Today we’re going to focus on Max Kepler, Byron Buxton’s health and the Twins’ insistence on the Right Thing To Do. Plus, we’ll look at Wes Johnson on increasing slider usage, Cy Guys, and a funny Joe Ryan moment.
Note, too, that with Devin Smeltzer’s start Saturday and Dylan Bundy expected to start Tuesday, my month-out pitching plan crumbled inside of a week. So it goes!
And lastly before we get underway, it gives me great pleasure to say Welcome to new subscriber, Paint Boy. Welcome to the club and thank you for supporting the column!
This column presents 5 Thoughts on the Twins, just five games short of the quarter-pole.
#1) Max Kepler in-focus.
With the important caveat that we’re only 5 weeks into the season, Kepler is looking as good as he’s ever looked at the plate.
The Twins rightfielder is hitting .243/.341/.423 with 5 homers in 129 plate appearances, good for a .342 Weighted On-Base Average. On the surface, that doesn’t jump out as much as his career-best 2019 slash line of .252/.336/.519 during the year he hit 36 home runs and the Twins set MLB’s all-time home run record for a single team season. But consider that year the league as a whole had a slugging percentage of .443; this year’s the league is slugging .376. Something about the baseball flying out of parks more easily, perhaps?
I’ll argue that statistically, compared with the league as a whole, Kepler is even higher above average this season that in his strong 2019 campaign, which we had previously assumed may be a career year for the lefty. What I’m saying is that the 29-year-old has bounced back from a disappointing season in a big way.
He continues to be tough to punch out, with a strikeout rate 5.5 points better than the league average. The reason he routinely hits for low batting averages despite not striking out very often is that in the past he’s been known as a guy who would hit a few too many zero-point fly balls. When they’re not carrying over the fence they’re nothing more than a harmless out. That included infield popups for Kepler. This season, at least in the early goings, he’s trading some of that hang time for grounders and line drives, and while I can’t say exactly what the optimal balance is for him in the era of shifting, I do think it’s a point worth thinking about from a meta perspective.
The last thing I’d like to point out here are his splits when facing righties and lefties on the mound. Historically, you wanted him at the top of the lineup against righties, and toward the bottom — or sitting — against lefties. This year, he can’t seem to be bothered which hand the pitcher uses to try to get him out. Through five weeks, he’s hitting better than he ever has vs. lefties, with a .364 wOBA to show for it. A lot of that production has been getting back to a normal range as a hitter from an average and power perspective, and then bursting through the roof with a 17.4% walk rate against the same hand – more than double his walk rate vs. lefties from last year. That’s a great boost for his on-base percentage. He’s earned 8 free passes in 46 plate appearances, and I’ll be curious to see if that trend continues. Before the season I wrote a column in which I suggested a potential Kepler/Kyle Garlick platoon in the corner outfield. Ultimately I think I went against that idea because Kepler’s glove added enough that you might wipe out some of the gains you’d get by Garlick standing in to crush lefties. I’ve certainly been wrong before about Kepler and this appears to be another one of those times. After we got a tad bored of his lack of improvement over 2 years and change, he’s rounded out his offensive game and helped to carry the Twins’ offense in the first 20+ percent of this year’s schedule.