Going Deep: New Year, New Max Kepler
Last May, our own Alex Isherwood pronounced that Max Kepler was ready to breakout. However, here we are, the next offseason, asking the same question we did before the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Is this Kepler’s year? Unfortunately, Kepler finished his 2018 campaign with career lows in runs batted in, stolen bases, batting average, and slugging percentage. So much for that breakout season for the soon to be 26 year old. Back during Kepler’s hot start to his 2018 campaign, Alex focused on a number of peripheral statistics pointing to the continuing success of Kepler: fly ball rate, average launch angle, swinging strike rate, strikeout rate, hard-hit rate, and average exit velocity. At the time of the article last year, Kepler only had 157 plate appearances. That is not a notably large sample. Despite the unfortunate struggles throughout the remainder of the season, he still took forward strides in his hitting approach.
Kepler ended the year hitting the ball about as hard as he had the previous years. That appealing 43.3% hard hit rate through mid-May dropped for the remainder of the year. From May 18th on, his hard hit rate was to 34.8%. He ended the season at 37.1% with an exit velocity of 89.5 mph. His average exit velocity remained consistent with previous years, and he increased his hard hit rate by only about 4%. What seemed to be a fundamental change was gone as soon as you can say “small sample size.” Despite these similar results, Kepler finished the year with almost twice as many barrels as his previous career high (29 from 16). This stat is telling us something. Kepler may be hitting the ball about as hard as before, but he has still changed his approach in some way to create better contact.
If Kepler is hitting the ball as hard as he’s been, but generating better contact and more barrels, he must be hitting the ball in the air. Indeed he is. From that hot start, his fly ball rate stayed around 46% all season increasing almost 7% from 2017 and a full 10% from 2016. Correspondingly, his average launch angle jumped from 12.7 to 16.1 degrees. He has been transforming into more and more of a fly ball hitter, with the seventh highest rate in the league, a few spots behind Khris Davis. However, he has the second lowest line drive rate, only one behind Davis. This comparison may catch you off guard at first. And that is for good reason, as Davis hits about 10% less soft contact than Kepler. This statistic translates most notably to HR/FB. Davis sits nicely at 24.1% while Kepler is only at 9.9%. Despite Kepler’s consistent hard hit rate and exit velocity, his HR/FB has dropped 3% each season. There is major inconsistency there, so do not expect it to drop further. One may expect it to pop back up at least to his 2017 number. Additionally, Kepler’s BABIP was remarkably low at .236, 40 points below 2017, and the third lowest among qualified batters. Again, with the consistent batted ball profile and increasing fly ball rate, look for an improved BABIP as well.
Those slight batted ball improvements may be the result of Kepler’s most notable change from last season; his plate discipline. He increased his walk rate by 3.3% up to 11.6% and dropped his strikeout rate by 4.4% down to 15.7%. That is Lorenzo Cain level patience. Essentially, Kepler improved all his plate discipline numbers drastically. His O-swing went down, while his Z-swing increased. Kepler’s O-contact and overall contact rate increased, while also decreasing his swinging strike percentage by 2% to 7.1%. These are not elite, but they are good and also improving significantly. Kepler must have been focusing on improving specific weak points last offseason and throughout 2018.
Kepler displayed two glaring holes in his hitting in 2017. First, he couldn’t touch breaking pitches.
In 140 plate appearances, Kepler hit .152 with a .288 slugging and .203 wOBA against all breaking pitches. This was far below his overall .315 wOBA and his .363 wOBA against fastballs. He struck out 37.1% against them and while whiffing 34.6% of the time. Kepler certainly took these struggles to heart with his improved plate discipline. Every aspect of his ability to hit breaking pitches improved in 2018. He still hit a measly .208 thanks to his miserable BABIP (still a bit better than 2017), but his wOBA increased 100 points t0 .305. As his improved eye insinuates, he walked more (1.4% to 5.2%) and struck out less (37.1% to 25.4%). Hole number one is filled.
Kepler was not done with that shovel in 2018. He filled up the second hole too; lefty pitching. He had one of the largest lefty-righty splits in the Majors in 2017, finishing with an abysmal 16 wRC+ in 137 plate appearances versus left-handed pitching. With a corresponding 117 wRC+ against righties, one thought was if Kepler could figure out how to hit lefties even just a little, overall improvement may be found. To much surprise, Kepler didn’t just improve a little. He ended up hitting better against lefties than righties, although relatively close with a 101 versus a 95 wRC+. That is a massive jump. Kepler still had kept splits crown in 2018 despite his lefty improvements. He felt significantly more comfortable at Target Field, sporting a 132 wRC+. On the road, his .203 BABIP kept his away wRC+ at 64. Again, expect his BABIP to improve especially on the road.
Alex’s initial findings with Kepler’s improvements in 2018 were not all unfounded. His hard-hit rate and fly ball rate both showed overall increases throughout the entire season. In addition, Kepler kept his strikeout rate in check as well, improving all aspects of his plate discipline. He also discovered how to hit breaking balls and lefties. His main obstacles in 2018 were his absurdly low BABIP and his ever-declining HR/FB rate. Furthermore, with the addition of Nelson Cruz in the middle of that lineup, Kepler gets much-needed help with his counting stats. As long as his new approach at the plate continues, we can expect a better 2019 from Kepler and that potential breakout we have all been wishing for.
(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)