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Max Kepler is showing why he got the long contract

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The new leadoff man is off to a great start for the Twins

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editor’s note: Today we welcome Cooper Carlson to the front page. You may have seen his fanposts under the name mntwinstalk.

When Max Kepler signed his five year, $35 million dollar extension this past offseason, there were a few differing opinions about it. Some thought Max didn’t bet on himself and would soon be underpaid for his value, while some people thought we were already seeing the best of Max Kepler. I have always sided with the people who think Kepler still has a lot of talent to show off, and that seems to already be showing early in 2019.

Although it is a small sample size, Kepler has improved in just about every offensive statistic so far in 2019 (stats below show improvement from 2018 to 2019 and then his current stat):

  • AVG: +49 points (.273)
  • OPS: +92 points (.819)
  • BABIP: +54 points (.290)
  • wOBA: +31 points (.347)
  • LD%: +4.7% (20.6%)
  • Barrel%: +5.2% (11.8%)
  • Exit Velocity: + 2.5 MPH (92.0)
  • Hard hit%: +13.5% (51.5%)

So as we are just beginning the season he has shown the signs of becoming the hitter that the Twins front office believes he can be. The improvement that catches my eye the most is the batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In 2018 he was the third worst in all of baseball with a .236 BABIP. That requires a lot of bad luck and it’s not like he wasn’t hitting the ball hard. He was ranked in the mid fifties for hard hit percentage last season so there wasn’t a good reason as to why the balls he was hitting weren’t resulting in hits. To see him hitting .290 in that category is a really good sign of what is to come for Max.

Something else you may have noticed if you watch the Twins once in a while is that Max Kepler is swinging the bat much more than we are used to. He is swinging at the first pitch of an at bat 51.1% (27% in 2018) of the time and swinging at any pitch 54.2% of the time. This approach is much different than than in 2018 when he swung 42.2% of the time. Perhaps the most important stat to come out of this is the fact that he’s not just swinging at these pitches, he’s hitting almost all of them. When a pitch is thrown in the strike zone, Kepler has hit 96.6% of them and that ranks third in the MLB.

Below are Kepler’s swing percentages over the last two years. 2018 (top) versus 2019 (bottom)

One of the most surprising outcomes of Spring Training was the fact that Kepler had become the leadoff hitter. Before 2019 he had never hit leadoff in the majors, his only previous experience was rookie ball but new manager Rocco Baldelli seems to really like Kepler in that spot. In fact he would often text mock lineup cards to Derek Falvey during the offseason and most of them had Kep in the leadoff spot from the beginning. He’s obviously not your typical leadoff hitter, but the coaches like the power and the quality of at bats he brings to the table.

The final point on Max Kepler is that his power is looking very good to start the year. He has seen increases in his barrel%, exit velocity, launch angle and slugging. Also, if you’re into player comparisons, Statcast has Max Kepler as a similar batter to the Astros Alex Bregman.

Overall we are still early in the season but I thought we may as well take a look at this because the new manager combined with Keps new roll in the leadoff spot could both lead to consistent results of what we are seeing right now.