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Kepler keeping it simple as he matures at plate

Twins outfielder believes in aggressive and selective approach for success
@dohyoungpark
March 29, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS -- Does Max Kepler know his walk rate saw a noticeable increase last year, or that he took called third strikes on 37.5 percent of his strikeouts in 2018, the highest mark among the Twins' returning hitters? Did the latter educate his stated desire to be more aggressive earlier

MINNEAPOLIS -- Does Max Kepler know his walk rate saw a noticeable increase last year, or that he took called third strikes on 37.5 percent of his strikeouts in 2018, the highest mark among the Twins' returning hitters? Did the latter educate his stated desire to be more aggressive earlier in counts this season?

"No, I wasn't aware of that," Kepler said. "Thanks for making me aware.

"I'm a simple guy. I'm not a very analytical person."

Kepler says he doesn't pay any attention to numbers like that to guide his development. ("I'm just trying to go up there, see the ball and hit it.") But those underlying metrics do tell the story of a hitter whose plate approach and quality of at-bats have improved through his three seasons in the Major Leagues.

Though the 26-year-old outfielder's counting stats haven't improved much in the past three years, the Twins are confident that those stats, too, will follow this season as he continues to mature as a hitter.

"As a player, you can't control where the ball goes," hitting coach James Rowson said. "You can control how hard you hit it, are you swinging at strikes and are you taking balls? If he's doing those things, chances are he's going to have a pretty good year this year.

"I think if you continue to do those things over time, you're going to have those breakout seasons and you're going to have those years that are far better than years that are not.

Kepler's line didn't advance much in 2018, settling at .224/.319/.408, but the Statcast data shows he swung at more strikes than ever, chased fewer balls than ever and hit the ball harder than ever -- and more frequently -- last season. Rowson also cites Kepler's low BABIP of .236 last season as an indication that Kepler could have been unlucky with his balls in play.

The Twins are confident in Kepler's ability to hit the ball hard -- and he just wants to put himself in a position to do so more often this year. He has always been confident in his knowledge of the strike zone, but he said that he has gotten frustrated by watching hittable pitches go by early in counts. He specifically hopes to attack first-pitch strikes more often while maintaining his disciplined eye at the plate later in counts.

"I think mixing the being aggressive part and also swinging at strikes, and being choosy with what I want to swing at, is the combination I'm going for," Kepler said. "It sounds like complete opposites because you want to be patient and aggressive at the same time, but that's putting together a good at-bat and swinging at pitches that you've planned on hitting, and that you're in control of hitting."

The other promising step forward for Kepler was in how he handled left-handed pitching last season, as he posted a career-best .745 OPS with five homers in 167 plate appearances against southpaws after having a .520 OPS in 271 plate appearances against those pitchers over the previous two seasons.

According to Kepler, the reason for the improvement was simple: He was just getting more consistent chances. As he pointed out, he hadn't been a bad hitter against lefties in the Minors -- as attested to by his 1.027 OPS in Triple-A and .869 OPS in Double-A -- and he benefited from expanded opportunities in the Majors.

"If you see lefties regularly, you're going to hit them fine," Kepler said. "Years before, I didn't get to play as much against lefties, so it's harder to see."

Rowson acknowledged the buzz that had existed surrounding Kepler's perceived struggles against left-handed pitching, but credited the young outfielder for shrugging that off and continuing to reinforce his efforts to get those results back to where they had been in the past.

"He did a lot of work with left-handed machine hitting, working off, just focusing on getting better in that aspect of his game," Rowson said. "I don't think he ever bought into the fact that he wasn't good at it. I think he knew he was good at it, but he just wanted to continue to work at it. And last year, it paid off."

As a whole, the final piece to the puzzle is simply that Kepler is getting more at-bats under his belt at the Major League level. He's starting to see some of the pitchers in the division and around the league more times, he's adjusting his preparation accordingly, and he's learning what information -- from coaches, scouting reports and otherwise -- best helps him and what doesn't.

"Young kid growing up in Germany, not playing a lot of baseball," chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said. "Very different level of plate appearance history compared to the kid in Southern California or Texas or Florida, so I think his maturation as a hitter is coming maybe a little later than some other kids.

"I don't think he's the hitter he's going to be yet."

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.