A tennis court in Tegernheim, Germany is hardly where one would expect to find one of Europe’s top baseball talents. But that is where Max Kepler can be found on a daily basis, working on his game at a tennis club that his former baseball team turned into two batting cages.
The 18-year-old Berlin native is in southern Germany keeping in shape and refining his baseball skills while he waits to head back to the United States for his third season in the Minnesota Twins’ minor league organization.
Kepler, who turns 19 on February 10, is working out three times a day with the hopes of starting 2012 at Single-A Beloit.
heinnews’ David Hein caught up with Germany’s talented outfielder in a café in the sleepy town of Regensburg to talk about his first two seasons in the Twins system; his early success against left-handed pitchers; where hopes to play in the outfield; the Twins’ connection with Germans; German baseball; and a scouting report about himself.
heinnews: How much different this winter compared to last winter?
Kepler: It feels pretty much the same. I mean, I’m always happy to come back to friends and family. I’m not really a big fan of the weather. But I’ll work my way through it. But it’s not much of a big difference.
heinnews: Talk about the 2011 season, moving from the Gulf Coast League to the Appalachian League. Where do you see your game thus far after two seasons of rookie level ball?
Kepler: The Gulf Coast season was a tough season going through the heat and stuff. We always played at 12 p.m., the hottest time of the day. It was a big upgrade moving to the Appy league since we play at night and the weather was great. The field was a lot better, we had fans who supported us and motivated us. And I think I have a good chance to be moving up in 2012 too since my year was pretty decent.
heinnews: How are the bus trips?
Kepler: Oh, they’re cool. We had MLB.com on the TV so we were lucky.
heinnews: After your season in the States, you played centerfield for Regensburg and the German national team. I will come back to that, but at Elizabethton most of your time was at leftfield – is that your position of the future?
Kepler: Depends, it’s all about staying healthy and keeping my arm strong in the outfield. I’m mostly known to have a good arm in the outfield. But when you get tired and stuff you have to keep that arm healthy. Sometimes I was just tired last season, that’s why I was in leftfield. I had some arm problems. But I hope to be in right though because I like using my arm.
heinnews: So, is that where you would rather play then?
Kepler: Well, I’d rather play center but there are speedier guys than me because I am tall.
heinnews: You began the 2011 season batting leadoff then switched between sixth and seventh (16 games each) in the lineup. Where do you see yourself more in the future – again seeing also that you batted leadoff this summer for Germany?
Kepler: I’m probably going to grow a lot in the future so a lot of people are saying I’m going to be a big guy to bring runs in. I see myself maybe third, fourth or fifth – somewhere in there.
heinnews: When you hit sixth, you batted behind Miguel Sano while Eddie Rosario batted third. What’s it been like playing alongside those two the past two seasons?
Kepler: Cool, they’re both great guys and they also have bright futures.
heinnews: What are you learning from those guys?
Kepler: Just to stay focused and stuff.
heinnews: I see you batted .262 last season overall but hit .351 against lefties. How important is it that you’ve started your career hitting lefties well?
Kepler: It’s very important. There was a point in time during the season when you click and you see the ball very well, and you just hope to keep that vision. I kind of lost it towards the end. But I was really seeing the ball well when I was hitting those lefties.
heinnews: Do you feel comfortable, or even more comfortable against lefties?
Kepler: I don’t know. I always have the thought in the back of my head that lefty versus lefty is going to be tough. So I don’t know. Maybe I am more focused and stay more inside against lefties. But I seem to hit ‘em well.
heinnews: So, let’s get away from baseball for a sec, what’s the last book you read?
Kepler: “The Mentality of Baseball”. My coach recommended it to me because he said the game was getting to my head. So he gave me a book about baseball. It’s all about the way you think and the way you see the game mentally. It’s a good book. It helped me so far.
heinnews: What would you say is the biggest thing it has helped you so far?
Kepler: Just to shut down the mind when you’re up to bat or in the field and just see the ball and not think. And everything else will come by itself.
heinnews: How are you trying to get out of slumps thus far, do you think you got out of them quicker this year?
Kepler: No, I think the first year I dealt better with slumps. I think I just let it get to my head this year. I’m going to try to avoid that next year.
heinnews: What are you watching on TV as a German living in the U.S.?
Kepler: I like watching soccer, like the Champions League and stuff. And I like watching NBA playoffs, but the regular season is not really that exciting.
heinnews: Were you watching fellow German Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks?
