Is Matt Kemp overrated?

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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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Richie
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Richie
7 years 10 months ago

doesn’t have much to offer defensively??

Kemp is a very good OF. Above average speed and arm and leads the league in outfield assists.

jason
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jason
7 years 10 months ago

Exactly how many 23 year olds are above average major league hitters?

That is a pretty exclusive club isnt it?

How many star 26-32 year olds would there be if they had been thrown aside because they werent above average hitters in the majors at 23?

aap212
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aap212
7 years 10 months ago

The problem is that if there’s any truth to the persistent rumors out there, like that Colletti would even consider trading him for Jack Wilson, then he’s severely underrated–or undervalued–by his own general manager. He’s got major power and at least for now can hold down CF, so his potential is huge. He may be overrated by some, but I’d love to have him, and I’d take him over the Delmon Youngs and Alex Gordons of the world in a heartbeat.

cecil
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cecil
7 years 10 months ago

Kemp’s a developmental guy. Based soley off his baseball instincts and pitch recognition, he should still be in AA working on the basics. It’s amazing that he’s actually surviving in the majors at this point. The GMs around the league who value Kemp aren’t judging him off his numbers or stats, but off his potential and the type of talent he projects to be. He only started playing baseball in highschool, and really wasn’t supposed to make the majors until this season. He was in the same draft as such higher rated prospects as Delmon Young and Lastings Milledge, and although much more raw than these two similar profiled players, Kemp has outperformed both in the bigs thus far. And if you watch Kemp’s swing when he hits HRs, you’ll see why people think he’ll hit for power in the future…….http://losangeles.dodgers.mlb.com/media/video.jsp?mid=200807093104241…… doubles hitters don’t stroke it like that.

Broocks
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Broocks
7 years 10 months ago

A) Matt Kemp is a pretty good CF, and he’s definitely in the top half of CF’s in the National League. At this point, I would rate him a better CF than Andruw Jones, the man the Dodgers foolishly spent $36.2M on.

B) BABIP is usually a function of LD%. BABIP=LD%+.11, and since BABIP is generally use as a predictor of success, it’s generally a pretty accurate indicator of whether a player is getting lucky or not. Kemp’s LD% is at 25.8%, which is in the elite category. Although that number may seem like an outlier, it might not be since his 2005 totals, and his minor league totals definitely cast him as a high LD% guy.

C) His eye is constantly improving. He is walking at a rate of 7.5%, higher than at any point in his career and is therefore seeing more pitches than previously (3.52/pa last year, 3.74/pa this year). Eventually those strike outs will come down.

D) Further, he has enough power to hit 20 HR a year, which if he couples with 40 2B is good enough for around a .460-.470 SLG, coupled with a 76% success rate on the base paths and a .340-.350 OBP wouldn’t make him an elite player, but he’d be one of the top 8 or 9 CF in baseball.

GKing
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GKing
7 years 10 months ago

Broocks, the above posting is one of the most complete and meaningful blogposts I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Thank You, and now I have an even more appreciative expectation of things to come for the Dodgers with Matt Kemp playing and developing regularly.
GKing

Travis in SoCal
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Travis in SoCal
7 years 10 months ago

I would agree with everything in the column except for “doesn’t offer much defensively.” The guy is huge and has a TON of speed.

That said, his ability to run down balls in the air should mean nothing as most guys in the bigs can catch flyballs.

I want to remind you about his arm. You obviously haven’t seen any of his outfield assists. The guy is effortless in anything he does and when he gets someone running on him, they’re toast. Direct, hard, perfect throws on a LINE… almost every time. He is a 5 tool player and his arm shouldn’t be at the bottom of the list.

Personally, I think his biggest problem is that he’s a bit of a space cadet. He loses focus and just seems to really show his age. Give him some time to mature and keep his head in the game (especially at the plate) and he will shine.

