Simply put, a lot of things went wrong for the Minnesota Twins in 2018. Core players like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton woefully underperformed. There were also numerous busts among the many free agent additions made late last spring including Lance Lynn and Logan Morrison. Despite all the frustration caused by the players named above, a player not yet named in this article left me ripping my hair out, and that was Max Kepler. His name has come up in trade negotiations this offseason, but the Twins seem very hesitant to move him. A look at some nerdy advanced statistics from Fangraphs can tell us why.
Let’s start with the less nerdy stuff. One of the invaluable tools a hitter can have in today’s MLB is elite plate discipline. Kepler’s 15.7 percent strikeout rate was the 32nd best in baseball. In fact, it put him one spot ahead of former teammate Joe Mauer (15.8). His walk rate of 11.6 percent ranked 24th in the majors. These numbers give Kepler a .74 K/BB ratio which is good for 16th in the league. Some of the other players in the top 30 in this category include Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve, Francisco Lindor, Manny Machado, Alex Bregman, Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, Matt Carpenter, and Anthony Rendon. The point I’m trying to make is that elite hitters have elite plate discipline, and that is exactly what Kepler displayed in 2019.
Now for the more nerdy stuff. Kepler has fully embraced the fly ball revolution that has swept through baseball. His 46.2 percent fly ball rate was the seventh-highest in the league last season. His 37.1 percent hard contact rate was not elite, but at 75th in the league, it’s still above average. The problem with Kepler was his .236 BABIP. He was extremely unlucky. Now to be fair, Kepler doesn’t profile as a high BABIP guy. His 19.4 percent soft contact rate was high. And his 15.9 percent line drive rate was tied for the worst in the league. However, the average MLB BABIP is around .300. Kepler could see a regression of over 50 points and still be below average.
The other big knock on Kepler has been his struggles against left-handed pitching. He put those to rest in 2018 as well. He hit .245 against lefties last year, after hitting only .152 against them in 2017.
I know the traditional numbers were terrible. A .224 average and a .727 OPS are both unacceptable. However, the data above says that Kepler is a lot better than those numbers indicate. Kepler has massive breakout potential in 2019 if the gains he made against lefties last season were legitimate.
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