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  • Writer's pictureAndy Singer

A Sensible Left Field Target

By Andy Singer

December 27, 2022


Photo Credits: Gregory Bull, AP Photo and Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports

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).


Blind Comparison

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:


Or 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.


Conclusion

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.

53 commentaires


Alan B.
Alan B.
27 déc. 2022

We have our LF placeholder - Aaron Hicks. We have so many OF prospects in both AA & AAA, plus Florial why get anyone? Oh and there is Cabrera still on the roster and the 10 games a year Stanton can play in LF in BOS & HOU.

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
28 déc. 2022
En réponse à

I concur. I've analyzed HIcks and Cabrera adnauseam here on SOL. Offensively, Hicks is a poor "switch stander" (not hitter). All he does is walk, otherwise, any replacement player is better, especially from the left side. Cabrera isn't going to move the needle as a starter. Meanwhile, NY has some interesting outfielders with upside moving through the system. We're at critical mass, as the prospects are nowhere near ready yet and the team is staring into the Hicks abyss. How much in terms of prospect's cache does the placeholder cost and how long can said placeholder remain a viable part of the solution to multiple championship teams?


To me, Kepler is a placeholder yes, but not a viable one and…


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jjw49
27 déc. 2022

Andy ... appreciate the effort you put into your posts and this one on Kepler is very good. The counter argument by Cary is also compelling and although Kepler would fit I think I prefer Reynolds. In the end I'm not sure Pittsburgh will get as much as they want. Yankees have several options to offer Pirates and lets not forget we are dealing with the Pirates who are perennially bad for a reason.

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
27 déc. 2022
En réponse à

I also think JJW said something I didn't. Nice work JJW. Andy: the effort and the analysis doesn't go unappreciated. I've been wrong a zillion times about a zillion things, most of us do think one thing might be right from time to time and then - whammo! Reality strikes!! JJW made a really classy post here. Post of the day really, I'd say. My apologies for not saying what ^^he^^ said to open his post. I think blog made a good suggestion previously (not in this thread). The Yankees might want to consider a third team in any Reynolds trade.

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
27 déc. 2022

Cashman has failed at securing a left fielder who can be a stopgap type player. Benintendi was really seeming like the answer until his wrist injury knocked him out for the season. He was beginning to look awfully good. Time to go get Bryan Reynolds or look to put a far less costly to trade for stopgap in place. I do believe trading with KC for Michael A. Taylor is play #1, he'd replace Hicks as the fourth outfielder. Play #2 is trading with Detroit for the new starting left fielder - Austin Meadows.


LF - Meadows/Taylor

CF Bader/Taylor

RF Judge


Expand the trade with Detroit and eat Hick's 2024 and 2025 AAV. Give them Hicks, Florial, German and Torres…

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
27 déc. 2022
En réponse à

Very true Andy, but it's been a number of years now and the plan just hasn't come together. Roy White, where have you gone! Woo, woo, woo! What's that you say Mrs. Robinson? Steady Roy has left and gone away. Hey, hey, hey. Hey, hey hey.

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
27 déc. 2022

I have a couple of concerns with Max Kepler. Firstly, he hasn't played a single inning of left field in his career. He has played center field though, which leads me to believe he might be able to play not only left field, but left field in Yankee Stadium -- which is pretty expansive compared to many other parks but obviously, not as expansive as the old Yankee Stadium's left field was. But can he do it? We thought Joey Gallo could. He couldn't. I have doubts.


Kepler's sprint speed is in the 63rd-percentile of MLB outfielders and his arm strength is in the 73rd-percentile. Oswaldo Cabrera a touch slower and has a significantly better arm (which is why he's…





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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
28 déc. 2022
En réponse à

I sense a pending article to come!

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fuster
27 déc. 2022

John Heyman reports that an unnamed source reportedly close to Carlos Correa

is claiming the the New York Yankees are 'extremely interested. in signing a 17 year deal that will provide long-term stability to the left field picture.


'Carlos has often expressed a desire to play in the outfield'.

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Cary Greene
Cary Greene
28 déc. 2022
En réponse à

Hopefully thing aren't that bleak!

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