by Dan Cook, WCCO Radio
There is no doubt Minnesota Twins rookie outfielder Max Kepler has been on an absolute tear for the better part of a month – punctuated by his four-hit, three-home run performance Monday night in Cleveland.READ MORE: Allina WestHealth's ER, Urgent Care Set To Close Temporarily As Nurses Go On Strike Over Fair Pay
Over the last two weeks alone, Kepler has a slash-line of .375/.444/.850 (that’s an OPS of 1.294) with five home runs, 10 RBI and five walks, compared to just six strikeouts.
“He’s got a pretty good swing plane and it’s more just kind of tempering the strength that he wants to try and hit with,” Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky told WCCO Radio’s Dave Lee. “He’s a young kid. It’s just more of getting him to relax a little bit at the plate and slow the game down and let the swing work.”
This hot streak – along with the surprise of Kepler being the breakout youngster, as opposed to better-known names like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton – begs the question: is Max in the running for AL Rookie of the Year?
The answer, as so often is the case, isn’t immediately clear.
“Recency bias” is a term used often by sabermatricians to describe placing more emphasis on a small sample (say, the last month) as opposed to a larger (i.e. more representative) sample of data.
So is Kepler’s hot streak unfairly embellishing his case?
WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an imperfect statistic, but it’s a decent place to start when trying to address a player’s overall value.
According to Fangraphs, Kepler’s tied for second among AL Rookies with a WAR of 1.5. Cleveland center fielder Tyler Naquin is more than a full win better than Max at 2.6, while Texas outfielder Nomar Mazara is tied with him also at 1.5.
BBWA voters are allowed to vote for three candidates for Rookie of Year, so by WAR, Kepler is absolutely in the mix.
Let’s go deeper into the numbers. After Monday night’s barrage, Kepler leads all AL Rookies with 14 home runs. Mazara is right behind him with 13 and Naquin has 12.READ MORE: 2 Crashes On I-35W Leave 1 Dead
Max is sixth in OBP (.332) with Mazara and Naquin both ahead of him. But if you look at wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average, which attempts to assign value to each offensive outcome), Kepler is third among rookies at .366 with only Naquin (.422) and Baltimore’s Hyun Soo Kim ahead of him.
Naquin also strikes out at a higher rate (29.5 percent vs. 20.4 percent) and walks at a lesser rate (8.9 percent vs. 10 percent) than Kepler. Mazara has fewer home runs and RBI than Kepler, even though he has 170 more plate appearances this season.
So it would seem that a strong place can be made for Kepler right now. But the season doesn’t end right now, does it? With roughly a third of the season left to be played, any one of those three could go on a run and separate themselves.
BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) is also an imperfect statistic, but can give you an idea of whether a player has been unusually fortunate or snake-bitten when putting a ball in play. It can also give you a basic idea as to whether a player is due to regress or potentially break out.
And that’s where things could get really interesting for the Twins rookie. Ranking the three candidates by BABIP:
Naquin – .439
Mazara – .309
Kepler – .264
.300 is roughly an average BABIP. So Mazara seems to be on a pretty average trajectory. Naquin, on the other hand, is clearly due for some form of regression at a lofty .439. That doesn’t mean the regression will occur this year, but that number is clearly unsustainable long-term.
Kepler, however, at just .264 would seem a prime candidate to boost his numbers. While it can be argued that, like Naquin, that boost may not necessarily happen this year, one could also argue that his .345 BABIP over the last two weeks is exemplary of that boost already being under way.
If that’s the case, then Kepler is a prime candidate to separate himself in the Rookie of the Year discussion.MORE NEWS: 2 Pedestrians Shot And Injured In South Minneapolis
It’s been a disaster of a season for the Twins, given pre-season expectations. But perhaps one of the few bright spots could be some hardware in Max Kepler’s future.