Twins’ Kepler saying no to ‘elevate to celebrate’ for now
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Max Kepler is one of seven players in Twins history with three home runs in a single game, yet he has yet to hit more than 19 in a season.
Some observers have suggested the young right fielder could easily boost his power numbers by joining the launch-angle revolution and starting to loft deep flies with more regularity, but the thoughtful Berliner won’t be tempted.
“For me it’s not about launch angle,” he said. “It’s about getting my bat head in the zone as early as possible. I used to enter straight down. Now I’m just trying to enter more on a level path, but I’ve still got my hands going a similar route.”
He shakes his head and frowns.
“I’m not going to be swinging up and doing all that,” he said.
Now 25 and entering his third full season in the majors. Kepler is pleased with his career trajectory and patient enough to let the normal timeline run its course. With each experience, he salts away a little more knowledge, a little more ammunition as he strives to make the most of his immense, late-blooming talent.
So, no “elevate to celebrate” for him?
“It’s not me, you know?” he said. “You’ve got to know what you’re capable of as a player of your own kind. It doesn’t work for everyone.”
For every Justin Turner or Logan Morrison who joins the power elite in mid-career, there are dozens of hitters who fail to complete the makeover. Instead of three-run jacks and walk-off parties, they find only spiking strikeout rates and ultimate disappointment.
Some will experiment their way right out of the game.
“I say if you want to go just strictly for fly balls, if you don’t have speed, go for it,” Kepler said. “For guys that can run a little, you’re giving yourself a better chance if you hit it hard and not just try to hit fly balls. The ball’s going to go out if you square it up, regardless.”
Kepler, it should be noted, spent part of the 2016-17 offseason working on his hitting with Barry Bonds, nominal holder of baseball’s single-season and career home run records. Those sessions, however, weren’t so much about hitting the ball over the wall as stinging it repeatedly and menacingly.
Kepler’s hard-hit percentage last season was 35.2, according to Baseball Savant, and his average exit velocity was 88.2 mph, tied with Yasiel Puig and just a tick behind Francisco Lindor. Kepler ranked just 244th, however, out of 387 qualifying hitters with 3.2 barreled balls per plate appearance.
So there is definitely room for improvement as Kepler continues his work with Twins hitting coach James Rowson.
According to Fangraphs.com, Kepler shaved his groundball rate by 4.4 percentage points (from 47.2 percent to 42.8) while pushing his flyball rate up from 36.5 percent to 39.5. Look for another move in that direction this year.
“I think you’re going to see that range continue to drop a little bit more on the ground ball side and him get a few more balls in the air, but not because he’s trying to get it in the air,” Rowson said. “It will be because he’s getting a better idea of what pitches he can drive and where those pitches are in the zone that he does damage with. It’s more or less getting a good pitch to hit.”
Kepler had just come off the Bonds sessions when he met Rowson last spring. Rather than roll back anything the controversial ex-slugger might have given Kepler, Rowson has sought to expand on that knowledge.
“I think you’ve got to build on the things the guy has done,” Rowson said. “Barry Bonds was short and direct to the baseball. That’s what Kepler wants to be. He wants to be short to it, long through it. He’s getting the feel of a good, short, direct swing path.”
What Rowson watches for with Kepler are the times when he “gets really steep” in his approach to the ball, almost as if he’s chopping wood. The more they groove his preferred swing path, the more line drives that should leap off Kepler’s live bat.
Should he close up the holes that lefties have exploited in his first two full seasons, Kepler’s production could be devastating.
“He’s still gaining that experience,” Rowson said. “I feel really strong about the year he’s going to have and where he’s at right now. He’s starting to really understand his swing and how to make adjustments pitch to pitch. I really feel confident about where he’s going to go this year.”
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