A Player’s Player
Max Kepler’s rookie season in the bigs was nothing short of magical. The only thing missing from the Hollywood-like scenarios that played out seemingly, night after night, in the heat of summer was a trip to the fall classic. Not only was Kepler contributing to his team but he seemed, by all photographic evidence, to be having a blast on the ride. Most importantly, his teammates continually appeared at his side, ready to celebrate his glory.
As we wish Max a very happy 24th birthday, and best wishes heading into spring training, it’s not his statistics we want to share with you but his persona which, by all accounts, seems to be the bigger mark of his success.
There are few players in the history of the game that you can point to and say, ‘That guy’s having a blast. Win or lose he’s just happy to be here.’ Ken Griffey Jr. was one of those guys. So too was Ozzie Smith. In recent memory it is hard to think of another but Kepler seems to have that same ease about him on the field. His smile draws you in, fan, media or teammate. To me, he looks like that person who you know is a great story teller getting that perfect twinkle in their eye right before the big tale begins. You can’t wait to experience the story and, in some respects it is only a story because this person’s telling it.
Given his early experiences in Europe it’s no guarantee that Max has this same reputation here at home. As his mom puts it, she got a call. Always athletic and competitive, when he was quite young he was acting out a bit because the challenge in the youth leagues just wasn’t there for him. That call promoted some moves on the part of the family. They sought ways to encourage his drive while improving his spirit. It seems to have worked.
Most people know that Kepler signed out of Regensburg Academy at 16 years old to what was then the largest signing bonus in the history of Europe. He had 12 teams come-a-courting but it was the Twins, and $800,000, that brought him to the US. He completed his final year of school in the states. For most teens the language barrier alone might have been a challenge but Max had a competitive advantage. He’d grown up in a tri-lingual household where English was his mother’s tongue. His dad was Polish and German made three. You couldn’t ask for a better combination heading to the mid-west of America where many European families settled during the war eras.
The Family Man
Max’s parents, both professional ballet dancers in their youth, have a lot to do with the discipline and athleticism Kepler displays. Max, who spent many childhood nights watching from the wings, looks back at his parent’s time in the ballet with fondness, “The whole special effects of behind the scenes ballet was a cool experience.” Today his parents have different careers but remain in athletics. His mother is a physical therapist while his father teaches ballet.
For Max, family is key. When his sister and mother arrived in Boston last year to surprise him his response was, “That’s my mom. She means the world to me. So does my sister. Family is everything.”
During spring training last season Kepler said having his Twins teammates with him in Arizona made him more comfortable. "It's like family," Kepler said. "I love having them around. They're all great players. It makes it easier to adapt."
When looking at what makes Max a player’s player, perhaps the place to begin the search is with his parents. Maybe he did more than just wait while in the wings during their years as dancers. Kepler’s mom says, “It’s like in the ballet, you don’t go into the studio and go right in front of the ballerina and say, ‘I’m here.’ You go in the back where you belong, and start at the bottom and work your way up to that status. He’s very respectful of that.”
Kathy Kepler describes her son as “always very methodical.” His mom said that every decision they made following his signing, from how to live and what classes to take, all came down to his needs in relation to the game. Growing up Max went by the last name Kepler-Rozycki. “Teams told us it wouldn’t fit on the back of a jersey,” Kathy Kepler said. “We decided upon Kepler, though if he had signed with the Cubs, with all the Polish people in Chicago, he may have used Rozycki.”
His younger sister Emma is now on an athletic journey of her own through the US, having arrived on a golf scholarship. Following in her brother’s footsteps she maintains an A average while doing so. Emma Kepler-Rozycki said, “Max and I always thought when we were growing up that we would end up living in the U.S. because we always liked the whole American dream, like it was this faraway fairy tale”.
Since his youth Kepler has been a multi-sport athlete. He was seen by some to be headed toward the European golden ticket – an opportunity to play professional soccer. Max said, “I took to baseball because I wanted to see what a different country had to offer and go abroad.” If he can maintain his 2016 pace I think it is his new country that will learn what he can offer them. At this rate, Kepler will single-handedly make the outfield 'the spot' for little leaguers around Minnesota, if not the country.
One thing to consider when looking at his numbers is that Kepler is having this kind of success not just in his rookie year but as a young rookie. The average player debuts in the bigs at 24.4 years old. Kepler was 22 when he first broke through and 23 when he got called up for good. That means, athletically speaking, there is still room to grow even before his body begins to level out in terms of performance.