BDDBrandon
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7 years 10 months ago

Broocks, or other,

Where is the BABIP=LD%+.11 formula derived from, and what is the realiability of it?

joser
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joser
5 years 11 months ago

There’s no derivation AFAIK — it’s an empirical observation that Voros McCracken made while inventing BABIP. I’m pretty sure the reliability of it has been examined (if not here then THT or elsewhere) but I can’t lay my hands on a link at the moment. Certainly there are some players that consistently defy it (Ichiro for one, but he’s wacky in a whole lot of statistical categories)

Fire Ned Colletti Now
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7 years 10 months ago

Doesn’t offer anything defensively? Hilarious. His Rate is 109. Well well above average.

fifth of
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fifth of
7 years 10 months ago

Dave, it’s not that I do not partially agree with you, but I just don’t see some of the logic here. Firstly, the NL is hitting .257/.329/.409. Non-pitchers are hitting .264/.336/.422, and corner OF are hitting .267/.344/.438. I fail to see how Matt Kemp’s .281/.335/.438 line is at all damning. The only theory I can come up with for why you would call his hitting below average is that you are under the impression that Dodger Stadium is a good hitter’s park (I guess because BB-Ref, using an insufficient sample and runs instead of granular data, deems it to be so, just as it deems The Ballpark in Arlington a neutral or pitcher’s park). I don’t see how you can say “he’s a below average major league hitter right now.”

On to BABIP. As other commenters have pointed out, Kemp has hit many LD this season. We are talking about a hitter with a lot of K and not many FB (but a decent amount of FB XBH) – he is likely simply by his profile to have a high BABIP. It’s fine for you to argue his BABIP will regress, but putting it in terms of whether he can precisely sustain the fashion in which he had his outrageous success in a mere 311 PA sample – what’s the point? Looking at the more granular numbers, Kemp’s line is fueled by line drives and fly balls that have not been aberrant in their ability to fall in for hits; he’s got only 9 fly ball singles on 195 career fly balls (3 in each season). The real culprit in his high BABIP (besides the proportion of well hit LD and FB to BIP) is a very high batting average on ground balls. Sure, Kemp is not quite Ichiro, but he has sure as hell earned an awful lot of his infield singles with his amazing speed. To just say “His BABIP is way too high to be sustainable” and move on is, to me, far from complete.

Plus, this is a fangraphs blog. Kemp’s career numbers, in 827 PA from 21-23? 1.43 WPA, 2.27 REW, 2.51 WPA/LI. Yeah, pretty good. How about just his 350 PA this season? 0.58 WPA, 1.06 REW, 0.34 WPA/LI. I’m going to need to hear something pretty novel to convince me he’s a below average hitter at this time.

His 2007-2008 totals are .310/.353/.477, with a .399 BABIP. If we artificially lower his BABIP to .350 by indiscriminately removing singles, his overall line is .276/.321/.443 at ages 22-23 in only 661 PA. Yeah, I’m not exactly ready to sell. I feel that you’re just picking and choosing sample data to declare unsustainable (BABIP) and sustainable (K) instead of using all the data to develop a holistic assessment.

Plus, I’d like to hear a little more about his fielding. He barely played amateur baseball and evidently has the raw tools (in speed and arm) to be a plus fielder; if he’s a below average defender right now, it’d be good if we could hear something more granular about why and how that affects our future estimate.

Does Kemp have more room to grow, less room to grow, or the same amount of room to grow as other players his age? I would tend to think more, but it has to be “less” (and not merely the same) for him not to be a future near-star.

fifth of
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fifth of
7 years 10 months ago

Let me put it this way. In this post you are assessing the sample of Kemp’s hitting 07-08. You write of 2007 that:

“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.”

The problem here is that you are admitting that this kind of analysis is for “significant samples” and you are talking about a less-than-significant sample. His 2008 BABIP, though .380, seems to match up pretty well with his granular data – a lot of LD, a good proportion of 2B’s and 3B’s in his FB, and a .300 batting average on GB when he is one of the fastest runners in the game. Dynamically, we have every reason to believe his BIP performance will be at the upper tier if we are analyzing his 2008 sample data, because the sample has an “unsustainable” K rate. That is, very high BABIP’s are unsustainable because a hitter who just takes and rakes and gets a very high BABIP will strike out too often to stay in the lineup or will be a good enough hitter that eventually there will be more balance between BIP success and K frequency. When a sample has both extremes, we can’t look at it and say “His success is coming from the extreme that, all else being equal, is less sustainable.” I would say that his 2008 performance – which, given the size of the sample and that he plays in a mild pitcher’s park – show him to be roughly league average for his position, especially if you give him credit for the SB – looks to be in equilibrium relative to his skills and not skewed by great BIP numbers. As he cuts down on the K’s in future PA, the BIP numbers will come down, but the overall value does not figure to fade. And if he continues to K this much, I don’t see why we would expect the BABIP to come through – his K’s are coming in part from an effort to be selective (which is not to say he does not also swing and miss badly with some frequency), and by all appearances he swings pretty darn hard and runs pretty runs fast.

