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Max Kepler is quietly heating up

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After a quiet start to the season, Max Kepler has been a much better hitter since the All-Star break.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Though Max Kepler made his major league debut in 2015, he became a full-time regular the following season. Though he bounced a little between Triple-A and the majors early in the year, he earned a permanent spot on the active roster on June 1st. Though his .235 batting average wasn’t encouraging, he walked an above-average 9.4% of the time while striking out a league average 21%. Overall, he hit .235/.309/.424 (93 wRC+) while playing well defensively in right field, accumulating an adequate 1.2 fWAR in his first chance at extended playing time.

Kepler put up nearly an identical season the following year, finishing the season with a 92 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR. Depending on your point of view, he didn’t really take a step forward, but there was no sophomore slump, either.

However, what was concerning was his inability to hit lefthanded pitching. With the hopes of him being an everyday player, being completely unplayable against southpaws was going to be a problem. Unfortunately, he took a step backwards in his second season, making it look more and more like he was going to be limited to platoon duty. Becoming Matt Joyce wasn’t the worst outcome, but with his athleticism the hope was for Kepler to be more than just a righty masher.

Max Kepler Platoon Splits by Season

Season Handedness PA AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+
Season Handedness PA AVG OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+
2016 vs. LHP 133 0.203 0.273 0.322 7.5 25.6 57
vs. RHP 314 0.248 0.325 0.468 10.2 18.8 107
2017 vs. LHP 125 0.152 0.213 0.24 5.1 29.2 16
vs. RHP 386 0.272 0.343 0.484 9.3 17.2 117
2018 vs. LHP 112 0.268 0.344 0.491 10.2 21.1 124
(thru Aug. 6th) vs. RHP 261 0.226 0.327 0.402 12.7 13.7 98

Surprisingly, Kepler has made a complete turnaround this season. We recognized it early in the season when he was smacking doubles off the fence, hitting homers over the wall, and overall just taking noticeably better at-bats against his same-handed foes. Through April, Kepler was hitting a robust .299/.358/.563 (147 wRC+) and it appeared that he was starting to realize his potential. However, May and June came and went and he came crashing down to earth. While a 15% walk rate helped him salvage the former with a 91 wRC+, the latter had a wRC+ of 27 and Kepler’s season line dropped to .221/.307/.391 (89 wRC+). With his struggles, we started to notice too that he just wasn’t hitting righthanded pitchers as well as he had in the past, as illustrated in the table above.

If we look at Kepler’s current 2018 batting stats, it appears that he’s doing his same ol’ same ol’. At .239/.332/.429, his batting average and slugging percentage is either at or near his career marks of .239 and .424, respectively. However, his OBP is currently 16 points above his career .316 OBP, which has led to a 2018 wRC+ of 106, by far the best mark of his career. This is because Kepler improved in July and has been scorching hot through the first week of August, mashing .284/.393/.529 (149 wRC+) in the middle of the summer.

While his overall line isn’t much different from his career numbers, there are other metrics that paint an encouraging picture. In addition to his improved plate discipline which includes striking out less along with the extra walks, his average exit velocity is up just a touch to 90 MPH while his average launch angle has increased to 15.6 degrees. Statcast has an expected wOBA stat and while it felt that Kepler outperformed its expectations in his first two seasons, it now paints a rosier picture in that it feels he’s now underperforming. Hopefully this latest breakout for Kepler is a sign that everything is now falling into place for him.

Along with Eddie Rosario and the surprising offensive output from Jake Cave, the Twins currently have three lefthanded outfielders that are either hitting well or are trending upwards in Kepler’s case. While the organization is out of the playoff race for this year, it would be nice to see Kepler continue his trend to solidify the team’s young foundation for the near future.