Since the 2016 season, Max Kepler has been a fixture in the Twins outfield. Typically manning right field, he hasn’t excelled in any one field but has been adequate offensively, defensively, and on the bases. Thus, he’s accumulated 3 fWAR over a little less than two whole seasons despite having a less than impressive .239/.313/.428 triple slash over his career.
While Kepler likely will settle in as a solid role player, one that doesn’t dazzle you but is capable of being an above-average regular, he’s had one huge weakness early in his career. Though he has handled righthanded pitchers just fine in his career (.261/.336/.479, 114 wRC+), he has been completely unplayable against lefties (.176/.245/.282, 38 wRC+). When you think of offensive futility, you might think of Drew Butera, but even he has had more success against lefties (career 43 wRC+) and Butera even has the platoon advantage against them.
Therefore, it might have been a little odd to see Kepler left in the game on April 2nd when Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle brought in lefty Josh Smoker to quell a Twins rally. In spite of the odds, Kepler hit an RBI double to the center field fence that cut the deficit to one run. Likewise, a similar feeling likely occurred when Kepler was penciled in as the starting right fielder against Mariners southpaw James Paxton. (Eddie Rosario sat that game despite having a career .273 batting average against LHP.) Paxton held Kepler hitless over three at-bats, though Kepler did put the ball in play all three times.
Kepler has recorded only five plate appearances against lefties this season, though it’s not due to a lack of trying as the Twins have only faced two southpaw starting pitchers this season (Paxton and Houston’s Dallas Keuchel, with Kepler sitting against Keuchel). I’m conflicted with what the Twins should do. On one hand, it would be beneficial to see if Kepler can figure out how to hit his same-sided opponents so he shed was appears to be an inevitable platoon label. However, the Twins need to be interested in winning as many games as possible and having Robbie Grossman (career 109 wRC+ vs. LHP) replace him may be worth the defensive downgrade.
I’m not sure what the actual solution is, but I do know the Twins try to use data of comparable major leaguers to determine who should earn a start. In Kepler’s case, it’s possible that their numbers said that he’d be a good match to face Paxton but not Keuchel. Regardless, I’d want the Twins to put him and the rest of their players in the best situations to succeed, however that may be determined. Kepler can still have a solid major league career even if he never figures out lefthanded pitching, but I feel it will be the one thing that determines if he can be more than just a role player.