To reiterate, it is wrong to apply rules of thumb for one part of sample data and not for another part. If the assessment is that Kemp will continue to strike out this frequently, then some scouting work or more granular data analysis absolutely must be done to establish that Kemp’s numbers don’t bode well for his future success.

(And, since someone should probably be saying it eventually, if your “he’s not average now” claim stems from following BB-ref’s park factor or any such shenanigans, it’s at least worth pointing out that he has hit .292/.360/.435 on the road this season and .352/.375/.476 last season.)

I see no basis to argue that his perfectly acceptable performance so far needs to be denigrated, and I don’t see reason to believe he won’t improve. And I have been much less high on Kemp than most internet Dodgers fans have been. By your criteria, I think he fits somewhere in the 40-70 range on a list like the one you did.

tangotiger
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tangotiger
7 years 10 months ago

The perception (though not necessarily the reality) of the Dodger fan last year…
http://tangotiger.net/scouting/scoutResults2007_LAN.html
…is that Kemp had great speed, strong arm, but lacking in instincts, hands, and accuracy. Basically, someone who is “raw”, but who was a very good corner OF and maybe a slightly below CF, fielding-wise.

If you look at his list of comps…
http://tangotiger.net/scouting/sim2007_7780.html
… you will find (somewhat) similar players, like Lastings Milledge or Corey Hart.

I’m looking forward to see how fans see Kemp this year, as well as how the empirical data shapes up.

Anthony
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Anthony
7 years 10 months ago

Right now, Matt Kemp is both a pleasure and a pain to watch.

For example, I really like his power the other way. Four of his seven homers went the other way, thus far, along with five of his ten last season. Pleasure. However, I’m sure not seeing enough of that power with him smacking a homer in about every forty at-bats, this season. Pain.

Defensively, he would definitely be one of the better outfielders in the league, already at his young age. He only has one error this season, along with nine assists. Pleasure.

As mentioned previously, Matt Kemp swings and misses…. a lot. Pain… in the ass. He has already struck out in 16 of his 38 at-bats in leadoff this year. However, his OBP batting first is .364…. go figure.

Eric Seidman
Member
Member
7 years 10 months ago

BDDBrandon,

LD%+.120 was found by Dave Studeman at The Hardball Times a few years ago. He discovered that you could, with solid accuracy, determine the expected BABIP of a player by making the aforementioned calculation. It doesn’t always work as some players of different characteristics, IE speed, can post lower LD rates and have higher BABIPs but it’s generally a good estimator.

I wrote a recap of balls in play and stats involving them at Statistically Speaking recently. http://mvn.com/mlb-stats/2008/07/05/recapping-the-bip/ is the link.

Rob McMillin
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7 years 10 months ago

Straightforward answer: No. Next!

fifth of
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fifth of
7 years 10 months ago

I think that Matt Kemp may be overrated, but not by very much. I have thought the same for about four years. Based on this article he is clearly (to me) underrated by DC to a much greater extent than he is overrated by any fair internet Dodgers fans I know of.

Thomas
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Thomas
6 years 3 months ago

haha, this article looks pretty dumb now

David
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David
5 years 11 months ago

I rest my case. Matt Kemp is seriously overrated. This article hit the nail on the coffin. Kemp relies on pure ability and has some serious mental issues on the field. He’s an absolute failure with the mental aspects of the game. His natural ability is the only reason why he’s the Dodgers everyday CF.

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Matt Defalco
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Matt Defalco
5 years 3 months ago

Something very strange is going on in the comments section of this article.

Ivdown
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Ivdown
5 years 3 months ago

My guess is some dbag is bumping the article with each “?????” they post because they really believe Matt Kemp is overrated.

joser
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joser
5 years 2 months ago

No, it’s a link spammer posting in a non-latin language, almost certainly Chinese, which is not being rendered correctly so the ideograms come out as ? marks. Note the odd broken anchor tags and mention of SEO — somebody is getting paid to run bots that spew this crap thither and yon,

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