A compelling case can be made that suggests Max Kepler has been a big part of the future plans of the Minnesota Twins for nearly a decade.
Kepler signed on July 11, 2009, and has been near the top of prospect lists pretty much the entire time — if not national lists, definitely among top 10 lists among his organization mates.
But all of those future plans are coming into focus, as Kepler’s role on the team has never been more pronounced or obvious than it is heading into the 2019 season. It isn’t just that the Twins rewarded Kepler, who turned 26 in February, with a five-year deal that locks him up through his age-30 season with a team option for 2024.
He appreciates that to be sure, but it’s also become apparent that new manager Rocco Baldelli likes the thought of having Kepler, who finally found his footing against left-handed pitchers last season, in the top spot in the order after long-time leadoff man Brian Dozier was dealt at last season’s trade deadline.
Kepler’s 2018 numbers are a little strange when considering his overall body of work. Kepler, a left-handed hitter, has long held his own against righties but struggled against lefties.
Through the 2017 season, Kepler was a .176/.242/.279 hitter against southpaws (36 wRC+), but hit a stellar .261/.334/.475 against righties (112).
But in 2018, Kepler hit .245/.323/.422 against lefties (101 wRC+) and just .216/.318/.403 (95) against righties.
On the positive side, it means that Kepler has shown the ability to more than hold his own against pitchers from both sides. On the contrary, he hasn’t been able to sync those abilities up in a season to show what he’s truly capable of.
This was also the case in the minor leagues for Kepler, who hit .237/.312/.424 at age 20 in Cedar Rapids (Low-A) in 2013. Two years later, Kepler won the Southern League MVP over Milwaukee’s Orlando Arcia by hitting .322/.416/.531 with more walks than strikeouts and 54 extra-base hits.
In that 2013 season, Kepler hit a meager .117/.232/.133 against lefties with just seven hits all season against them.
In 2015, Kepler roasted left-handed pitching to the tune of a .319/.390/.473 line.
The ability is in there, it’s just a matter of letting it come out for a guy who has been a bit of a slow burn development-wise due to injuries. Kepler had to be added to the 40-man roster early in his development stages — after the 2013 season despite never having played above Low-A ball — and as a result has seen a bit of a tug-of-war between refining his skills but also moving up fast enough to be ready to contribute in the big leagues once his options were exhausted.
Based on everything mentioned above, it seems like the time to take the next step is now.
Kepler sure feels ready, and he told Zone Coverage in early March in Fort Myers that he’s truly glad the team views him as a building block for the future.
“It really made me appreciate the way this team and organization value me,” Kepler said. “It was a special feeling. It feels like I’m wanted on this team. It makes me more eager to give it my all and my best shot. Yeah, the security is nice. I’m never going to take that for granted.”
But don’t get it twisted — effort was never an issue for Kepler, a hard-working player who lists Joe Mauer as one of his idols.
“But it’s not going to change anything on how I approach this game and how I work,” Kepler added. “Nothing changes.”
In a period where extensions are being signed left and right — Paul Goldschmidt, Blake Snell and Chris Sale just to name a few in recent days — it’s easy to put an emphasis on the money both in terms of overall and average annual value. But for Kepler, he’s also happy to have the assurance that he’ll show up for work at the same place every single day for the next half-decade, too.
“Of course,” Kepler said when asked about if the years were also a key factor in the deal. “It showed me that this team, the front office, ownership and everyone down to the manager values something in me. It’s truly an honor.”
It’d be easy for Kepler to have extra pressure placed on his shoulders this season, not only after signing a new deal but also with the departures of, among others, Mauer, Dozier and Eduardo Escobar over the past few months.
True to form, Max — whose voice seems to always carry in the same cadence and at the same volume — wants to just keep working and led leadership happen organically.
“I think the leaders are the ones who don’t try to label themselves like that,” Kepler said. “They’re just the ones who go out there and want to do the best for their team. They develop into leaders, or people on the outside call them leaders.”
OK, that’s all good and well — but would Kepler like to be among the team’s leaders?
He was a little coy when asked.
“I’d like to give it my all for this team,” he said. “Win as many games as we can. Getting to hit in the leadoff spot, just hitting-wise, I feel more eager to get on and score runs for this team.
“A little fire ignited in me.”
But again, whatever growth Kepler makes in his fourth full MLB season seems like it will come out of the leadoff spot.
And while it seems strange that a hitter coming off posting a .319 on-base percentage and with a career mark of .313 would be tabbed the leadoff hitter on a club expected to score many runs, it’s not without merit.
Kepler walked 11.6 percent of the time last season — and his career rate of 9.8 percent is well above league average. Kepler was 25th among 140 qualified hitters in walk rate last season — ahead of Dozier’s 11.1 percent — and the AL average last year was 8.3 percent.
The concept in play is called isolated discipline, and while it sounds complicated it really isn’t. Simply put, it’s on-base percentage minus batting average, and it gives a look into what kind of discipline a hitter had.
Kepler’s isolated discipline last year was .095. A difference of .100 is considered elite — like Mauer territory.
It’s also a statistic that seems to rise and grow in lockstep with batting average. So if Kepler hit .250 this season — not an immodest proposal by any means — that would put his on-base percentage in the .345-.350 vicinity. The average AL outfielder, for what it’s worth, hit .251/.324/.419 last season.
Kepler said he thinks the increase in walks can be sustainable, even if it wasn’t a huge part of his game previously in the big leagues.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I was talking to another reporter earlier today, and he said like 40 percent of my strikeouts last year were looking. You have to believe and trust your zone. You have your disagreements with the umpires and whatnot. But I’d like to continue having good at-bats and seeing pitches. Just having quality at-bats and obviously walk and get on for the team.
With that said, the thing that made Dozier such a dangerous leadoff man was that he wasn’t afraid to ambush pitches and put them in the left-field seats. He still took his walks, but pitchers couldn’t groove fastballs to try to get ahead of him early in games or counts.
Similarly, pitchers had better not get too comfortable throwing Kepler first-pitch strikes, either.
“Then again, I also want to improve just being aggressive with pitches I can hit,” Kepler said. “I feel like I’ve looked at a lot of strikes I could hit in the past that were hittable pitches, especially first pitches of at-bats. Some guys don’t like it, like Joe always took the first pitch. But I feel like if I get a good swing off on the first pitch, I have a better chance of putting together a solid at-bat in my opinion.”