Going Deep: The Max Kepler Breakout is Finally Here
Coming into 2019, Max Kepler was always seen as a player who could do a lot of things well but always had the potential to get even better. He could hit well enough to be about league average, play well enough defensively in either center or right field and provided positive contributions on the basepaths. He was a frequent name on the breakout lists, and with good reason. 2018 was his most promising season to date, as he made improvements both in his plate discipline and his batted ball profile. He was walking at the highest rate of his career and cut down on his ground balls, but he still wasn’t getting the results that would push him over the edge as a hitter. The Twins did see some things that they liked, however, as they gave him a contract extension this past offseason that may very well end up looking like a bargain if Kepler continues playing like he has to start 2019. It appears that the breakout is finally happening and Kepler has emerged not only as one of the most important pieces in the first-place Minnesota Twins strong lineup, but also as one of the most improved players in baseball.
A Unique Blend
Before getting into the nitty-gritty about what about Kepler has caused this breakout, I first wanted to show how unique he is among other hitters in baseball. What stands out to me about Kepler is that despite being among the league leaders in ISO (isolated power), Kepler has not seen a change in his strikeout rate. In today’s game, power hitters are expected to swing and miss at a higher rate and strike out more. Kepler’s strikeout and swinging-strike rates are more in line for the type of hitter he was prior to this season, not a top tier power hitter. To illustrate this, take a look at this table showing the hitters who have been the most similar to Kepler this season:
This table shows all the qualified hitters in 2019 who have a strikeout rate of less than or equal to 21%, a walk rate greater than or equal to 10%, an ISO greater than or equal to .250 and a swinging-strike rate less than or equal to 12%. Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon really stand out (it’s hard to find a leaderboard where they aren’t at the top), but this sure looks like good company for Kepler and shows that he compares well to some of the best hitters in the game. Kepler has shown a unique blend of power and plate discipline, as he walks more than he strikes out and has a strong .279 ISO that rivals Anthony Rizzo and Alex Bregman, and he is especially similar to Matt Chapman. This should inspire confidence in Kepler, as his profile as a hitter is one that is usually associated with strong success.
So now we know how Kepler stacks up against other hitters, but what we really want to know is if this version of Max Kepler is for real. After all, any hitter can have a stretch like this in what is still not too big of a sample of plate appearances (308 of them to be exact, or a half season’s worth).
What I really wanted to see in Kepler’s case were noticeable differences in his approach at the plate. I would be hesitant to buy fully into Kepler’s breakout if I saw an approach similar to the 2018 Kepler. Fortunately, there are significant improvements in this area and there is a lot to like about them. The first notable improvement I found was that Kepler is making a lot more hard contact this season. Using Statcast, I was able to find the rates of barrels and solid contact—the two hardest contact labels from Statcast—for both 2018 and 2019 for all qualified hitters. I calculated the difference between the 2019 and 2018 rates and then sorted by the biggest improvement. Sure enough, Kepler shows up among the top biggest improvers. He is tied for 12th with Rendon and Rafael Devers among qualified hitters with the biggest improvement in their rate of barrels and solid contact rate, and Kepler is also top-20 among qualified hitters in his rate of barrels and solid contact. This helps to explain the jumps he’s made statistically, but doesn’t quite explain how. To show more about how he has made such a big improvement, here is a table comparing the new and improved Kepler in 2019 to 2018 Kepler:
|Pull %||Swing %||Z-Swing %||Swinging Strike %||Barrels + Solid Contact %||BB %||K %||ISO||wOBA||xwOBA||xwOBA on contact|
This table shows where Kepler is different this season from 2018. It appears Kepler has developed a more aggressive and more pull-heavy approach at the plate. He has been swinging a lot more often, especially at pitches inside the strike zone (Z-Swing%). Doing this has not caused his strikeout rate to jump, as it has held stagnant from 2018 to 2019, and although there have been more swing and misses, an 8.6 swinging strike rate is still very good, as shown in the previous table. Another thing to like is that the Statcast measures xwOBA and xwOBA on contact seem to support Kepler’s breakout. He was seen as more around league average by those numbers last year to going well above the .320 average in both wOBA and xwOBA.
The pull-heavy approach is also interesting to look at for Kepler. In 2018, Kepler struggled mightily on pitches on the inside portion of the plate. He has turned those struggles into a strength in 2019, showing a big improvement on his wOBA on contact on those pitches. See for yourself:
The first image is from 2018 and the second is from 2019. The worst zone for Kepler in terms of wOBA on contact has become one of his best this year, an improvement that is definitely showing up in the rest of his numbers, and with a .445 xwOBA on contact in that area of the strike zone, it certainly does not seem like a fluke. All told, it looks like the more aggressive, pull-heavy version of Max Kepler is helping drive his 2019 breakout.
Because no player is perfect, there are still some things about Kepler’s profile that I don’t particularly like, and I have to bring them up. The main thing that jumps out to me that gives me pause about Kepler is his high infield fly ball rate. At 16.3%, it is among the highest in the game and sits inside the top 10 highest. In 2018, this sat at a more desirable 10.8%, and while this may be a side effect of swinging more, seeing this large increase in what are basically automatic outs is a concern. In fact, I looked at the rate of strikeouts and infield fly balls (automatic outs) for all qualified hitters. The league average is 29.3% and Kepler sits at 31.6%.
One particular oddity is that Kepler is one out of a handful of players to have a higher infield fly ball rate than strikeout rate. The key with these facts is that while Kepler does strike out less than the average player does, he does still make a high rate of automatic outs when you look at his rate of infield fly balls plus strikeout rates. Let’s compare Kepler to the same players as in the first table, but this time let’s look only at walk rate, strikeout rate, infield fly ball rate, and the aptly named “automatic out rate”:
|Name||K %||IFFB%||Automatic Out%|
When we incorporate infield fly ball rate, Kepler’s low strikeout rate doesn’t make him look as impressive compared to the other hitters in this table. While he is not the worst among these hitters in automatic outs, it is still something I think should be kept in mind when evaluating Kepler in the future. One bit of positive news to take away from this is that Kepler has been able to have great success this season despite a large amount of infield fly balls, so by cutting down on them in the future, it could perhaps lead to even more success going forward.
There isn’t much doubt that Max Kepler has fully broken out in 2019. By incorporating a pull-heavy approach at the plate and swinging more at pitches in the zone, Kepler has been able to make more quality contact. Combining those improvements with his outstanding plate discipline skills, Kepler has a profile that compares well with some of the best hitters in the game. It’s not all good news though, as Kepler can still improve by working to cut down on his infield fly ball rate, as that increased rate of automatic outs is among the highest in the game, and it is more difficult for a hitter to reach his full potential with such a great amount of infield fly balls. However, I do feel like there is a lot more to like about Kepler’s 2019 than to dislike, and I believe that this breakout is sustainable going forward. It has been a long time coming, but it truly appears that everyone’s favorite German ballplayer is here to stay.
Featured Image courtesy of Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire