Max Kepler coming back fresh after offseason reset in Paris

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Max Kepler estimates it took about a month, a month in a half for his body to physically heal — Kepler suffered a fracture of his pinky toe in July and later missed the end of the season with a wrist injury — this offseason.

Just as important, the Twins outfielder used his offseason time to detach his mind from baseball, spending a couple months living in Paris with his girlfriend. The “reset” was especially important after a trying 2022 season for Kepler.

During the season, Kepler said he has learned to lean on his teammates — “not the best therapist in the world is going to be able to relate. They can try to talk you through it, but only the guys in here are the ones that can really relate,” he said. During the beginning of the offseason, the focus was on removing himself from baseball as much as possible.

“I think he needed to probably go and experience something new, where he lived this offseason. He loves that,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s going to be at his best and in his best frame of mind to come out here and play good baseball when he is happy and he’s comfortable.”

So what exactly did that detachment look like for the 30-year-old?

He filled his time surrounded by family and friends, traveling, indulging in good food, reading and listening to music.

“Just the pleasures of life to balance out some of the struggles we go through in a year,” Kepler said. “We work so hard. I think we deserve to enjoy some things to take our minds off.”

While his name was tossed around in trade rumors, Kepler was thousands of miles away, across an ocean, in the Parisian neighborhood of Le Marais, learning French and delighting in what the city had to offer.

After the Twins signed Joey Gallo in December, talk of the Twins trading Kepler really picked up. Kepler wasn’t paying attention.

“I just tried to focus on what I can do and that was work out, stay healthy and improve in the game of baseball,” Kepler said. “The media, I try and focus on the stuff that I can control. I can’t control the media. I can’t control if they’re going to trade me or not.”

Instead of trading him, the Twins hung on to Kepler and created what very well could be the best collection of defensive outfielders in the league. Kepler has been well-regarded for his defense even as his production at the plate has lagged recently.

Last season, the right fielder hit .227 with a 93 OPS+, which is 7% worse than league average. Both his OPS and his slugging percentage were the worst of his career. After hitting 36 home runs in 2019 — and 19 a season prior — that number was down to nine in 2022.

A self-described “overthinker,” at the plate, Kepler characterized hitting as a “never-ending project.” That project is getting slightly easier for the lefty, who stands to benefit from Major League Baseball’s new rule change, which will force all infielders onto the dirt and require two to stay on each side of second base, restricting the shift.

While Kepler says his goal is to hit the ball over the infielders entirely, he anticipates more groundballs sneaking through for hits.

“I do think that these rule changes will help him statistically. I think they’ll help him psyche-wise,” Baldelli said. “ … These rules are actually meant, in one way or the other, to benefit players like Max, and they’re going to.”

And so, too, Kepler hopes, will a clear mind after an offseason well spent.

“I think the refresh button, the offseason, I hope I’m right on this, I think some of the new rule changes with the shift, a lot of the left-handed hitters, I think that’s going to be refreshing for Max as well,” bench coach Jayce Tingler said. “It’s going to be good to see him get a fresh start to the season and get off and get going.”