A Sensible Left Field Target
By Andy Singer
December 27, 2022
Much has been written thus far about the Yankees' gaping hole in left field. As recently as this week's player signing news conferences, we have heard Yankee officials talk up Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Cabrera as realistic options in left field as free agents such as Masataka Yoshida, Andrew Benintendi, Michael Brantley, and Michael Conforto have all come off of our free agent bingo cards. I am a noted Aaron Hicks apologist and am likely the first person writing on the internet to talk about Oswaldo Cabrera well in advance of last season. Despite those facts, I believe that some combination of Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Cabrera will patrol left field at Yankee Stadium in 2023 about as much as I believed that Bubba Crosby would man center field for the Yankees in 2006 (if you know, you know). I spent time ranking the available free agent left field targets, but I never particularly believed that Brian Cashman would use his available budget on the free agent market to fill the hole in left field.
That leaves the Yankees wandering around the ever nebulous trade market to find a legitimate starting caliber left fielder. Rumors, whispers, and leaked articles with scoops that are surely pushed by player agents have run amok regarding the current crop of available outfielders on the trade market. By this point, most of us know them well, and our own Ethan Semendinger has done an outstanding job of listing many of them in his recent series covering potential Yankee left fielder targets. I have also thrown my hat into that ring through numerous answers to SSTN Mailbag questions in recent weeks, noting my favorite under the radar trade target a couple of weeks ago. However, I think we've all overlooked a very viable trade target (and yes, myself included).
I find blind comparisons incredibly useful, because they remove preconceived notions and inherent biases from the equation. As most of you know, I don't like just looking at bottom-line performance numbers; I am more concerned by process, because process-based statistics give us a much better picture of what is most likely to occur in the future. In practice, that means that as much as I love bottom-line statistics like on-base percentage, home runs, and slugging percentage, I like to see exit velocity, max exit velocity, walk rates, and strikeout rates. Additionally, I have reached the point where I believe that Baseball Savant's calculations for defense (Outs Above Average, or OAA) are far closer to accurate (and the eye test) than anything else publicly available. So when I compared two potential trade targets on the trade market, I was surprised by what I found.
Here are the bottom-line Statcast rankings in 2022 for Player A:
Here's Player B in 2022:
Player B is a little faster and hits the ball a little harder a bit more consistently, but if this was all you knew about these two players, all of us would take Player A, right? Player A has elite raw power, with truly elite defense and plate discipline statistics, and expected batting statistics that are All-Star caliber. Oh and while Player B might be a bit faster, hit the ball a little harder, and have a bit more arm strength, Player A doesn't give up much in those areas.
I'll reiterate, as a point of emphasis: if we're being intellectually honest, all of us would pick Player A. Ready to know who we're looking at?
Player B is Bryan Reynolds in 2022. Player A is Max Kepler in 2022.
Max Kepler, Really? Surely, You're Kidding?!?
I assure you, I'm not kidding, and I even surprised myself. If I read this a week ago, I'd assume that I enjoyed my holiday a bit too much. But the numbers don't lie, and neither does the video or a deeper dive. Brian Cashman might have gotten too cute at times with his roster building methodology in season's past, but one thing he and his front office have proven beyond a reasonable doubt is that they are adept at finding diamonds in the rough. Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, and even Aaron Hicks (pre-contract extension) all were throw-in trade pieces that generated gobs of value initially. When you look past the surface, it becomes clear why some are beginning to connect the Yankees with Max Kepler.
It's true, Max Kepler hit just .227/.318/.348 in 2022 despite elite underlying statistics. It is also true that Kepler has typically under-performed his underlying statistics throughout his career. I will grant you both of those things. That doesn't change the fact that he is an elite defender in an outfield corner (and while he hasn't played left field in recent seasons, he has extensive minor league experience on that side of the outfield), has elite plate discipline numbers, and bats left-handed. But let's dig even a bit deeper.
We all know that the shift is being eliminated in 2023. Max Kepler was shifted against in almost 90% of his plate appearances in 2022. On a hunch, I wanted to look at all outs made against Kepler when he hit the ball over 90 MPH to the right side of the field in 2022. The results are eye-opening. Here is Kepler's spray chart on batted balls like the ones described above:
I dug into video of every one of the outs you see above. Many of those batted balls look like this:
Or like this:
I think you get the idea at this point. I genuinely believe that Kepler has been victimized by the shift as much as any hitter in MLB in recent seasons. Conservatively, the shift took 10 hits away from Kepler last season. On the most aggressive end, I think it's possible the shift took as many as 19 hits away from Kepler in 2022. For reference, if Kepler had even 10 more hits, he would have raised his batting average from .227 to .253 and his OBP from .318 to .344.
Don't believe my video analysis? Baseball Savant's expected statistics on the batted balls described in my previous paragraphs are every bit as optimistic, possibly more so. Statcast credits Kepler with a .295 xBA on the batted balls shown in the spray chart above, which equates to 23.6 more hits over the 80 plate appearances described. Additionally, Kepler had a well above-average .337 xwOBA on those batted balls, with a 98.8 exit velocity. Any way you slice it, Kepler stands to benefit significantly from the outlawing of the shift in 2023.
Oh, and we haven't even talked about the move to Yankee Stadium in 2023 in this scenario!?! Kepler would have hit 5 more homers in Yankee Stadium in 2022, and all indications are that multiple outs in the outfield would have been doubles or better at Yankee Stadium.
Max Kepler has been a solid ballplayer for years, quietly compiling 16.9 bWAR in 7 full big league seasons. There are reasons to believe that there is untapped potential in his bat and readily available upside coming with the elimination of the shift in 2023. Kepler is an elite defender in RF with previous experience in LF and CF, bats left-handed, displays elite plate discipline, and is highly likely to produce at least above-average on-base numbers in 2023. Oh, and his underlying numbers look a lot better than Bryan Reynolds, who is set to command a hefty sum on the trade market this winter.
Kepler will cost the Yankees less in prospects and money than Bryan Reynolds. I had largely ignored Max Kepler this winter, and I was wrong to do so. If Reynolds and Kepler are the two most realistic choices for the Yankees on the trade market this winter for left field, I'll take Kepler. I can picture him either at the top or bottom of the order getting on-base in front of the boppers in the middle of the order. The more I look at Max Kepler, the more sense he makes.