FORT MYERS, Fla. – It probably started as doodling on a napkin, notes on a scratchpad, just some absent-minded what-ifs. Rocco Baldelli, handed in October his first chance to make a lineup as a big-league manager, would occasionally fast-forward to Opening Day and brainstorm a few ideas about what that batting order might look like.
“Rocco would send [me] different notes, lineups. We’d text, or he’d send a new lineup sheet — and this was in January,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer. “And Kep was showing up [in the leadoff spot] a lot.”
From winter wondering to springtime scrutiny, the idea of anointing Max Kepler the Twins’ first batter has persisted in Baldelli’s mind, and after a month’s worth of test runs, appears a settled matter now.
“We saw this as an opportunity to get him in a spot where we can take advantage of his strengths,” Baldelli said. “He’s taken to it very well, he’s had very positive comments and remarks with all of us on the idea, and it’s something we’re going to see going forward.”
Certainly Kepler’s play this spring hasn’t tamped the rookie manager’s enthusiasm for the idea. Despite the fact that a hitless afternoon Wednesday brought Kepler’s sudden spring slump to 0-for-14, he’s still batting .273 in Grapefruit League play, and his on-base percentage is .368 — a good, though not great, mark for a leadoff hitter but enough to handle the position. And the outfielder has embraced the new role, too.
“It’s cool to lead off and try to score that first one, every day,” Kepler said. “It’s kind of a responsibility, to get on base and get the game started in a positive way, and I’m enjoying it.”
The 26-year-old native of Berlin, who signed a five-year contract last month, was an imaginative choice by the rookie manager, given that it was the only lineup spot Kepler had never occupied and that his on-base numbers, normally the first priority of a leadoff hitter, have never been high. In fact, Kepler’s career .313 on-base percentage is higher than the Twins’ chief leadoff hitter only once in the past 20 seasons: Carlos Gomez, who recorded a paltry .281 on-base percentage in 2008.
But the Twins have faith that Kepler’s ability to get on base for the sluggers behind him is soon to rise, and perhaps markedly.
“I don’t think he’s the hitter he’s going to be yet. [As a] kid growing up in Germany, not playing a lot of baseball, he’s got a very different level of plate-appearance history, compared to the kid in Southern California or Texas or Florida. So his maturation as a hitter is coming maybe a little later than some kids,” Falvey said. “If you look at just the surface-level stats, maybe they don’t show it as much. But plate-discipline metrics and how hard he hits the ball, those things continue to improve.”
Just his exit velocity alone shows progress. In his rookie season of 2016, 8.8 percent of balls put in play by Kepler were hit 90 mph or harder. That improved to 9.1 percent in 2017, and last year it hit 10.1 percent.
“I’m seeing him square up more balls, making good contact more often, and that’s going to result in better results when he puts it in play,” said hitting coach James Rowson, who considers Kepler’s subpar .236 average on balls in play last season to be flukish, and liable to jump this year. “His on-base percentage could be better, and I believe it will be. We’re grading him on quality of at-bats, and he does very well at that. So he might be a little unconventional [as a] leadoff hitter, but he’s getting comfortable with it. It could be a real nice spot for him.”
Kepler has averaged 46.7 extra-base hits in his three-year career, “and we won’t mind if he’s starting games on second base, or putting a run on the board first thing,” Rowson said.
As a lefthanded hitter, he also fits well between righthanded Byron Buxton in the No. 9 spot and switch-hitter Jorge Polanco batting second, Baldelli believes.
There’s also a base-running component to the job, to get in position to be driven home by the hitters behind him. Kepler rates well on going first-to-third on a single and scoring from first on a double, but he wouldn’t mind stealing bases a little more often, too.
“I can help us score more runs. I’m eager to run,” said Kepler, who has yet to steal more than six bases in a season and last year was successful just four times in nine tries. “In the past, I feel like I haven’t gotten many green lights at the big-league level. In the minors, I had 15 stolen bags one year, so I definitely can get more.”
He won’t let the new job sap him of the aggressiveness he’s been focused on improving this year. No taking the first pitch just to see more pitches, Kepler said. When Baldelli first penciled him into the leadoff spot, Kepler feared he might have to change his game. But now he’s convinced he won’t have to.
“If the pitcher throws the ball over the plate, I’m going to be aggressive and take a hack at it,” he said.
Is he the ideal leadoff hitter? Maybe not yet, but Kepler believes he can be.
“I’m still new to it. I haven’t done it since rookie ball” in 2012, he said. “If I take quality at-bats, if I hit the ball hard, I can help the team from up there. And it’s a lot of fun.”