Kepler: Yeah, I was there every morning watching the highlights at the breakfast table, cheering my German dude on.
heinnews: What did you think about that?
Kepler: It was awesome. It was a great comeback. Everybody was rooting for the Heat because they had all the big players and stuff but the veterans pulled it out.
heinnews: Who was your biggest baseball idol?
Kepler: I’d say Justin Upton. Good player. Ryan Braun’s good too. They’re just good players all around. Upton has a great arm, great swing. He’s big too – kind of everything I want to be in the future.
heinnews: Anybody from the left side of the plate that you look at?
Kepler: Josh Hamilton.
heinnews: How nice is it being in Twins organization – a club that has been so successful for so many years.
Kepler: It’s great. They work with every single player. It feels like a big, huge family there. The Triple-A players are good with all the players in the organization. Everybody is like a family, teaching each other. I’m very comfortable in that organization.
heinnews: Did I see correctly that you were managed by Jake Mauer – Joe’s brother?
Kepler: Not in the seasonal team. I played instructional ball for him. He actually moved up a league when I moved to the GCL. He was there a year before me.
heinnews: How was that experience?
Kepler: He’s great. He’s just like his brother, very soft-spoken.
heinnews: Have you had a chance to meet Joe Mauer?
Kepler: He’s always there in spring training, just like the other guys and they’re all cool to be with.
heinnews: Where do you think the Twins’ connection to Germany comes from with you, Tim Henkenjohann and Rodney Gessmann in the past and Markus Solbach, who spent last season in the Gulf Coast League?
Kepler: I don’t know. It might be because of the scouts. Maybe they send some specific scouts to Germany. My scout (Andy Johnson) I’ve seen him a lot in Germany. He hangs out in Germany, so that might be the reason.
heinnews: And you’ve been connected to Andy for a long time, right?
Kepler: Yeah, he’s been watching me since I was 14 years old probably.
heinnews: In Berlin right? Or where did he see you?
Kepler: He saw me in the Laenderpokal when all the cities came together to play a tournament and he watched me there. And he’s been down in Regensburg since I moved down there as well.
heinnews: Go back to July 2009 – how much pressure did you have when you signed the big 800,000 dollar contract as a 16-year-old? You were receiving headlines like “German Wunderkind of baseball”, you are from Germany, were you surprised by the reaction from the press, which does not cover baseball at all?
Kepler: I was very happy to have all that media attention about me. At the same time I was just trying to stay focused on baseball, not get too high and just stay grounded and just appreciate everything that’s been written about me.
heinnews: Was it hard though? When you got to the States, German media were getting a hold of you more and more. Was it difficult dealing with it?
Kepler: No, not really. It got kind of tiring at points when it came at points when I just wanted to rest and relax. But no, I was fine with it.
heinnews: You played in October 2011 for Germany at the Baseball World Cup in Panama. You had a strong tournament individually – .347 avg, .464 OBP, 8 runs, 1 home run, 3 RBI. Despite the disappointing results, what was that experience like?
Kepler: It was awesome facing all kinds of nationalities. I just wish we could have done better. We deserved to win a couple of games that just slipped away in the last innings due to fielding and other things. But I think we hit good as a team. Us being Germany, we’re not as advanced as all the Latin countries. But I think we played pretty well for our level.
heinnews: German baseball fans will see the 0-7 record and think you guys got smoked. But you lost 5-4 to Nicaragua, brought South Korea to extra innings and were close with Cuba for a while. With the Twins’ Germans and Kai Gronauer and Donald Lutz and now Daniel Thieben among others now in the minor leagues, what’s the state of German baseball at the moment?
Kepler: It’s on the way up. More and more people are being signed. We’re moving up slowly.
heinnews: What do you think has been the key component for that?
Kepler: Not sure. Maybe more academies opening up. More youth is getting involved in baseball in Germany. and a lot more scouts are coming to Germany and to Europe in general.
heinnews: You mentioned the importance of the academies in Germany. Being here in Regensburg, we have the academy here, what kind of role has Regensburg had on the push in German baseball in say the last five years?
Kepler: A big part. But it’s just another part of the puzzle in Germany though. These players in Regensburg come from all over. Most of them did not grow up in Regensburg. So, all of Germany is in it. But Regensburg plays a really big part in it. That’s where most players get developed pretty fast. Yeah, we have a great program here.
heinnews: Regarding the 2011 Baseball World Cup, what did you think of the Netherlands – who beat the Dominican Republic twice at the 2009 World Baseball Classic – beating Cuba to win the gold medal?
