Max Kepler's improvement at plate is one part power, one part patience

Max Kepler celebrated in the dugout after his home run against the L.A. Angels last week in Anaheim, Calif.

Max Kepler wasn’t about to give away any secrets. The Twins outfielder was talking recently about his improvement at the plate and said: “I’m aware of what my pitch is.”

The natural follow-up: “Well, what is your pitch?”

Kepler gave a sly smile.

“I’d rather not give that away,” he said. “Pitchers might be listening.”

They need to be paying more attention to Kepler, who seems to be maturing in his third full season in the big leagues. If you look at Kepler’s batting average, you’ll notice not much has changed from a year ago — .241 in 2018 compared to .243 to 2017. But if you look a little deeper, you’d see the 25-year-old is steadily improving in a number of key areas, even if Kepler has been hitless in his past five games.

To put it simply: Kepler is hitting the ball harder more often. Perhaps the most striking statistic is the number of “barrels” he has accumulated. According to Statcast, a hitter gets a “barrel” when the launch angle and the exit velocity of a batted ball combine in a mathematical combination that typically results in an extra-base hit. Usually, the exit velocity has to be around or above 100 miles per hour and the launch angle has to be in the mid 20s to low 30s, the ideal launch angle for home runs.

Kepler only had 12 such moments of contact in 2016, 16 in 2017 but already has 10 in 2018. Kepler and hitting coach James Rowson have attributed this to Kepler getting more experience at the plate — to know when to swing at “his pitch.”

“He’s staying in a really strong position to hit longer, and he’s calmed down at the plate,” Rowson said. “The more you relax and see the ball a bit easier and you don’t have that anxiety behind you, the better off you’re going to be able to identify pitches.”

Added Kepler: “It’s all about comfortability. If you’re comfortable in your environment, then you’re going to perform better.”

Because of that, Kepler is also striking out at a significantly lower rate — 13.4 percent of at-bats, vs. 20.1 percent in 2017.

That number has gone down because of Kepler’s ability to identify breaking balls out of the pitcher’s hand. After hitting only .149 last season when making contact against breaking pitches (sliders or curveballs), Kepler has increased that number to .300 this season. Teams have started to adjust, and pitchers have thrown Kepler a smaller percentage of breaking balls. Kepler faced breaking balls on 27.6 percent of pitches thrown to him in 2017. That number is down to 22.7 percent this season, per Statcast.

But Rowson wouldn’t go so far as to say fastballs or breaking balls are what Kepler considers “his pitch.” It’s more about expectations and location.

“His best pitch is the pitch that shows up where he’s looking for it,” Rowson said. “Sometimes he’s looking for a fastball over the plate or sometimes you say this guy is going to throw me something soft, so I’m going to look for it and hit it.”

And when he hits it, he’s more likely to hit it hard.

Chris Hine is the lead writer for North Score, the Star Tribune’s sports analytics beat. startribune.com/northscore E-mail: chris.hine@startribune.com

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