The question I pose to you today is this: Could Max Kepler become the greatest European baseball player ever?
To figure out what kind of chance Max has, I used the birthplace index tool on Baseball Reference. Using this, I was able to find all the players that were born in European countries. I narrowed it down to players from the Live Ball Era (1920-on). After this, I was able to parse out 6 players with European birthplaces who currently have a higher career WAR total than Kepler does (plus Ron Gardenhire). However, Kepler’s case gets more interesting if we narrow down our definition of “European” past just being born in Europe.
The Contender: Max Kepler, Germany
2015-2019; 11.50 WAR
A young player still on the up-swing of his career trajectory, Kepler has a very solid WAR total thus far. The next four to five years of his career ought to be his peak years, so he’s in excellent position to amount a good career total. Kepler was born and raised in Germany, and his father is Polish. Kepler is the epitome of “Truly European”, which could give him an upper hand in the debate, depending on your opinion.
Honorable Mention: Ron Gardenhire, Germany
1981-1985; 0.8 WAR
I bet you didn’t know that our dearest Gardy was born in Germany! The longtime Twins manager was the child of a U.S. military family who was based in Germany at the time. The family later moved to Oklahoma, where Gardenhire attended high school. Gardy is not really European at all, even though he was born in Germany.
#6: Didi Gregorius, The Netherlands
2012-2019 (active); 17.55 WAR
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the beloved Gardy, we have the noted Twins-killer, shortstop Didi Gregorius. The former Yankee was born in The Netherlands to parents with Curacao-an heritage, and the family moved back to Curacao when Gregorius was young. Gregorius has a relatively good case for being “Truly European”, although Curacao is not in Europe. Kepler also has a good chance at passing Didi in WAR, as he’s not far behind him despite playing less years thus far.
#5: Glenn Hubbard, Germany
1978-1989; 19.22 WAR
Hubbard, a light-hitting second baseman for the Braves and A’s, was another U.S. Army child born in Germany, like Gardenhire. His family moved back to California while he was a child, where Hubbard grew up playing baseball. I would give Kepler about an 80% shot at passing his career WAR total, as well as the fact that Hubbard really isn’t European at all.
#4: Moe Drabowsky, Poland
1956-1972; 19.64 WAR
Like Kepler, Drabowsky was born to an American mother and a Polish father. His story is an interesting one in that he was born to a Jewish mother, in Poland, in 1935. As you may know, the following years were not a good time to be of Jewish heritage in Poland. As such, Drabowsky and his mother fled the country, moving to the United States in 1938. Drabowsky grew up playing baseball in America, and went on to have a solid MLB career as a starter/reliever. Kepler should be able to clear 19.64 WAR fairly easily in his career.
#3: Elmer Valo, Slovakia
1940-1961; 28.30 WAR
A former (one-year) Twin himself, Valo was born to Slovakian parents, and moved to the United States at the age of six. He grew up in America playing baseball, which culminated in a long MLB career. The former rightfielder was a member of the charter Minnesota Twins squad, before getting traded after 33 games. He would end his career at the end of that season. I’d give Kepler about a 40% chance at passing Elmer’s WAR total, but Kepler does have the stronger claim to being “Truly European”.
#2: Bobby Thomson, Scotland
The Giants outfielder who smacked the famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”, Thomson was born to Scottish parents, in Scotland. He was the youngest of six kids, and the family immigrated to Staten Island when Bobby was only two years old. Thomson has easily the most storied career of any of the players we’ve looked at thus far, and it’s unlikely that Kepler will go down in baseball lore like he has. Max has an outside shot at reaching Thomson’s WAR total.
#1: Bert Blyleven, The Netherlands
1970-1992; 94.52 WAR
No, that is not a misprint. Bert actually reached 94.52 WAR in his career. Far and away the best player on this list, the former Twin is an absolute Hall of Fame legend. I will not argue that Kepler will ever be as great as Blyleven. However, this is where it really comes down to the definition of “European”. Bert was born to Dutch parents in The Netherlands. However, he only spent two years of his life there, and was raised primarily in California.
The central question to Max Kepler’s chances at becoming the greatest European MLB player of all time is this: What do you mean by “European”?
A. Do you just have to be born in Europe to be considered European?
B. Does European heritage, on top of being born in Europe, qualify you as a true European?
C. Or is that not enough? Do you need to be raised in Europe on top of these two things?
I think that I would probably go with letter B. as my answer, which means Kepler will likely peak as the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th greatest European baseball player. I don’t see any scenario where he surpasses Blyleven, which is no slight to Max.
However, if you consider that letter C. is what it takes to be “European”, Max already is the greatest European baseball player. Kepler is the only one who can check off all the boxes here. He’s a truly unique player in baseball history, and we’re lucky to have the privilege of watching him.