The Yankees should buy-low on defensive wizard Max Kepler for 2023

max kepler, yankees

The Yankees are searching for someone to patrol left field in 2023, and while the free agent market is certainly bountiful, perhaps the trade market could be serve as a way to save financial resources and trade from areas of strength. If the Yankees are to sign two-time All-Star Carlos Rodón, suddenly, the Yankees have an abundance of elite talent in the rotation. This directly affects some of the depth arms, who may struggle to find a roster spot for Opening Day. Max Kepler has been mired in mediocrity ever since a breakout 2019 campaign, but perhaps the Yankees could not just acquire him but revert him to his 30+ HR form.

Attacking the Baseball Again

Max Kepler’s best season in 2019 was when he posted a 122 wRC+, clubbing 36 HRs on a record-setting Minnesota Twins squad. They emphasized the importance of the long ball and hitting HRs, and this is something Kepler, in particular, seemed to take very well. Max Kepler has had good power, with a large 6’4 frame and Max Exit Velocities north of 113 MPH. Despite this, in 2022, Kepler only hit 9 HRs in just 115 games. Max Kepler struggled mightily in the 2nd half (33 wRC+) due to injury, but even when he was doing well in the 1st half, he had slugged under .400. It’s definitely a perplexing case, especially considering he still blisters the baseball.

(111.1 MPH Single)

In 2022 Kepler did hit more groundballs than in years past, but 2021 still only produced a 97 wRC and 19 HRs, well short of that 36 HR total from 2019. Part of this inability to hit for great power stems from the fact that Kepler has stopped pulling the ball as much. Part of pulling the baseball is getting out in front earlier, and adding some swings and misses and chases in order to hit far more HRs is greatly beneficial in a limited-shift environment and with how the baseballs react in the air when pulled.

We can argue that 2022 is a wash for Kepler, injuries did clearly affect his power, but 2021 seems to be fair game. Let’s compare Max Kepler in 2019 to his 2021 counterpart to show the differences:

  • Max Kepler (2019)
    • 122 wRC+
    • 45.6% FB%
    • 17.6% LD%
    • .519 SLG
    • .267 ISO
    • 27.6% Chase%
    • 53.4% Pull%
  • Max Kepler (2021)
    • 97 wRC+
    • 44.3% FB%
    • 19.9% LD%
    • .413 SLG
    • .202 ISO
    • 20.5% Chase%
    • 42.5% Pull%

Max Kepler’s hitting more line drives and chasing far less in 2021, so why is his wRC+ over 20 points worse? It again ties back to pulling the ball in the air. When we go on Statcast for 2022 and look at what pulled flyballs do versus ones hit straightaway or the other way, here’s how they perform in terms of distance:

  • Pulled: 334 Feet
  • Straightaway: 320 Feet
  • Other Way: 288 Feet

Perhaps distance isn’t enough to sell you, let’s look at just straight-up production in 2022.

  • Pulled: .830 wOBA
  • Straightaway: .272 wOBA
  • Other Way: .252 wOBA

It’s better to pull the ball in the air, and Max Kepler is an extreme flyball hitter who needs to do as much damage in every hit as possible. Why is that? Extremely flyball hitters run lower BABIPs since flyballs have the lowest BABIP, the high HR totals are supposed to offset the lower average and generate a strong wRC+, but if Kepler isn’t pulling his flyballs, he isn’t hitting that many HRs, thus exchanging HRs for outs, singles, or walks, without helping his BABIP or OBP very much. In order to pull more, Kepler is going to have to try to commit sooner, even if he whiffs and chases more.

This swing from a May 24th matchup between the White Sox and Twins defines everything Kepler was before but isn’t right now. 96 MPH turned around for a near-400-foot blast. Kepler, in 2022, couldn’t even hit a single ball over 95 MPH for HR, and he hit just .185 against fastballs all year with a ghastly .297 SLG%. Kepler has too much power to not take advantage of middle-in fastballs since those are the pitches he should be turning into a souvenir for some lucky fan.

There’s an added importance to pulling the ball in Yankee Stadium as well, a ballpark Kepler would fare extremely well in. Sometimes swinging more is a good thing, and that couldn’t be more true than in Max Kepler’s case. With that out of the way, why don’t we talk about what Kepler already does so well?

Providing Elite Defense

Despite the 2021 and 2022 offensive output, Max Kepler averaged 2.8 WAR per 600 Plate Appearances, mainly due to his outstanding defensive work. With a career 48 DRS and 58 OAA, he’s one of the best defensive outfielders in the entire sport. Since becoming a full-time player in 2016, he’s 6th in OAA among all OFs, and his arm is pretty good as well. He averages 88.2 MPH on his throws, with his max throwing velocity in 2022 being 93.8 MPH. Defense is going to be extremely important for the Yankees in LF, and having a great defensive player out there is definitely going to help this ball club.

Max Kepler also provides the versatility of being able to play CF, as he’s played over 1,000 innings there with 2 DRS and 8 OAA. The defensive value he provides allows him to have a pretty high floor for his overall WAR total in 2023 since he’s at least going to be exemplary on one side of the ball while being close to league-average at worst on the other side. Yes, there are better options for the Yankees in terms of guaranteed offense, but if they’re able to pair Gold Glove defense with what is a bat that could be a ~110 wRC+ bat, they’ll have a 3-3.5 WAR player.

Kepler’s defensive value gives him a much higher floor in terms of WAR than his alternatives in Benintendi, Conforto, and Brantley do, and it’s not like those players come without risk, either. I’m a fan of those three as options for LF, but Benintendi is coming off of wrist surgery, Brantley is entering his age 36 season and will be asked to play a difficult position in LF at Yankee Stadium at an advanced age. As for Michael Conforto, he hasn’t played since 2021 and again would be tasked with playing a larger LF in Yankee Stadium with extended time off from the outfield.

