With the trade deadline just a few weeks away and the C.C. Sabathia and Rich Harden moves thrusting the spotlight back on the veterans-for-young-players deals, one name comes up time and time again in regards to the Los Angeles Dodgers – Matt Kemp. Loved by some and loathed by others, the divide between those two camps on Kemp’s value is astronomical. So, which polarizing position is closer to the truth? Is Kemp an all-star slugger in the making, or is he simply a guy who coasts by on natural ability and will never live up to his potential?
Most Dodger fans online are firmly in the first camp. Despite not being given regular playing time and having to force his way into the line-up, Kemp hit .342/.373/.521 as a 22-year-old last year, cementing his status as one of the Dodgers best hitters in the ’07 campaign. However, that .894 OPS was built on a house of cards – a remarkable .417 batting average on balls in play that was in no way repeatable. Even though BABIP for hitters is indeed influenced by skill, and they do have control over whether their balls in play become hits or not, there are still upper and lower bounds on what is actually skill and what is noise. Even the very best BABIP-skill guys post numbers in the .350 to .360 range over significant samples, so it was pretty obvious that Kemp wasn’t going to be able to sustain that performance.
Indeed, his BABIP has fallen to a still-high .380, and thanks to a simultaneous increase in strikeouts, his overall performance has taken a pretty big step back. In fact, Kemp’s contact rate has become a real problem, as he’s now posting a 30.4% K%. Among hitters who have a K% of 30% or higher, he’s the only one who doesn’t walk at least 10% of the time and he has the lowest Isolated Slugging Percentage of the group as well, coming in at .149.
Striking out a lot is okay if you also draw a bunch of walks and hit for power, but Kemp isn’t off-setting the swings and misses with enough positives, and as such, he’s a below average major league hitter right now. Considering he turns 24 in a few months and doesn’t offer much in the way of defensive value, that’s something of a problem.
Despite his physique, Kemp’s power remains more of the doubles variety, and his aggressive approach at the plate only works if he makes up for all the bad swings with long drives that fly over the wall. The “he’s young” thing only works for so long, and Kemp is rapidly getting to the point where he needs to produce at the plate, because when he’s a below average hitter, he’s not helping anyone win baseball games.
This isn’t to say the Dodgers should dump him the first chance they get, but if LA does trade Kemp in the next few weeks, beware the narrative that they’re giving up a young star. They’re giving up a guy with potential, but the jury is definitely still out on whether he’s going to fulfill it or not.
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