The Consistent Mr. Keppinger

added 5/31/2010 by Bob Hulsey

If anyone on the Astros has exceeded expectations this year, it is probably Jeff Keppinger, the versatile infielder. Last season, he was in a platoon at third base with Geoff Blum. This season, he has won the majority of starts at second base and also filled in at shortstop.

The 30-year-old is with his fifth big league organization after playing college ball at the University of Georgia. He's not special with the glove nor is his range anything to marvel at. Keppinger's niche is being able to play adequately across the infield and murder lefthanded pitching.

In some ways, he's a mirror image of Blum who is also versatile but not special in the field. Although Blum is a switch-hitter, Blum is better against righthanded pitching (.254 batting average, .701 OPS) over his career than against lefties (.234,.674).

With Keppinger, there's less home run power than Blum but a higher average. Keppinger is rather ordinary against righthanders throughout his career (.254,.650 through Saturday) but he devours lefthanded pitching (.339, .889).

Unfortunately for Jeff, 70% of major league pitchers are righthanded so he seems destined to be a utility player for much of his career. However, the poor hitting of Kaz Matsui to start the season opened the door for a starting gig at second base and Keppinger seems to be making the most of it. Through Saturday, he has batted .289 overall with a .725 OPS. Predictably, he has feasted whenever a lefty is on the hill, hitting .324 with a Jeter-like .918 OPS.

Originally drafted by the Pirates in 2001, Keppinger was dealt to the Mets at the trade deadline in 2004 in a swap which also included pitcher Kris Benson and Astro-to-be Ty Wigginton. He was a late call-up in New York that year, appearing in 33 games at second base and hitting .284 but with little power.

After nearly two years back in the minors, he was traded to Kansas City in July of 2006 for Ruben Gotay. He was a late call-up again, appearing in 22 games with the Royals where he hit .267 while playing mostly at third base.

Keppinger was sent that winter to the Cincinnati Reds in a minor league deal where he batted .332 with an .877 OPS in a half-season in the majors. That opened some eyes. When an injury opened up a job at shortstop in 2008, Keppinger jumped in and hit .266 in his busiest year to date.

Still, he was the odd man out in Cincy when the Reds acquired Alex Gonzalez to play shortstop so he was traded to Houston just before the start of 2009 season for infielder Drew Sutton. As an Astro, Keppinger hit .256 last season with a career-high seven homers while sharing time at third base with Blum.

Even though he has yet to hit a home run this year, Keppinger has already passed last season's total for doubles (currently 16) and will surely top his career high of 24 before the year is out.

Jeff also seems to be a good fit in the #2 position in the batting order, taking enough pitches to give Michael Bourn stolen base opportunities while striking out just nine times so far this season. He lacks some of the bat control that Matsui had in better times but he makes good contact and has been hitting the ball sharply.

While veteran wiles may allow him to keep his average higher than normal this year, it wouldn't surprise me to see Keppinger's production slowly erode as the season wears on. After all, there's nothing to suggest that he's better at hitting righties this season than in the past and most of the league's pitchers are still righthanders. But Brad Mills should not pass up any chance to start Jeff against southpaws and should probably work Blum into the lineup more often against righties.

With the other side of the infield hitting so poorly, it's possible you'll see Blum filling in all around the diamond instead of coming off the bench. It may be that Keppinger will keep the majority of starts at second because of greater needs elsewhere in the infield.