Max Kepler Could Hit More Home Runs This Year Than He Did In 2019

Photo Credit: John Leyba-USA TODAY Sports

2019 became known as “the juiced ball year,” and teams hit a league-record 6,776 home runs. The seams were lower, the leather was smoother, and the ball was rounder. The three significant alterations to the ball caused a significantly lower drag coefficient than in years past. The result of a significantly lower drag meant all batted balls faced fewer opposing forces as they flew. Every batter in MLB benefitted from this unexpected modification.

Still, some profited more than others. Third baseman Anthony Rendon, outfielder Nick Castellanos, and old friend Mitch Garver were some of the greatest beneficiaries, according to power-based statistics like Isolated Power (ISO) and contact-based statistics like weighted on-base average (wOBA).

Max Kepler also probably benefited from the juiced ball.

Kepler had a spike in production. Here are his career results from 2015 through 2018 compared to his 2019 performance:

2015 to 2018: .233/.313/.417, 1633 plate appearances, 56 home runs, 89.3 Exit Velocity (EV), .185 ISO, .314 wOBA, 95 wRC+
2019: .252/.336/.519, 596 plate appearances, 36 home runs, 89.7 EV, .267 ISO, .355 wOBA, 122 wRC+.

In 1,037 fewer plate appearances, Kepler hit 65% of his career total home runs. Also, Kepler demonstrated a significant increase in ISO, wOBA, and wRC+ despite showing a negligible .4 increase in EV. Fast forward four seasons later, and Kepler could not match his career highs.

Until 2023.

Last season, Kepler hit .260/.332/.484 over 491 plate appearances, generating 24 home runs, a 91.9 average EV (a career-high), .224 ISO, .362 wOBA (a career-high), and a 124 wRC (a career-high). Kepler posting these numbers is impressive considering his subpar first half, where he hit only .207/.279/.409 with 12 home runs, a 91.3 EV, .202 ISO, .297 wOBA, and 88 wRC+ over 226 plate appearances.2019 is recognized as Kepler’s best season, yet a second-half resurgence from the once-top prospect last season has generated newfound optimism over the long-time dwindling enigma.

Kepler generated his highest average EV and wOBA of his career while producing the highest wRC+. That statistic attempts to quantify a player’s total value while adjusting for external factors like ballpark or era in his seven years of service time. He achieved this feat by hitting the ball on the sweet spot and driving it into the ai; Keplerr sacrificed contact in the process, which was illustrated by him netting a career-high 21.6% strikeout rate and a close-to-career-low ground ball rate of 37.8%.

He also benefited from MLB’s new shift restrictions, posting the highest Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) in his career. Nevertheless, the 31-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder’s decision to change his approach drastically turned him into a cog in the AL Central-winning club’s lineup. While Kepler’s short-term burst of production was a welcomed development, will his newfound approach maintain its efficacy?

FanGraphs’s STEAMER projects Kepler to hit .249/.332/.440 with 22 home runs, a .191 ISO, .334 wOBA, and a 114 wRC+. STEAMER projects Kepler to perform 14% better than league average while undergoing a decrease in his home run total, ISO, slugging percentage (SLG), wOBA, and wRC+. Projection systems are traditionally conservative, so Kepler’s projections shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Still, Kepler’s projected 114 wRC+ nets him the third-best projection for Twins position players, falling behind only Royce Lewis (126 wRC+) and Carlos Correa (118 wRC+) and tying with Edouard Julien. Other noted projection systems view Kepler favorably, with FanGraphs’s ZiPS projecting him to perform 11% better than league average with 21 home runs and FanGraphs’s THE BAT X projecting him to perform 14% better with 20 home runs.

Despite consistently playing Gold Glove defense in right field, Kepler is a volatile offensive player who can go from looking unplayable to an All-Star-level bat in a matter of weeks. But his new approach at the plate seems sustainable, considering he has adopted Minnesota’s overarching team philosophy. The Twins value power and don’t mind striking out, evidenced by hitting the third-most home runs in MLB while simultaneously having the highest strikeout rate.

Having embraced this philosophy, there is reason to suspect Kepler could become a prolific power-hitting outfielder despite not benefitting from the juiced ball. After the All-Star break, Kepler hit 12 home runs with an astounding .243 ISO in 265 plate appearances, achieving a 24-home-run pace over a 162-game season. Despite having subpar (arguably DFA-worthy) play in the first half of the season, Kepler hit 12 home runs. He was hitting for power but in an inefficient manner. If Kepler can blend his uber-productive second half with his season-long power totals, he could come top 30 home runs for the second time in his career.

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Photo Credit: John Leyba-USA TODAY Sports

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