Happy Postseason, Twins Territory! We can now begin the familiar offseason routine of yelling at the Pohlads and debating over which over-the-hill starting pitcher the Twins will ride to a 5.50 ERA next year. After an injury-plagued and overall disappointing 2022 season, the Twins will have to retool their roster to make a run at the AL Central in 2023. One major decision they will have to make involves longtime outfielder Max Kepler, as they need to decide whether he will be part of their plans moving forward.
What Happened to Max in 2022?
In 2022, Kepler posted an OPS of .666 (Happy Halloween!), which is the lowest mark of his career outside of his three-game cameo in 2015. In looking at his batted-ball metrics, one would think that Kepler was an above-average hitter. Here’s how Max ranks by percentile in some key hitting metrics against the rest of the MLB:.
- K%: 88th percentile.
- BB%: 84th percentile.
- Expected Batting Average: 80th percentile.
While Kepler’s walk, strikeout, and expected batting average metrics seems to suggest a successful hitter, he ended up posting an actual batting average of .227, and a career-worst slugging percentage of .348. Kepler has traditionally posted a low batting average, but his numbers have been buoyed by taking walks and having an impactful slugging percentage. His slugging percentage of .348 ranked 229th among hitters with 300+ plate appearances, a far cry from his best season in 2019 (.519) and his career mark (.413).
How has Kepler’s once extra-base-heavy approach been muzzled? It is largely due to his inability to avoid hitting ground balls into the soon-to-be-extinct shift. Kepler hit grounders at a rate of 45.7% in 2022, his highest mark since his rookie season. For reference point, Kepler hit 36.1% groundballs and 46.6% flyballs in 2019, his signature season. If the “juiced ball” crowd needs another season to look at, Kepler had 32.4% groundballs and 45.6% flyballs in 2020, in which he posted a much more palatable slugging percentage of .413.
Another factor in this is that Max has always been a pull-side hitter, as he only hit 21.8% of his batted balls to the opposite field in 2022. Pulling the ball was successful for Max in 2019 and 2020, as he posted similar batted ball percentage, but he was able to lift the ball over the shift and do significant damage. Combining ground balls and constant pull-side usage drove down Kepler’s numbers across the board. Kepler has always been a pull hitter and it does not seem as though that will change (I can hear Twins Territory yelling “JUST HIT THE BALL THE OTHER WAY DAMMIT”).
On top of shifting on defense, pitchers have caught onto how to get Max to pull the ball into the shift. See the heat map below, Max saw a steady diet of pitches below the zone, as pitchers tried to goad him into rolling the ball into the shift.
As you can see by the next heat map, Kepler hit a large amount of the pitches he saw most frequently into the ground.
Kepler also saw a shift in 89.9% of his plate appearances in 2022, which ranks him as the 13th-most shifted player in the MLB. However, as covered by Jonathan Gamble for Twinkie Town, the shift will be a thing of the past in 2023. Teams will no longer be able to move three infielders to Kepler’s pull side with the banning of the shift, as teams will be required to have two infielders on each side of second base. Also, all the infielders will have to have their “feet in the dirt,” as the player frequently seen in short right field will now need to play in the infield.
Across the MLB, there is expected to be an increase in offense with the shift being banned, but it remains to be seen what the degree of the impact will be. Teams will still be able to move their defense around to combat hitting tendencies, but they will be much more limited. Kepler will most likely be a large beneficiary, as his hitting profile should benefit greatly from the shift being gone.
In Defense of Max’s Defense
While Kepler’s hitting took a step back in 2022, he turned in one of his finest seasons as a right fielder. According to Baseball Savant, Kepler ranked in the 97th percentile in Outs Above Average, posting a mark of 11 outs above average, good enough for 17th in the MLB. As strictly a right fielder, Kepler’s 12 outs above average was the top mark among right fielders in the MLB, including besting Mookie Betts and Aaron Judge. According to Baseball Savant, Kepler completed 5% more plays than expected, posting a 91% success rate versus an 86% estimated success rate. Since 2016, only Betts (59) has posted more total outs above average among right fielders than Kepler (51).
Baseball Reference is also high on Kepler’s defense, but not quite as bullish as Baseball Savant. Kepler ranked 5th according to Baseball Reference in their Fielding Runs and Defensive WAR statistics for 2022. Since 2016, Kepler ranks fourth in Fielding Runs (47) and third in Defensive WAR (3.0) amongst right fielders. Regardless of which website you pull your metrics from, Kepler ranks as one of the top defensive right fielders in baseball. While his hitting has raised some concerns, Kepler’s defense will no doubt be a positive to consider in keeping him or not.
Should the Twins Pay Max Kepler?
A couple other factors also play into the decision on what to do with Kepler. The first is his modest, and team-friendly contract. The Twins owe Kepler $8.5 million for 2023, along with either a $10 million team option or a $1 million buyout for 2024. As Kepler enters his age-30 season, he enters what is certainly a make-or-break sort of season if he is going to secure a big payday.
Another factor that the Twins must consider is the influx of young outfielders that they have ready to contribute at the MLB level. Matt Wallner got a cup of coffee at the end of 2022 and was the Twins’ minor league player of the year. Trevor Larnach looks ready to be constant contributor once he returns from injury. The Twins will also need to find a role for once-touted prospect Alex Kirilloff. Gilberto Celestino just finished a full season in the outfield for the Twins. Kyle Garlick is a frequent contributor in the corner outfield against lefties. Depending upon how the infield depth works out, Royce Lewis or Jose Miranda may need to spend some time in the corner outfield. The Twins still need to figure out where Austin Martin fits in the field. Hell, maybe the Twins will sign Aaron Judge. Somehow, injuries wiped out almost this entire list in 2023, but the Twins will have some decisions to be made moving forward.
There are a lot of moving parts that will factor into whether Kepler will return in 2023. If the Twins are willing to bet on a bounce-back season, it will be interesting to see if he can reclaim his slugging prowess with no shift in his way. Otherwise, if the Twins look to move him, it’ll be interesting to see if someone is willing to bet on a solid outfielder on a team-friendly contract, and what sort of price that would demand.