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To the Max: An appreciation of Kepler’s defensive development

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The Twins’ young rightfielder has brought more glove than advertised and has been a boon to the team’s ‘D’

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins
Max Kepler enjoyed a superlative season with the glove in 2016.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

On March 16, MLB Statcast maven Mike Petriello posted an article — part of the Statcast team’s ongoing, teasing rollout of statistical goodies in advance of the 2017 season — that highlighted the 2016 Twins outfield’s aptitude for “Five-Star Plays.”

A Five-Star Play is precisely what you’d think it is: the most difficult play an outfielder can make, determined using Statcast’s Catch Probability stat, which divines difficulty based on the outfielder’s distance traveled and the time he had to track it down.

As Petriello mentions, the Twins being tied (with the Reds) for first in MLB in stellar defensive glovesmanship is a bit surprising, considering the team’s outfield ineptitude in recent years.

(He even brings up some old wounds from which Twins fans are still smarting ...

Three years ago, the 2014 Twins outfield of Jason Kubel, Chris Parmelee, Aaron Hicks and Arcia had the seventh-worst DRS score of the 420 team seasons on record dating back to 2003.

Petriello ably covers all the grisly details vis a vis the Twins’ longstanding outfield ineptitude.

By any metric you might want to use, the Twins' outfield hasn't been a strength for a long time. According to Statcast™, the group converted the fifth-lowest percentage of catchable batted balls into outs last year. According to Defensive Runs Saved, their -30 runs mark was the third worst in 2016, and if you look at the period spanning the last five seasons, from 2012-16, their -84 runs was also third-worst, a full 275 runs worse than the No. 1 Royals. Given that Kansas City had 79 more wins in that span, and the shorthand is "10 runs equal approximately one win," you could argue that about a third of the difference in team success was in just outfield defense.

Given that Minnesota has traditionally had a pitch-to-contact staff that allows a ton of balls in play, putting a leaky outfield defense behind that has never seemed like a recipe for success, an issue we've been following for years. Even if you don't care for the metrics, manager Paul Molitor specifically told the local media last summer that the outfield defense remained a serious issue.

Twins, your outfield. Woof.

But, as Petriello points out, though the Twins’ outfield ‘D’ didn’t pull a complete 180° — giving significant outfield playing time to Oswaldo Arcia, Miguel Sano and Danny Santana does have consequences, after all — the team did excel at collecting highlights, joining a collection of teams that look far sitting atop a Five-Star leaderboard.

Most "Five-Star Plays" by an outfield in 2016

18 -- Twins

18 -- Reds

17 -- Royals

14 -- Braves

13 -- White Sox

You're not surprised to see the Reds there (largely due to Hamilton) or the Royals (thanks to Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain) or the Braves (fueled by Ender Inciarte) or the White Sox (who benefited from Adam Eaton before he was traded to Washington). But the Twins? The team with a history of subpar defense, who still dealt with a lot of those issues last year? How did they make the cut?

Much to no Twins fan’s surprise, Byron Buxton logging more centerfield innings constituted much of that ‘16 improvement. Because he can do this stuff.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Twins rookie rightfielder Max Kepler featured prominently in Five-Star Plays; the young German tallied six Five-Star Plays, as many as Buxton and tied for the team lead.

Byron Buxton gets his fair share of love for the glove. Let’s take some time to appreciate Maximillian Kepler.

Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins
Max catch ball.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Better than advertised

Back in his prospect-eligible days, prospect publications didn’t pay much mind to Max Kepler’s glove; the one guarantee, in every iteration of Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook, to take one example, is that the writer would mention that Kepler’s parents were ballet dancers — and I don’t blame them! That’s the kind of odd tidbit that sportswriters scarf right up.

Here’s the blurb on his fielding from the 2011 Prospect Handbook, the second version of the Handbook after he had signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old in July of 2009 and the first after he’d gotten a taste of professional baseball:

Scouts often describe him as balletic or graceful, because they like the joke and because he’s an athletic, coordinated big man. … Kepler has the range, speed and fringy arm strength to profile as an average defender in center field.

In 2012:

Signed as a center fielder, Kepler has started to fill out and has slowed down to an average runner. He’ll have to work to remain a center fielder and even mixed in some time at first base last summer. Still a teenager, he’s raw defensively with a fringy arm that may limit him to left field if he can’t play center.

In 2013:

Kepler’s fringy arm fits better in left than in right, and he also has gotten work at first base.

In 2014:

Sent to the Arizona Fall League, Kepler played first base almost exclusively, showing the soft hands and improved range to project as an above-average defender at the position. His below-average arm hurts him, but he has the athletic ability to play left field as well.

In 2015:

Playing first for just a dozen games, he focused most of his effort on playing all three outfield positions at high Class A Fort Myers. His arm remains average at best, but he uses his athletic ability well to run down balls in the outfield

That 2015 entry is the best Kepler gets: “he uses his athletic ability well to run down balls in the outfield.” But, going off these entries, you’d be forgiven for not having high hopes for Max Kepler, Professional Outfielder.

But Kepler was legit in right field in 2016. Baseball Reference’s Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average metric had him at 9 runs above average per 1,2000 innings. (That’s roughly 135 games, which they consider a full season at one position.)

Fangraphs pegged Kepler as good with his arm, which was slightly above average, and his range, which was terrific. Where Fangraphs dinged Kepler was Error Runs Above Average, which was at -1.2 for the young German; his range got him to a lot of balls, but there were some flubs once he got himself in position.

Kepler’s problem was consistency, as Petriello notes, which is of course common among rookies.

Yet while Kepler is capable of the great play, there's still work to be done on overall consistency. While Buxton, for example, hauled in 88 percent of the potentially catchable balls hit to him, Kepler managed to get only 82 percent ... Like with the bat, consistency is a skill on defense as well, though Kepler only just turned 24 in February.

Kepler’s most memorable miscue came against the Artist Formerly known as B.J. Upton in late August.

And that is the story of how Melvin Upton Jr. hit a 74-mph, 227-foot Little League home run. Don’t forget to tell your children.

But we are not here to impugn young Max. Nay, we are here to celebrate him.

So, behold, in advance of the fast-approaching first pitch of Opening Day, another reason to be excited for 2017 Twins baseball. A full season of all this.

Yum.

Scrumptious.

I’ll have what he’s having.

Opening Day is near and I’m so damn excited for the 2017 Twins season, and one big reason is the Twins’ outfield defense, which should provide no shortage of delicious catches and dives.

Damn, that’s balletic.