Kepler: That was amazing. We were watching it on TV. I was really happy for them. It was amazing.
heinnews: What does it say about European baseball?
Kepler: Well, I guess that it’s growing. It’s getting there.
heinnews: And staying with the Dutch, what are your thoughts on the death of Greg Halman – did you know him at all?
Kepler: I didn’t know him, but I had heard a lot about him. It’s very sad. I don’t even know why stuff like that happens. My condolences.
heinnews: Like we were saying, there are more and more Europeans in the American game now. Alex Liddi is one in Seattle that’s drawing headlines, Kai is at Double-A. Do you have a sense that the Europeans kind of stick together in the minors?
Kepler: Yeah, for sure. We’re a small group of players so we probably do stick together a little bit more just like any other nationality. Like the Latins, they’re a strong group of people in the Big Leagues.
heinnews: What do you think the chances of some of the other Germans in the minors now and their chances long term?
Kepler: We all have good chances. Lutz just got moved to the 40-man for the Reds. We all have good futures in front of us.
heinnews: Back to you, what have the Twins said about your development?
Kepler: They said I’m doing good. I just need to get bigger, stronger and maintain my speed and they’ll see from there.
heinnews: Where do you expect to play next season?
Kepler: Low-A. Beloit.
heinnews: Do you have a sense that you’re going to have to fight really hard to get that spot? Or do you think that your play from last year will kind of get you there?
Kepler: No, I will always go hard. I will never take it easy. I have big expectations. I would say I would like to be in the Big Leagues next year but don’t want to be greedy. I just want to move up.
heinnews: Sticking with that, you said in interview in January 2010 wanted to get to majors in five or six years. Still on that course with lots of excellent OF prospects in the organization?
Kepler: For sure. I can make it.
heinnews: What would you say is the biggest thing you have to learn and work on?
Kepler: To just learn from my mistakes and not get frustrated when something is not working out for me. Like I said earlier, work good through the slumps you have and stay focused and work hard.
heinnews: You signed two years ago at 6-3 and 175, where you at now?
Kepler: I’m still 6-3, but I weigh like 210-215 now.
heinnews: Where do you see your ideal weight?
Kepler: Maybe 240-245. How much does Hamilton weigh?
heinnews: Yeah, probably 240. And he’s probably about 6-4. So is Hamilton kind of the guy you kind of want to play like since you mentioned him a second time and him being a lefty-lefty as well.
Kepler: I see myself looking to be like him in the future.
heinnews: Ever have a chance to meet him and if not, what would you ask if you did?
Kepler: No, not yet. Just anything I’d have on my mind. How he started, how he moved up through the minor leagues. How he developed.
heinnews: Interested at all in scouting reports at all?
heinnews: Okay, here is the scouting report about your from Baseball Prospectus: The Good: Kepler certainly passes the sniff test. He’s a graceful athlete with length, and his fluid swing makes it easy to project him to hit for power once his frame fills. His speed and arm strength are both a tick above average, giving him the tools to play center field.
The Bad: Everything about Kepler’s game is raw. He’s still learning how to recognize pitches, and rarely drives balls in game situations. He needs to improve his reads and routes in the outfield and his baserunning.
Thoughts on that?
Kepler: I’ll take it for sure. And I’ll work on it.
heinnews: How accurate do you think it is from your perception and what others have told you to work on?
Kepler: The game situation one I know from myself that’s one I have to work on, being clutch and stuff. That’s when I start thinking too much. That’s really what I want to work on. So that was pretty accurate.
heinnews: What about the least accurate part?
Kepler: I think I have fine routes in the outfield. The coaches are all pleased with my routes. I work myself deep into counts, so I’m fine with pitch recognition too. I might be a little too aggressive in 0-2 counts but that’s what they’ve been telling me to be. And I’m going to stick with that.
heinnews: Biggest positive from hearing something like that?
Kepler: Just showing me things I have to work on. I love working on getting better. And I’ll go do some stuff on that today, right away.
heinnews: Plans for the next four-five months?
Kepler: Going to Florida at the end of January to start workouts. And then hopefully Beloit.
heinnews: So this will be the first full-season you will have. If you do make it there, what are your hopes, expectations about getting that?
Kepler: I’m excited. My only concern I have is staying healthy. That’s a big issue when you play everyday. I’m working on stuff everyday.