseball’s worst left-handed hitter against left-handed pitching.

Yet the question remains: How come this newfound success against lefties didn’t translate into an obvious breakout season? His performance against righties in those same categories completes our picture:

Max Kepler vs. RHP
Season BB% K% GB/FB Hard% BABIP wRC+
2016-17 9.7% 17.9% 1.1 34.9% .282 113
2018 12.6% 13.5% 0.8 36.2% .219 95

Again we see improvement in areas that are hard to fake, but we also see a 63 point decline in BABIP, which is the metric on this list that is most susceptible to variation caused by random chance. Kepler was able to produce a 113 wRC+ against righties in 2016-17 with worse peripherals than he had in 2018, yet he was somehow 18 percent worse against them last season. That just doesn’t add up, and it’s something that seems unlikely to continue.

Instead, look for Kepler to improve upon his pre-2018 112 wRC+ against righties, and for his league-average performance against lefties in 2018 to become more or less his new norm. All told, Kepler looks like a much improved hitter, and one who should be solidly above average in 2019, despite what his below-average results might otherwise suggest. He should be a nice, underrated buy in fantasy points leagues this season.

We hoped you liked reading Max Kepler’s Not-So-Obvious Breakout by Ben Kaspick!

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Ben Kaspick is the founder of CoveCast, LLC, a sabermetric San Francisco Giants analysis website and podcast featured at CoveCast.net. He has written for RotoGraphs since 2016 and also contributes to SB Nation's Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @Cove_Cast.

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BootjoshBobby Ayaladbminnjarjets89ArmadilloFury Recent comment authors
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sgnthlr85
Member
sgnthlr85

I would’ve expected there to be a big difference between his wOBA and xwOBA against righties last year based on this info, but there was not, .314 wOBA and a .322 xwOBA. It seems like there should be more of a disparity with such a low BABIP. Was his xBABIP against righties oddly low? I’m not sure where/how to find xBABIP.

digitalhaas
Member
digitalhaas

Yes. According to xStats.org, his xBABIP against righties was .259. Maybe his launch angle gains last season were mostly vs lefties?

ArmadilloFury
Member
ArmadilloFury

He had the tied-lowest line drive % among qualified hitters in 2018 (15.9%) and has a career .257 BABIP and 16.6 LD% in 1600+ PA’s . Kepler might a season or two with a decent BABIP due to luck, but he is a low BABIP guy unless he changes his approach

dbminn
Member
Member
dbminn

He did change his approach in 2018 (see article). Sometimes it takes a while to translate to results.

Bootjosh
Member
Bootjosh

He also had >.300 babips at the higher level of the minors, which are usually predictive to a degree…. I get that xBABIP wasn’t that kind to him last year, but Max seems like he should babip .285+ going forward