The Minnesota Twins have a trio of very athletic outfielders. All three are 26 and under. All three have good speed. All three came up as prospects of the Twins, each reaching into Top 100 rankings (Buxton near the top, Rosario and Kepler appearing briefly). All three hit in the minor leagues, and all three have had their moments in the big leagues already. Most important, all three still have the potential to be even better with just a few improvements.
Today, I want to highlight the three starting Twins outfielders by pointing to one statistic, one theme, or one area of improvement that could help them make the next step in their careers.
Kepler Versus Lefties
There is no question that Max Kepler has really struggled during his two seasons in the big leagues against left-handed pitching. Here are the numbers:
2016 (133 PA): .203/.273/.322 (.595) – .792 OPS vs RHP
2017 (137 PA): .152/.213/.240 (.453) – .828 OPS vs RHP
Kepler took a step backwards in 2017 against same-sided pitchers. Some may believe that there is enough of a sample size to suggest a strict platoon in right field. Others (this writer included) believe that because he will be just 25-years-old throughout the 2018 season, he needs to get more opportunities.
If you are looking for more reason for optimism, look back to 2015. After several years as a very raw prospect, Kepler had his breakout season in 2015 in which he was named the Twins Minor League Player of the Year. While he posted a .935 OPS against right-handers in AA, he also hit .319/.390/.473 (.863) against southpaws.
Of course, there is a difference between AA pitching and big league pitching, but that is enough to keep me optimistic for some success against left-handers. While we shouldn’t expect Kepler to increase his OPS vs LHP to the .800 level, if he could just get that number to the .650 range, it would be a dramatic improvement and help his overall numbers look just a little better.
That said, if he has another season with an OPS vs LHP near the .450 range, then the team will have to consider platoon options in right field for a playoff run and in the future.
Fast Start For Buxton
Byron Buxton is really fast. Unfortunately, his bat has started out very slow in each of his three seasons in the big leagues. He’s proven to be very valuable just because of his defense, but we’ve also seen just how much he can bring to the table when he is being a force with the bat and the glove. In my opinion, one of the biggest keys to a strong 2018 Twins season might just be the bat of the best defensive player in the game in April.
Here is a quick look at the stats of Byron Buxton in his first 15 games in each of his first three seasons:
2015 (61 PA): .207/.233/.276 (.507)
2016 (40 PA): .162/.205/.297 (.502)
2017 (52 PA): .082/.135/.122 (.287)
His start in 2017 was dreadful, but as we saw over the course of the season, he made several adjustments and by season’s end, he looked like a new hitter.
Consider that after really struggling those first 15 games in 2017, he hit .274/.335/.448 (.783) the rest of the year.
As Yogi Berra famously said, “Half of baseball is 90% mental.” Imagine the confidence that Buxton could gain by getting of to a fast start. It is the kind of thing that could thrust him into superstardom and MVP discussions.
Rosario Shows Zone Judgment
Eddie Rosario enjoyed a breakout season in 2017 when he hit .290/.328/.507 (.836) with 33 doubles and 27 home runs. There is little question what the biggest key was for Eddie Rosario. He didn’t swing at as many pitches outside the zone. According to FanGraphs, here are his Outside-the-Zone Swing Percentages during his three MLB seasons:
In short, he has quit swinging at quite so many pitches outside of the strike zone. In theory, by making the pitcher throw a few more strikes, and with Rosario’s still-aggressive approach, he is hitting better pitches. Rosario has such quick hands, and he makes contact at such a high percentage. By swinging at less bad pitches, he is giving himself a better chance. If Rosario can continue the trend, he should continue to put up really strong numbers. As nice as the improvement was in 2017, check out where Rosario ranks among Twins regulars last year (and I included Logan Morrison just for fun).
Robbie Grossman 18.2%
Joe Mauer 20.5%
Jason Castro 21.7%
Brian Dozier 23.4%
Jorge Polanco 26.9%
Logan Morrison 27.7%
Max Kepler 28.5%
Miguel Sano 29.1%
Byron Buxton 31.1%
Eduardo Escobar 35.7%
Eddie Rosario 37.6%
In other words, there is much room for improvement. However, if he can put up his 2017 numbers while swinging at 37.6% of pitches outside the zone, imagine what type of numbers he might put up is he can get that number down to 32%, or even lower?
So there are three key numbers for three key contributors to a successful 2018 season for the Twins. “Nothing Falls But Raindrops” was the motto for the 2017 Twins outfielders. Each has good range at their outfield position, and each has a ton of potential remaining with their bats as well. The aforementioned statistics will be key for each of them.