As several young Twins hitters ascended last season, particularly in the final two months when Minnesota sprinted to the finish and grabbed a wild card playoff spot, one in particular seemed to stall.
Eddie Rosario broke out in a big way. Jorge Polanco surged in the final two months (though that streak is under a cloud now after his 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs). Byron Buxton fulfilled his potential as a five-tool player.
Max Kepler? Well, he wasn’t bad. He was cumulatively pretty much the same as a 24-year-old in 2017 as he had been as a 23-year-old in 2016, with a couple of disturbing caveats mixed in: Kepler hit just .152 against lefties last season and hit just .211 in the season’s second half. His final totals — 19 homers, 69 RBI, .737 OPS — were acceptable for a still-developing player, but they certainly left anyone associated with the Twins hoping for more.
It left questions about Kepler’s ceiling. Is he destined to be merely a useful player best-suited for primarily a platoon role — one that hit right-handed pitching at an .828 OPS clip last season — or is there still a good amount of hope that he will become a mainstay of the middle of the Twins lineup, regardless of who is pitching, for years to come?
His platoon splits are concerning, but I still tend to think the latter is a plausible outcome. Kepler has been a bit unlucky in his first two large sample sizes, compiling a batting average on balls in play of .261 in 2016 and .276 last season when league average is typically around .300. He just reached 1,000 plate appearances in the majors at the end of last season, a number that is often a good benchmark for players “figuring it out” at the plate.
Kepler’s walk rate of 8.7 percent and strikeout rate of 20.5 percent should converge as he sees more pitches, raising his on-base percentage. And he seems willing to work, with evidence this spring coming from consultations with former Twins MVP Justin Morneau and new slugger Logan Morrison, both left-handed hitters like Kepler.
He might also benefit from flying a little under the radar in a lineup that keeps looking better. In short, not a lot of people are talking about Kepler — though ESPN’s Keith Law this week tabbed him as one of nine potential “breakout” players this season.
Wrote Law in an Insider piece: “Everything has happened on the late side for Kepler, and I think the same is true of his ability to pick up breaking stuff from lefties and changeups from righties, enough so that I expect him to reduce his platoon split this season and get to 25-plus homers with a league-average or better OBP.”
The MLB league average for OBP last season was .324, while the average OPS was .750. Kepler was at .312 and .737, so he doesn’t have that far to go. The tools, including a sweet swing, are there. He’s already an MLB-caliber hitter. If he can make a jump this season, a dangerous Twins lineup will only become more so.