In this offseason, we will see players around big companies whose 2019 seasons have been overlooked for a variety of reasons. This week’s edition focuses on Twins Outfielder Max Kepler.
The first player from Germany to get the job professionally in the United States was George Heubel. He made his Philadelphia National League debut in May 1871 and made his final appearance in August 1876 with the New York Mutuals. The most recent player from Germany is Max Kepler, who debuted with the Twins on September 27, 2015. In a staggering 23 career games, Heubel was just the replacement level, as best measured by 1870 standards. In the meantime, Kepler has been worth nearly 11 wins over replacing him in his first game. And where Heubel has been reduced to obscurity, Kepler has not yet received the attention he deserves for his work.
VERY VERY VERY BIG
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In 2019, the Twins led baseball with 307 home runs, while Kepler was responsible for 36 of them. Only Nelson Cruz (41) fell to this team. Kepler had hit 20 home runs in 2018 for a career-high and then nearly doubled that total to 15 fewer plate appearances this year.
Prior to this past season, Kepler was just a marginally good player, recording just under the average wRC + each year. There have been signs of improvement, such as falling fluctuation rates and an increase in its relocation rate from 2017 to 2018 and an increase in hard contact. But Kepler looked different in 2019, with the flying balls hitting the courtyard at a much higher rate than in the past.
There have been questions swirling around MLB about how baseballs have changed in the last two seasons, but Kepler’s home run spike has been accompanied by improvements in other areas. His tough communication rate (42.4%) was the highest in his career over 5% and led to an ISO jump from 0.184 in 2018 to 0.267 in 2019. Kepler is also steadily improving in defense.
All this gave him some attention – enough for a few votes for the American MVP League – but not enough for the kind of era Kepler had.
Why did we sleep this guy?
Usually a leap forward in production pays some attention, but in Kepler’s case he didn’t really do it. Despite having 21 home runs and a .263 / .337 / .523 slash line at the All-Star break, Kepler didn’t get an All-Star nod.
It is likely that Kepler’s performance in 2019 was largely overlooked because as the twins led all baseball in fire protection, he was one of 11 Minnesota hitters who reached double-digit blocks. There were five of them who had at least 30. Not only was Kepler easy to sleep on baseball as a whole, but it was easy to overlook his team.
With that, Kepler may have been a victim of the times to some extent. The home runs percentage was well above the league, so it’s just one of many players who had long ball spikes. There were nearly 2,000 more home trips in 2019 than there were in 2015, the year Kepler made his debut. The American League had its highest total at 3,478 – more than 300 from its previous high set in 2017. Kepler could simply be lost in the shuffle.
What is 2020?
For the most part, Kepler was not a dramatically different player in 2019 than in previous years. He went out and walked at the same pace as he did in 2018, which was an improvement from his first two seasons with the Twins. Although it had a higher contact rate in 2019 than ever, its overall communication rate has never changed.
That’s good, because it seems clear that baseball is at a time when the ball is more vibrant, and if that trend changes at some point it’s not like Kepler’s production suddenly drops. He’s good at controlling the zone and eliminating bad pitches, and gets better at hitting the ball harder.
Kepler has also shifted his approach slightly. In early July, he told Sporting News that there was an organic shift within the Twins organization to be more aggressive on the plate and Kepler’s average number of plate appearances per 2019 was a career low (3.62). He dropped to 49.4 percent of the lyrics he saw – an increase of 7 percent in 2018 – and ran his first bats step over 40 percent of the time. Its previous high in 2018 was 27%.
With that, Kepler’s exit velocity and launch angle were at their highest point in 2019. He does many things to take advantage of the state of modern baseball. Again, even if the composition of the ball changes, Kepler will not suddenly become a completely different hitter.
It is clear that Kepler is adapting and evolving as a player – gradually improving his defense – and as we get older, we should be careful.