When asked what was different the day he set a Twins rookie record for RBIs in a single game with 7 he replied, “No difference today. Stuff just went my way. That’s how baseball is.”
Max has a few mantras he lives by to help him through the mental aspects of baseball. In nearly every interview you’ll hear some variation of “I tell myself to play small ball.” Or “I just try to keep it simple”. Out of most player’s mouths these can seem like platitudes but, coming from Kepler, they are spoken with the sort of determination that lets you know these are his daily affirmations. In one interview he remarked he was working on, “Laying off the sliders away, lefty against lefty. Tuning out the crowd.” Crowd noise was a trouble spot for Kepler as he worked through his rookie year. Once he hit his stride he remarked, ‘After I was able to tune out the crowd then its just skill on skill out there’.
When asked about how he found his pace Max remarked, “I told myself to just put the ball in play. If it’s coming in hard, it’s going to go out hard.”
When he was approached before a game against the Yankees by 70-year old Reggie Jackson Kepler said, “I was surprised he wanted to talk to me. It was a milestone for me obviously.”
Kepler never hit more than 10 homeruns in a minor league season. In his first full year in the bigs he caught his stride mid-summer and went on a tear hitting 18 in just 25 games.
Teammate Tyler Duffey, who played with Kepler early in his career, compares Max’s athleticism to that of Josh Hamilton, "He's really been blessed as an athlete in general but more so as a baseball player. I think he could have played any sport he wanted to. I guess the Twins are lucky he played baseball."
Watching this one thing is clear, he’s found the sweet spot on the bat. If you close your eyes and just listen, you can hear that every single hit sounds exactly the same. That only happens when the contact is consistent. Paul Molitor commented on Kepler’s 3-homer night against the Indians in July, “It’s fun to watch. We talked about his swing early on. He got some pitches to hit off a good pitcher and he didn’t miss. Those balls are basically line drives that went really far. They weren’t lifted. They were just hit the way you want to hit a baseball.”
Molitor has moved up in the Twins organization right alongside Kepler. For his first three seasons in the league, Molitor was Kepler’s base running coach and infield coordinator. "It's been a little bit of a different developmental curve for him.”
Late summer in 2015, in Chattanooga, as his team celebrated their championship win, skipper Doug Meintkiewicz called Kepler into his office. "You try to think of something creative to say for each guy, knowing their personalities and where they're from and how long it's taken them, but with Max, I couldn't get it out fast enough," the skipper said. After letting Max know he'd have a league MVP trophy to go along with his championship ring, he told him to pack his bags for the bigs. "It's like one of your own kids getting a chance to fulfill a dream and it's pretty exciting."
On his own success, Kepler had this to say, “Like I was taught, and it’s been preached a lot, the dumb baseball players are the best baseball players. When you have your mind shut off and the thoughts are completely aside the game, you just react to the stuff that you need to and it’s usually a good day.”
Kepler came up as a first baseman and his 2013 elbow injury had some believing that’s where he should stay. Molitor however always intended that, much like his goalie position in soccer, Kepler would be the last line of defense for the team, placing him in the outfield where his speed was an asset.
Coach Molitor says Kepler’s not as unemotional as it sometimes seems, “He shows a lot of emotion and frustration down in the tunnels, more than you would imagine. He expects a lot out of himself. He’s very smart and determined. The fact that he contains the outward joy when he’s doing well is probably a good thing. He’s got a long career ahead of him.”
Watching interview after interview with Kepler a few things are clear. He’s not afraid to speak and, though the words seem to come with ease, each one is carefully selected to ensure a concise and well-formed response. At the same time, what Kepler offers, and what makes him a media person’s go-to for soundbites, is that his comments are wholly his own. When asked to react to the shootings in Munich last July Kepler said, “I don’t know. There’s a lot of hate in this world. It’s very confusing to me. Even though it’s happening so often, there’s no way I’m ever going to get used to it.”
Kepler’s not afraid to make it personal. He’s open to giving genuine answers and thoughtful responses. If you watch his interviews on video you see that every reporter, no matter age or credentials, receives his full attention and respect. This one’s tough to hear but just watching the clip with the sound off you’ll see what makes Max approachable.
The best comment to come from that interview is his advice to kids. “Keep your head up. Baseball’s a tough sport. It can mess with you mentally if you can get to that point where you understand it but, at a young age, just have fun out there. See the ball, hit the ball and keep your head up.”
