(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)
Max Kepler was a popular sleeper pick after his 2016 rookie season, when he slashed .235/.309/.424 with 17 HRs in 447 PAs. Those high hopes were largely let down when Kepler followed up with a .243/.312/.425 line that looked pretty similar to his output the year before. There were a few promising signs, namely a reduction in groundball rate from 47.2% to 42.8% and modest increase in xwOBA from .291 to .301, though there was much less hype for Kepler entering the 2018 season. A glance at his slash rates this year may not reveal much improvement (.241/.318/.440), though there’s plenty behind it that has changed.
The first notable adjustment in Kepler’s profile is an increase in flyball rate from 39.5% in 2017 to 45.8% this year. Correspondingly, his average launch angle has increased from 12.7 to 15.4 degrees. Kepler was a completely different hitter just two years ago. Here’s a look at his launch angle distribution back in 2016:
And now in 2018:
These changes have been gradual over the past two seasons, but Kepler appears to have convincingly transitioned into a true flyball hitter. In most cases, this comes at the cost of contact, though Kepler’s swinging strike rate (7.3%) and overall strikeout rate (13.4%) are both career lows. He’s in good company among hitters with a sub-8% swinging strike rate and plus-40% flyball rate:
There are few hitters able to sustain an elevated swing plane without sacrificing much contact. But it’s not enough to just hit flyballs. Kepler also boasts career bests 43.3% hard-hit rate and 90.5 mph average exit velocity. With his batted ball data, Baseball Savant expects a .261 AVG, .514 SLG, and .362 wOBA.
Even with middling actual results, there has been another bright spot in Kepler’s season. Prior to 2018, he’s struggled against left-handed pitchers, slashing just .176/.242/.259 against them with a 27.7% strikeout rate and 6.3% walk rate. In an admittedly small sample size of 33 PAs this year, Kepler’s slash line is .303/.361/.606 with a 13.9% strikeout rate and 8.3% walk rate. It should be monitored if he can continue to start against lefties and perform, but it’s an encouraging sign that Kepler can possibly overcome his extreme platoon splits.
Kepler is unowned in the majority of fantasy leagues, but he deserves a closer look even though on the surface it may appear to be more of the same. You won’t find many players with similar batted ball and plate discipline profiles on the waiver wire.