This offseason, we’ll look at players around the majors whose 2019 seasons were overlooked for various reasons. This week’s edition focuses on Twins outfielder Max Kepler.
The first player from Germany to take the field professionally in the United States was George Heubel. He debuted for the Philadelphia Athletics in the National Association in May 1871 and made his final appearance in August 1876 with the New York Mutuals. The most recent player from Germany is Max Kepler, who debuted with the Twins on Sept. 27, 2015. In a whopping 23 career games, Heubel was exactly replacement level, as best as that metric can be measured by 1870s standards. Meanwhile, Kepler has been worth nearly 11 wins above replacement since his first game. And where Heubel has been relegated to obscurity, Kepler is not yet getting the attention for his play that he deserves.
In 2019, the Twins led baseball with 307 home runs, and Kepler was responsible for 36 of those. He trailed only Nelson Cruz (41) on this team. Kepler had hit 20 home runs in 2018 for a career high and then nearly doubled that total in 15 fewer plate appearances this year.
Before this past season, Kepler was only a marginally good player, posting a just below average wRC+ each year. There were signs of improvement, like a drop in his strikeout rate and an increase in his walk rate from 2017 to 2018 and an increase in hard contact. But Kepler looked different in 2019, namely with the fly balls he hit leaving the yard at a much higher rate than in the past.
There are questions swirling around MLB regarding how the baseballs have changed in the past couple of seasons, but Kepler’s home run spike accompanied improvements in other areas. His hard contact rate (42.4 percent) was the highest he’s posted in his career by more than 5 percent, and that lead to an ISO jump from .184 in 2018 to .267 in 2019. Kepler is also steadily improving on defense.
All of this got him some attention — enough for a couple of down-ballot votes for American League MVP — but not enough for the kind of season Kepler had.
Why did we sleep on this guy?
Usually a leap forward in production yields some attention, but in Kepler’s case it really didn’t. Despite having 21 home runs and a .263/.337/.523 slash line at the All-Star break, Kepler did not get an All-Star nod.
It’s possible that Kepler’s performance in 2019 was mostly overlooked because as the Twins were leading all of baseball in firepower, he was one of 11 Minnesota hitters who reached double-digits in home runs. There were five of them who had at least 30. Not only was Kepler easy to sleep on in baseball as a whole, but he was easy to overlook on his own team.
Along with that, Kepler might have been a victim of the times to some degree. Home run rates were way up across the league, so he’s just one of many guys who had a spike in longballs. There were almost 2,000 more home runs in 2019 than there were in 2015, the year Kepler debuted. The American League had its highest total ever with 3,478 — over 300 more than the previous high set in 2017. Kepler might simply have been lost in the shuffle.
What’s ahead in 2020?
For the most part, Kepler was not a dramatically different player in 2019 than he was in previous years. He struck out and walked at about the same rate as he did in 2018, which was an improvement from his first two full seasons with the Twins. Though he had a higher hard-hit contact rate in 2019 than ever before, his overall contact rate has never varied much.
That’s a good thing because it seems clear that baseball is in an era when the ball is more lively, and if that trend changes at some point it’s not as if Kepler’s production will suddenly plummet. He’s good at controlling the zone and laying off bad pitches, and he’s getting better at hitting the ball harder.
Kepler has also shifted his approach slightly. In early July, he told Sporting News that there had been an organic shift within the Twins organization to be more aggressive at the plate, and Kepler’s average number of pitches per plate appearance in 2019 was at a career-low (3.62). He swung at 49.4 percent of pitches he saw — a 7 percent increase over 2018 — and he swung at the first pitch of his at-bats more than 40 percent of the time. His previous high, in 2018, was 27 percent.
With that, Kepler’s exit velocity and launch angle were at their highest in 2019. He’s doing a lot of things right to capitalize on the state of modern baseball. Again, even if the composition of the ball changes, Kepler will not suddenly become a dramatically different hitter.
It’s clear that Kepler is adjusting and evolving as a player — he’s also gradually improving on defense — and as he grows, we should take better notice.