Perhaps because of his own youth, Kepler is often asked what advice he has for younger players. This is somewhat ironic given he was not a tradition youth player himself having been raised through the European system. Perhaps that’s why his advice is always translatable to any athletic endeavor one would care to take on, “Start slow, learn the basics and keep your head up. It’s a tough game to learn. Work through it with whatever you have and don’t give up.”
When asked about being back in the minors after finishing 2015 in the bigs Kepler said, “As a young player you want to be getting at bats every day and getting a lot of experience. You certainly don’t want to be a bench player, even if it’s in the big leagues. I’d honestly rather have more at bats than be sitting on the bench at 23. I just want to be playing.”
The Max Factor
The essence of what makes Kepler a great teammate, a player’s player, will perhaps forever remain a well-guarded secret. We spoke with some guys he played with in the EU. They got that wonderful reminiscent gaze when asked to recall their time with him yet insist the stories are not for publishing. I imagine we will have to wait for his retirement years to learn all of Kepler’s best anecdotes.
Philadelphia Philly Tyler Goeddel, who faced Max often in the minors says, "He's a hard worker for sure. He takes his baseball really seriously. He's committed to his craft, there's no doubt about it. He's working out as hard as anyone I've ever seen. But at the same time, he's always in a good mood, always fun-loving. We had some great times together and it's a great friendship. I know it's going to keep getting stronger as we keep playing together."
One thing is clear, no matter what Max takes on in the game, he’s going to do it in his own way and it won’t be long before everyone is turned to his way of thinking. Breaking tradition can be a good thing. Third base coach Gene Glynn, who normally shakes hands with players as they trot past the bag on a homerun said, “I’ve never seen a home run trot as fast as Max’s. There’s no time to shake.”
That’s good old-fashioned hussle and a good example of what makes him a player’s player. He’s always in the game, too busy making things happen to take time to celebrate. Kepler’s just out there doing his job and doing it to the best of his abilities. He once said, “I just have to remind myself I’m fighting for a job, every day, no matter what I did the day before.”
Unbelievably, people time these things and, it turns out, on a night when Kepler hit three homers, his combined total time around the bases was 55.6 seconds. The league average per homer is 22 seconds for a single homer while Kepler averages 18.5. That’s hussle… well, hussle and the gift of a 6’4” frame. His manager also claims that, because his swings are more like long-running line drives than guaranteed bell ringers, there’s no time to sit and admire. Kepler says, “It’s just how I run. I don’t have a trot.”
Kepler’s game plan seems to be “Go out there every day with the same mindset. Keep things very simple. Slow the game down. Try not to do too much and get on base for the guys behind me.”
On his quick rise to fame, in terms of his game, Max said, “I’m not really prepared for any of it. It’s fun. It’s awesome. But I still have to set my mind to focus on the right things and not get carried away by things that seem fun but that will get me off track. I’m just happy to have people who can keep me on track.”
As to the additional demands from the media and fans Kepler says, “I like to accept everyone who wants to talk to me, even people that ask me for stuff. I have a hard time turning people down because it’s not easy. It’s part of success in any field of work. But I’m learning how to deal with it as it comes.”
Twins vice president Mike Radcliff said, “He wasn’t a very good player early on. We showed a lot of patience, and he showed a lot of perseverance. He kind of turned the corner in AA. The light went on.”
Co-player of the week Joe Mauer said, “It’s been a lot of fun for me. I saw Max when he was 16-years old so I saw him pretty raw and I see the adjustments that he’s made over the years. It’s been a lot of fun to see but since he’s come up here he’s been contributing. You know you give him a piece of advice here and there and he puts it into play out there. He’s a quick study and it’s going to be fun to watch him throughout his whole career.”
At its core, that’s what makes Kepler the player’s player. He’s succeeding because he’s working. As the work pays off his teammates get to share in his success because he’s made them a part of it throughout. He’s followed their advice, treated them as family and made his success their own.
We’re looking forward to what lies ahead in the new season but for today, we’re wishing Max a great family day, whether at home or abroad, as he celebrates a his birthday.
Martin Brunner, Max's former coach in Regensburg, had a personal message for Kepler, "Max Happy Birthday. You spark everybody around you with you being you. Celebrate your birthday right and carry this spirit into the clubhouse this spring and carry on! all the best!" Now blow out your candles.