With Danny Santana headed to the disabled list, the Twins have recalled outfielder Max Kepler from Triple-A. Kepler figures to slot in as the team’s fourth outfielder, backing up Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario. Kepler got some love from prospect evaluators last winter, with virtually every outlet ranking him in their various top-100 lists. Baseball America was the highest on the German-born outfielder, ranking him 30th overall. Newcomer 2080 Baseball was the low man on Kepler. They placed him at #100. Other outlets ranked him closer to #30 than to #100.
KATOH loves Kepler, projecting him for 11.9 WAR over the next six years — a figure which placed him seventh among all prospects heading into the 2016 season. KATOH ranked him ahead of several more well-regarded outfield prospects, including Kepler’s teammate Byron Buxton and the recently promoted Nomar Mazara. Although he’s not a consensus top prospect, it isn’t hard to see why KATOH — a stats-based projection system — is all over him. He slashed .332/.416/.531 in Double-A last year, and also kicked in 18 steals. It’s incredibly hard to poke holes in Kepler’s 2015 performance. He made lots of contact, walked more than he struck out (14% versus 13%, respectively), hit for power and stole bases. Simply put, he did it all.
On the downside, Kepler’s pre-2015 numbers were substantially less impressive. Not all that long ago, Kepler appeared to be an unremarkable low minors prospect. He hit .237/.312/.424 in Low-A in 2013, and .264/.333/.393 in High-A in 2014. We all know the perils of judging a player based on a single season, so we should be somewhat hesitant to buy into Kepler’s breakout. This is why KATOH ranks Kepler seventh overall, rather than first, which is where he would have ranked had I considered only 2015 performance.
To put some faces to Kepler’s statistical profile, let’s go ahead and generate some statistical comps for the German outfielder. I calculated a weighted Mahalanobis Distance between Kepler’s 2015 season and every Double-A season since 1990 in which a hitter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. In the table below, you’ll find the 10 most similar seasons, ranked from most to least similar.
|Rank||Name||Proj. WAR||Actual WAR|
There are some exciting names in there. Bernie Williams had an undeniably excellent career, and Michael Brantley, Desmond Jennings and Shannon Stewart either were or currently still are also very good players. Even most ofthe “bad” players listed weren’t total flops, as Troy O’Leary, Jody Gerut and Gabe Kapler all had stints as productive regulars.
Contrary to his recent statistical track record, Kepler’s tools aren’t particularly loud. Lead prospect analyst Dan Farnsworth anticipates all of his tools to max out in the 45-55 range. In other words, Kepler lacks any single plus (60) tool. This renders him one of those tweener types who has less range than the typical center fielder, but less power than the typical corner outfielder. His fringe-average arm makes him extra “tweeny,” since he doesn’t fit the prototypical right-field profile, either. Conventional scouting wisdom tells us that players like that are typically average regulars at best, and are rarely stars.
Kepler may not look the part of a tippy-top prospect, but he certainly has the stat line of one, especially if you focus on his 2015 campaign. I think it’s worth noting that Kepler signed out of Germany, where baseball isn’t exactly the sport of choice, and most certainly isn’t played year round. He’s the ultimate “cold-weather kid,” so I’m willing to entertain the idea that he might be at an earlier point on the development curve than similarly aged prospects. From that point of view, one could certainly convince herself that the 2015 Kepler is the real Kepler. If that’s the case, the Bernie Williams and Shannon Stewart comps may not be so far-fetched.
In my opinion, 2016 will be a very telling year for Kepler. It will give us a sense of how real his 2015 breakout really was, and whether he’ll ultimately hit enough to be an above-average regular despite of his limited defensive skills. For better or for worse, he’ll get to show what he can do at the big-league level with a team that figures to be in playoff contention. He’ll serve as the team’s fourth outfielder for now, but if he acquits himself well in that role, he could easily force his way into everyday duties one way or another. His recent statistical performance suggests he could provide a significant boost to the Twins lineup — in 2016 and for years to come.