When trying to determine overlooked players for the upcoming season I always take a peek back in time. Last year’s sleepers can be a good start. They may not necessarily be the classically coined “post-hype sleeper” but players that were intriguing going in to last year and did fine. They can easily slip right in line again especially if they are young. Twins’ outfielder Max Kepler fits the bill. Still 25, now entering his third season in the majors, Kepler has established himself as a pretty okay player. Coming into 2017, many expected some sort of breakout. Unfortunately, his production in 2017 mimicked 2016 a little too closely. But why can’t 2018 be the year we all wanted 2017 to be for Kepler?

In almost all aspects of Kepler’s hitting in 2017 kept consistent with 2016. From walk and strikeout rate, to batted ball profile and contact rates, Kepler did not change much.

2016 9.4% 20.8% 0.189 0.261 0.235 0.309 0.424 0.313 93
2017 8.3% 20.1% 0.182 0.276 0.243 0.312 0.425 0.315 92

That is consistent. He did play about 30 more games in 2017 as well. As an outfielder these numbers aren’t particularly exciting either, being alongside the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kole Calhoun.

His batted ball profile looks about the same as well.

Season LD% GB% FB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2016 16.3% 47.2% 36.5% 15.2% 44.3% 35.6% 20.1% 20.4% 46.6% 33.0%
2017 17.6% 42.8% 39.5% 12.1% 43.9% 31.2% 24.9% 18.7% 48.4% 32.9%

The major difference is ground ball rate. He dropped 5 points there. Getting the ball off the ground is a welcome change. Everything else pretty much the same.

And his contact rates?

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
2016 30.7% 60.8% 43.1% 66.1% 91.0% 80.6% 41.3%
2017 28.5% 60.7% 43.0% 59.9% 89.9% 78.9% 45.0%

At first glance, Kepler is practically the same going into this season as last. What intrigues me most about Kepler are his righty lefty splits. As Grey pointed out in Kepler’s blurb, he needs to start hitting lefties or he’s going to platoon. Of the 41 pitchers that had 50 or more plate appearances last year, 9 had the same or better wOBA than Kepler against lefties. Kepler might need to worry about being DHed for instead of the pitcher rather than a platoon.Also, almost all comparable. His contact out of the zone dropped 6 points. That is concerning. He is still swinging at those pitches about the same rate so it isn’t about patience.

He was the second worse batter in the whole league last season against lefties, only behind the ever infuriating Rougned Odor. They were both absolutely awful against lefties. Kepler sported a .453 OPS, .203 wOBA, and a 16 wRC+. One or two players always seem to have those types of numbers against lefties each year, but they’re never the same player. Take Josh Reddick for instance. In 2016, he had a 2 wRC+ against lefties but 2017 it was over 100. I’m not saying Kepler will pull something like that, but expect improvement.

In 2017, Kepler was a twin of himself from 2016. However, looking further into his splits from those two years, he was more of a fraternal twin than identical. Below is a table detailing his 2016 versus 2017 against lefties.

2016 133 7.5% 25.6% 0.203 0.273 0.322 0.595 0.262 0.262 57
2017 137 5.1% 29.2% 0.152 0.213 0.24 0.453 0.202 0.203 16

Firstly, it’s pretty clear he’s bad against them, but in 2017 he fell off a table. He was at least manageable in 2016. From the below table we can see a big reason was he couldn’t make hard contact. His BABIP was horrific too, which makes sense due to the batted ball profile. Expect some improvements there though. He has shown he can hit the ball harder.

Season LD% GB% FB% HR/FB Soft% Med% Hard%
2016 17.4% 50.0% 32.6% 7.1% 19.5% 48.3% 32.2%
2017 20.0% 49.4% 30.6% 7.7% 23.0% 55.2% 21.8%

He does need to improve his hitting against lefties to make any advancements, but he should at least be more serviceable than last year regardless.

If he hit like a blind man with a toothpick against lefties last year but still found a way to be as successful overall, he must have made some improvements against righties.

2016 314 10.2% 18.8% 0.248 0.325 0.468 0.792 0.261 0.335 107
2017 431 9.3% 17.2% 0.272 0.343 0.484 0.828 0.296 0.35 117

Overall, he fared better. Small improvements across the board. We can see why below.

Season LD% GB% FB% HR/FB Soft% Med% Hard%
2016 15.8% 46.2% 38.0% 17.9% 20.7% 46.0% 33.3%
2017 17.0% 41.0% 42.0% 13.0% 17.5% 46.5% 36.0%

Harder contact, with less balls on the ground.

Kepler is a 25-year big leaguer. He is young but how can a major league hitter have a .453 OPS in a quarter of his at bats? My assumption is he’s making strides this off season with his coaching staff to make those necessary improvements. He won’t be as awful in those at bats as he was in 2017. Kepler has shown he can keep hitting righties well. Give me a pick late in the draft looking for my last OF bench slot. I will consider Kepler alongside Brett Gardner or Dexter Fowler at least. That is a good 20 spots in the outfielder ranks higher than Grey. Kepler won’t be the twin of himself in 2018, but more like another Twin breakout.