While the Twins imploded last year en route to a 59-103 record, a number of young players showed some potential and gave miserable fans fleeting hope. Perhaps the most promising of the bunch was Max Kepler, the team’s regular right fielder for most of the year. Kepler hit .235/.309/.424 for a 93 wRC+, while earning 4.4 runs on the basepaths (by BsR) and six runs in the outfield (by DRS). Overall, Baseball-Reference pegged him at 2.4 WAR in 447 plate appearances.
Kepler was by no means a finished product, of course. That offense still left a lot to be desired, especially since he’d hit .281/.363/.446 over 1,949 plate appearances in the minors. And this season, he’s looked a lot more like that hitter: Through 167 trips to the dish, he’s slashed .262/.353/.455 for a 120 wRC+. Together with his baserunning and defense, that strong bat makes him a phenomenal all-around player, already worth 1.7 rWAR.
As a farmhand, Kepler excelled when it came to plate discipline; he tallied a lifetime walk rate of 10.6 percent and a lifetime strikeout rate of 15.4 percent. His rookie campaign featured some decent numbers — a 9.4 percent walk rate and 20.8 percent strikeout rate, each of which was better than the big-league average — but beneath that, a problem lurked.
Last year, Kepler’s pitch recognition was, for lack of a better word, awful. He swung at 33.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone (MLB average: 30.6 percent) and 54.9 percent of pitches inside the strike zone (MLB average: 63.9 percent). The difference between the two was one of the worst in the majors:
Lowest Z-minus-O-Swing rates — 2016
This year, though, he’s progressed in both regards. Kepler has trimmed his O-Swing rate to 23.4 percent, while pumping his Z-Swing rate up to 58.4 percent. Thanks to that improvement — reducing his overall strike rate and called strike rate — Kepler has walked in 11.4 percent of his plate appearances and struck out in 18.0 percent.
Kepler hasn’t fixed any one hole. Rather, he’s had better judgment pretty much everywhere:
If you swing less often at pitches outside the zone, and more often at pitches inside the zone, good things will happen. Such has been the case for Kepler.
Plus, he’s faring a lot better when he makes contact on those swings. His exit velocity has soared to new heights this year:
In 2016, Kepler hit the ball at an average exit velocity of 89.4 mph; that ranked 84th among the 225 hitters with at least 250 balls in play. In 2017, that’s spiked to 91.2 mph, placing 13th out of 167 hitters with 100 balls in play. By making solid contact more often, he’s increased his BABIP from .261 to .297, while maintaining a strong ISO.
As with the plate discipline, there aren’t any glaring differences between 2016…
Kepler’s load and swing look the same as ever. He’s just being more selective about when to swing, and apparently that’s helped him tap into his power more often.
In less than two-fifths of the plate appearances, Kepler has accumulated more than two-thirds of the rWAR he had all of last year. He’s been more valuable on a per-plate appearance basis than Kris Bryant and Ryan Zimmerman (among many, many others). With a slick glove and fleet feet, Kepler doesn’t need to mash — he just needs to swing at the right time, and with some authority. If he keeps this up, Minnesota’s 25-19 start might not fade.
An earlier version of this article misstated the subject's name as Tyler Kepler. But really, doesnt he seem like a Tyler?