Germany’s Max Kepler is enjoying a breakout season with the Minnesota Twins. While he's among the best home-run hitters in Major League Baseball this year, back home, few even know his name.
The current top-10 list of home-run hitters in Major League Baseball (MLB) season features nine players from traditional baseball markets; six from the United States, two from Venezuela and one Cuban. But when you get to No. 10 on that list you'll find a name from a country with a distinct absence of a strong baseball tradition: Max Kepler of Berlin, Germany.
In Germany, baseball remains very much a niche sport, so Kepler making it to this level playing America's pastime was an unlikely story – one that was only made possible as he is "always working hard" and "always looking to improve," as he puts it.
At the same time, though, Kepler, who is in his fourth MLB season, concedes that much off his success is also due to the fact that in the Minnesota Twins, he has simply found the right fit.
"I've had the good fortune of being able to play with the same players for two or three years now. It's a bit like a small family, and that's when you can have fun together," he says.
In the previous two years seasons combined, Kepler hit a total of 39 home runs, but this season alone he has almost equaled that total (36 as of Sept. 5, 2019) – with more than 20 games to go in the regular season.
The Twins' No. 26 finds it difficult to explain his jump in performance, saying that why he doesn't regard it as "shocking" for a German to put up such numbers in MLB, it is "quite extraordinary to be performing as a power hitter” in the majors.
Kepler is only the second German to make it to the MLB after Donald Lutz had a cup of coffee with the Cincinnati Reds in 2013 and 2014. However, according to Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, Kepler, who signed a five-year, $35-million (€31.7 million) contract extension back in the spring, is "on his way to becoming a star."
From tennis to football to baseball
Maximilian Kepler-Rozycki was born in Berlin in 1993 to a mother from Texas and a Polish father – both of whom met while performing as ballet dancers at the German capital's Deutsche Oper.
Their son would try out a number of sports; he played tennis at the Steffi Graf Foundation and he played as a goalkeeper in Hertha Berlin's football academy – before first discovering baseball at the German-American John F. Kennedy School. He quickly took to the game.
In his early teenage years, Kepler decided to focus entirely on baseball and in 2008 he moved to a boarding school in Regensburg in Bavaria to hone his skills. Just a year later, the Minnesota Twins signed the then-16-year-old to an $800,000-contract – the most any MLB team had ever spent on a European at the time.
Starting right fielder and leadoff hitter
What followed was a long climb through the Twin's youth and minor-league system, and despite some setbacks, he never gave up believing that one day, he would make it to the big club. When he received his first call up in 2015, for many of his teammates he was simply "The German." Now, though, as the Twins' starting right fielder and leadoff hitter in the batting order, Kepler's nationality is no longer an issue.
"I am simply Max,” he says.
Back in March, when the Major League season began, expectations for the Twins weren't particularly high. Kepler says they entered the current campaign simply looking to "win games, stay healthy and have fun."
While they may not have managed to stay healthy all the time, they have won a lot of games – and winning always breeds fun, whatever the sport. With 22 games left in the regular season, Minnesota is on top of the AL Central Division and has the best offensive record in the American League. The Twins have also set an all-time MLB record for home runs.
Poster boy for MLB's push into Europe
Kepler's strong performances this season have made him something of a poster boy for MLB as it looks to expand its following in Europe. Earlier this season ESPN published a profile of Kepler in which it described him as a "rare European star," and quoted in that same article Jim Small, MLB's senior vice president, international – who went a step further.
"Having heroes like Max Kepler is huge for us,” he said. "They're the fertilizer that will help us continue to grow the sport."
Kepler is a willing partner in that effort, and is planning to organize training camps for children in Berlin, Frankfurt and Regensburg in November. He may be well on his way to becoming a star in Minnesota, but what about back home?
"Only the baseball community knows about me – and nobody else,” he says. "But actually, that's kind of nice."