Everyone was confused- why in the world had Andrew Friedman and the Rays signed Jeff Keppinger? Sure, he’s versatile like we know the Rays like but they didn’t need an infielder with Evan Longoria, Sean Rodriguez, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena, Reid Brignac, and Elliot Johnson already in the fold. And he couldn’t play shortstop, the only infield position the Rays had any real need at. He wasn’t fast and he was more of a platoon bat than anything, always being much better against left-handed pitchers than righties. Note that there are a ton more righty pitchers around than lefties. The good news was that Keppinger was a bargain, signing for just 1.525 million dollars on a 1-year deal. But what role was he going to play for the Rays?
As it turned out, everything fell apart for the Rays. Evan Longoria got hurt. Injuries to B.J. Upton and later Desmond Jennings forced Ben Zobrist to the outfield. Luke Scott’s injury gave the Rays no real option at designated hitter. And somehow Jeff Keppinger was the Rays’ designated hitter batting cleanup on Opening Day. And ever since then, Jeff Keppinger has been the only consistency the Rays have had in their lineup. Ben Zobrist and Matthew Joyce have traded places, with Joyce being incredible the first two months of the year and ordinary since, and Zobrist doing the exact opposite. Evan Longoria has been ridiculous when healthy but hurt most of the year. Keppinger hasn’t exactly been a constant all season, and he has even been hurt himself. But on the season, he has posted a .320/.371/.444 line with 13 doubles, 5 homers, and 27 RBI in 75 games and 264 plate appearances. He has stolen just 1 base. That isn’t so bad until you consider that Jose Molina has 2. But the difference with Keppinger is his ability to make contact. Keppinger has struck out just 15 times, a minuscule 5.7% of his plate appearances, the best mark in the American League minimum 250 plate appearances. Even if you lower the bar to just 50 plate appearances, Keppinger still comes out on top in the AL. On the year, Keppinger is the only Rays player minimum any amount of plate appearances how has walked more than he has struck out, 19 to 17. The Rays are third in the AL in strikeouts and their propensity for striking out has killed them at times this season. For example, the Rays have struck out 251 times with runners in scoring position, 30 more than any other AL team, and that has led to an AL-worst .690 OPS with RISP. Keppinger doesn’t always get hits and in fact, his .660 OPS with RISP is actually below the team average. But what Keppinger gives the Rays that no one else provides is a confidence that he’s going to put the ball in play and when you do that, you never know what can happen. Keppinger doesn’t hit for power. That’s nothing flashy. Keppinger isn’t going to make the highlight reels with homers or great defensive plays. He’s just going to step up to the plate and do everything he can to give himself a chance.
Andrew Friedman and the Rays understand the value of attributes that don’t make the back of your baseball cards. Did they expect Keppinger to post a .800 OPS after not managing as high a mark in five years? No. But they expecting him to go out there and do the little things to help the team win. Keppinger has played a ton of games at third base this season in place of the Rays’ only established star position player, Evan Longoria. Keppinger is almost an exact opposite player. There’s nothing flashy about him, but he does what he can to help the team win. Who knows where the Rays would be without him.