On Max Kepler’s Power Potential

As a freshly-signed prospect, Max Kepler was best described as toolsy and athletic. Though not a natural at the game, he had the potential to be a fast-moving prospect, and despite injuries slowing him down early on, Kepler began to make good on scouts’ praise of his bat speed and use of the whole field fairly quickly. When it comes to his power though, scouts are lukewarm. Depending on the report you read, Kepler’s power may be somewhat projectable or simply average. Now that he’s played a decent sample of MLB games, we can take a stronger stance on his power potential.

In 2016, Kepler swatted 17 home runs in 447 PA over 113 games to supplement a rather paltry .235 BA. Extrapolating this number to 600 PA or 162 games, we get roughly 23 or 24 home runs, respectively, which, considering Kepler’s wiry 6’4” frame, seems like a realistic peak power projection, but Kepler has a penchant for spraying the ball around the field rather than over the fence, putting his actual slugging prowess in question.

After reworking his approach to the plate, Kepler experienced such a massive improvement in his strikeout and walk rates once he reached the upper minors (AA/AAA) that he actually started to walk more than he struck out. This discipline helped earned him a promotion although it unsurprisingly did not carry over to the majors, as Kepler fell to a still good 9.4% BB% and 20.8% K%.

This above average walk rate paired with an essentially average K-rate makes Kepler comparable to established MLB players like Christian Yelich, Gregory Polanco, Odubel Herrera, and Eric Hosmer.

Player 2016 BB% 2016 K%
2016 Major League Average (Non-Pitcher) 8.3% 20.6%
Max Kepler 9.4% 20.8%
Odubel Herrera 9.6% 20.4%
Eric Hosmer 8.5% 19.8%
Gregory Polanco 9.0% 20.3%
Christian Yelich 10.9% 20.9%

As more of a slap-hitter, Herrera sticks out in this group , but the other three hit between 21 and 25 home runs last year – right around our peak projection for Kepler. We’ll consider a couple of key batted ball data points in determining whether Kepler can reach that same level.

According to BaseballSavant, only 4 of Kepler’s 17 home runs came on fly balls last year while 16 of Hosmer’s 25 home runs, 11 of Polanco’s 22 home runs, and 12 HR of Yelich’s 21 home runs were fly balls. Additionally, Hosmer, Polanco, and Yelich were able to hit multiple fly ball home runs to the opposite field while Kepler managed 0 total opposite field bombs in his (admittedly much shorter) playing time.

Max Kepler 2016 Fly Balls by Hit Type
2016 Fly Balls by Hit Type
Max Kepler 2016 Fly Balls by EV
2016 Fly Balls by Exit Velocity

It’s no surprise then that Kepler sits in last place among this group in average fly ball exit velocity; however, in this same category, among players in 2016 who hit at least 50 fly balls, Kepler is third to last at 85.8 mph, sandwiched between Ender Inciarte and Angel Pagan. Gross.

Kepler also had a middling average line drive exit velocity (94.3 mph) in 2016, but he still hit 13 line drive home runs. Of the 12 accounted for on BaseballSavant, just 4 came off the bat at less than 100 mph, and one of those was hit at 99.7 mph. As you can see in the following graph, within the confines of the park, Kepler drove hard liners into the gaps and managed to drop several soft line-drive hits in the shallow outfield grass.

Max Kepler Line Drive Hit Types 2016
2016 Line Drives by Hit Type
Max Kepler Line Drive EVs 2016
2016 Line Drives by Exit Velocity

Considering this, Kepler’s average exit velocity may be a bit misleading. As praised in scouting reports, his line drive ability is among his greatest strengths, but he hasn’t fully capitalized on it yet. Of his 312 batted-ball results (outs + hits) in 2016, 74 or 23.7% were line drives, which should be good enough to keep his home run total away from the low teens, but limited fly ball power seems to cap Kepler’s overall power potential when in the same sample, his fly ball rate was 22.1%. This rate isn’t very high, but with little behind them, he managed just 4 home runs hits in 69 fly ball results (5.8%) in 2016.

As we showed before, Max Kepler was similar to both Christian Yelich and Gregory Polanco on at least some plane last year. While we expect Polanco to develop a little more as a power hitter, I would be surprised if Kepler ever consistently hits close to or more than 20 home runs a season without a substantial increase in fly ball exit velocity. Like Polanco, Yelich has already seen his power blossom, going from 7 home runs in 2015 to 21 in 2016, and Jeff Sullivan wrote recently about Yelich potentially benefiting even more by generating more lift (higher launch angles). Although Fangraphs and BaseballSavant don’t have the same batted-ball categorization, we can still see that in 2016, Yelich hit fly balls very hard (96.6 mph average fly ball EV) and very infrequently (12.6% of batted-ball results were fly balls). Since Kepler does not hit fly balls with that same authority, it’s possible that he should stray away from his current batted-ball profile and lower his launch angles to settle in the mold of 2016 Christian Yelich – albeit a poor man’s version. While hitting fewer fly balls, Kepler should see his .235 average rise naturally with plenty of doubles, and finding around 15 home runs should be plenty.

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