Minnesota Twins: Can Max Kepler take the next step in 2018?


Minnesota Twins outfielder Max Kepler has been on the cusp of an All-Star level. Could he take that next step in 2018?

The Minnesota Twins enjoyed a huge boost from the athleticism from their outfield defense in 2017. Max Kepler was a big part of that, but his offensive performance left something to be desired in the eyes of many Minnesota Twins fans. What would he need to do going forward to take the next step to becoming a star?

Kepler’s 2017 season

Before we see where he could go, let’s see where Kepler has been!

After a 3-game audition in 2015, Max Kepler played his first “full” season in 2016, playing 113 games with the team, hitting .235/.309/.424 with 20 doubles, 17 home runs, and 6 stolen bases. He posted a 9.4% walk rate and a 20.8% strikeout rate.

His splits were a question in 2016. Kepler hit .248/.325/.468 over 314 plate appearances against righties with 15 of his home runs. Against lefties, he hit .203/.273/.322 with just 2 home runs in 133 plate appearances.

In 2017, Kepler played 147 games, with 568 plate appearances, with a .243/.312/.425 line. He knocked out 32 home runs and 19 home runs, stealing 6 bases. Kepler posted an 8.3% walk rate and a 20.1% strikeout rate on the season.

His splits deepened in 2017, however, as Kepler hit .272/.353/.484 against right-handed pitchers with a 9.3% walk rate and a 17.2% strikeout rate. He also tagged 17 of his 19 home runs against righties. Against lefties, he hit .152/.213/.240 with a pair of home runs, a 5.1% walk rate, and a 29.2% strikeout rate.

Kepler might also have been the only Twins hitter who DIDN’T hit better in the second half, with a first half line of .266/.337/.451 with 10 home runs and a second half line of .211/.278/.390 with 9 home runs.

What to improve

The biggest thing, obviously, is the splits against lefty hitters. Kepler’s splits were well-covered in a piece on Rotographs at the end of the season.

The biggest issue for Kepler against lefties has been his ability to drive balls and loft them against lefties. He hit 42% of his balls in play as fly balls against right-handers, but against lefties, he hit just 30.6% fly balls. Accordingly, he had a 1.62 ground ball/fly ball ratio against lefties, but the ratio was 0.98 ground ball/fly ball against righties.

That ability to loft the ball also showed up in his hard contact rates, as Kepler hit 36% of balls with hard contact against righties, but just 21.8% of balls with hard contact against left-handed hurlers.

Can he do it?

There are certainly reasons to believe that he could. First, Kepler is just 25. To take a look at a few lefty hitters of note in Minnesota Twins history in their age-25 season:

  • Jacque Jones – vs. RHP: .294/.327/.490 (473 PA), vs. LHP: .230/.269/.297 (79 PA)
  • Kent Hrbek – vs. RHP: .289/.365/.464 (447 PA), vs. LHP: .256/.324/.402 (219 PA)
  • Tony Oliva – vs. RHP: .341/.380/.616 (539 PA), vs. LHP: .269/.299/.377 (180 PA)
  • Jimmie Hall – vs. RHP: .263/.348/.550 (494 PA), vs. LHP: .235/.297/.338 (77 PA)
  • Rod Carew – vs. RHP: .338/.381/.417 (426 PA), vs. LHP: .238/.305/.298 (206 PA)
  • Lyman Bostock – vs. RHP: .343/.386/.474 (404 PA), vs. LHP: .252/.286/.280 (113 PA)
  • A.J. Pierzynski – vs. RHP: .308/.348/.450 (376 PA), vs. LHP: .270/.280/.393 (93 PA)
  • Jason Kubel – vs. RHP: .280/.336/.474 (382 PA), vs. LHP: .236/.333/.333 (84 PA)

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Obviously, that list was all able to do well. Kepler is young and certainly could adapt well into become at least a league average hitter against left-handed pitchers.

In fact, in the minor leagues, while there was a difference, Kepler did not have significant splits in his last full minor league season (2015), when he hit .314/.411/.524 against right-handed pitchers and .319/.390/.473 against lefties. This was primarily against upper minors pitching.

At high-A in 2014, Kepler didn’t put up as quality of numbers overall, but his split was similarly good with a .261/.342/.394 line against righties and a .273/.301/.390 line against lefties. His biggest issue in 2014 was his BB/K ratio in that split, and he’d corrected that significantly in 2015.

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For Kepler to get to that next level, he will need to loft balls against all pitchers at the same rate. He’s worked well with hitting coach James Rowson, but he did not get the opportunity against left-handed starters in 2017. Hopefully, he gets that opportunity to continue developing in 2018!