Max Kepler’s played in an extremely large outfield in RF and done so successfully, so I imagine the defense translates very well to LF as well. His jumps, arms, and speed are all above average, and he gives the Yankees the best defensive outfield alignment in baseball.

Beneficiary Of 2023 Rule Changes

Max Kepler is one of the bigger shift victims in baseball, as he’s been a consistent xBA under-performer for three straight seasons now. Teams have shifted against Kepler over 90% of the time since 2020, and while the effects of no-shift baseball are overplayed, the marginal increases to OBP and BA will be apparent for guys in the extreme like Max Kepler. The shift isn’t gone, but the limits to the shift could give Kepler a few hits here and there, which could give him a few points in his wRC+.

Turning Kepler from a .220 hitter to even a .230 hitter is a change worth noting, especially when you consider that it’s also an OBP increase. This isn’t the only rule that would help Max Kepler either, as the bigger bases should give him more confidence to swipe bases, as his BsR since 2020 is an 8.3. He’s one of the more under-appreciated baserunners in baseball, with 16 SBs and just two times caught stealing over those last three seasons as well. Perhaps he can swipe 10-15 bases with his 64th Percentile Sprint Speed, and that adds a wrinkle of speed to the offense that they need.

The rules are promoting offense which will help most position players, but when we talk about shifts and bigger bases, Kepler is a massive benefactor. Players who are in the middle of the pack at the plate and on the bases can have the most volatile changes and go from league-average bats with single-digit SBs to above-average hitters challenging for 20 SBs. Kepler’s got a lot going for him for 2023, and he compares a lot to another left-handed hitter who revived their career in the Bronx.

Can the Yankees Get Anthony Rizzo 2.0?

When the Yankees acquired Anthony Rizzo at the deadline in 2021, he had a 110 wRC+ in his previous year and a half stemming back to 2020, which for a 1B is league average. Rizzo posted just a 113 wRC+ in his 1st half with the Yankees with regressing defense, yet the Yankees retained him for the 2022 season. Just like with Max Kepler, projections heavily favored Rizzo coming into 2022, and he lived up to those expectations. In just 130 games, Rizzo matched his career high in HRs with a 133 wRC+ and .480 SLG despite hitting just .224.

anthony rizzo, yankees

Anthony Rizzo’s resurgence came from a higher HR:FB ratio, which stems from playing in a ballpark like Yankee Stadium that heavily favors him. Just like Kepler, Rizzo is a flyball hitter who doesn’t strike out a lot and works a ton of walks, and Kepler could enter his “2022 Rizzo” season next year if he’s a Yankee. Steamer projects him for a 109 wRC+, which would be his highest mark since his 2020 campaign, but projections would likely favor him even more if he played in Yankee Stadium.

While a double in Minnesota, this ball leaves Yankee Stadium for a HR, which would have boosted his wRC+ even more. Statcast also agrees with this notion that Kepler’s HR totals would rise if he played in the Bronx, as they believe he would have had 37 HRs since 2021 instead of 28 had he played in Yankee Stadium. Those 9 HRs would have given Kepler a wRC+ over 100, and when you factor in shift restrictions, suddenly, that 109 wRC+ mark doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Max Kepler needs to find more pulled flyballs in his swing, but he also just needs to play in a ballpark that is more conducive to left-handed HRs. With all of the positive regression he could be bound for, what would a potential deal for Kepler look like?

Mock Trade: Max Kepler to Yankees

This deal would not be particularly expensive for NYY, as Max Kepler has one year at $8.5 million remaining and a club option at $10 million (with a $1 million buyout). The CBA rules dictate that when you trade for a player, their AAV is recalculated based on the money they have remaining, so Kepler is an $8.5 million dollar tax hit instead of $7 million right now. He’s guaranteed to make at least $9.5 million because of the buyout, but that club option of $10 million gives a cost-controlled outfielder for 2024 as well if he plays well.

For the Twins, adding pitching is a must, so this is what a Max Kepler trade could look like:

  • NYY Receives
    • OF Max Kepler
  • MIN Receives
    • RHP Domingo German
    • LHP Lucas Luetge

The Twins get Domingo German, who’s still under contract for two more seasons and a 95 ERA- since becoming a full-time starter in 2019 alongside Lucas Luetge, who has a 66 ERA- since 2021. The Twins get a league-average SP and a good reliever with more combined control than Kepler, bolstering their pitching staff. German slots into the backend of their rotation, and perhaps pitching in the AL Central helps his HR problems.

New York Yankees, Domingo German

In this deal, the Yankees don’t deal any massive prospect capital, and dealing German won’t affect this team in the slightest if they are able to sign Carlos Rodón. They also cut down the overall tax hit, as German and Luetge will make ~$3.5 million combined next season, so it’s adding a good left-handed corner outfielder at the cost of ~$6.5 million guaranteed and pitchers who may not have had roster spots in 2023. It’s a win-win for both Minnesota and New York, and it’s a deal I could 100% see happening. With Kepler in the lineup, here’s a potential starting nine:

  1. DJ LeMahieu 3B
  2. Aaron Judge RF
  3. Anthony Rizzo 1B
  4. Giancarlo Stanton DH
  5. Gleyber Torres 2B
  6. Max Kepler LF
  7. Harrison Bader CF
  8. Oswald Peraza SS
  9. Jose Trevino C

The lineup has added some speed, HR power, and contact with Kepler in it, and the upside is truly higher than many believe. On the surface, you can look at Kepler’s batting average and write him off as another mediocre outfielder, but after that deep dive, it’s safe to say we could be looking at a steal on the trade market who stabilizes LF for the next two seasons.

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