Matt Kemp’s Great and Terrible Year

Matt Kemp has had a terrible season.

He’s been worth only 0.9 WAR — close enough within the margin of error to refer to him as a “replacement-level player” — and he’s being paid $21 million to do it. He was so awful in center field that the Dodgers removed him from the spot in late May despite not having a reasonable alternative. No, really, they first turned to Andre Ethier, then to Scott Van Slyke, then to Yasiel Puig — then pushed Kemp to left field before eventually finding him a home in right field. His reaction to the move was so poor that he didn’t start for five consecutive games, around which he had an 0-18 streak. His agent, former pitcher Dave Stewart, couldn’t stop talking about how much he’d like to see a trade. That didn’t happen, obviously, in part because no one would reasonably want any part of his large contract.

Matt Kemp has had a great season.

His 134 wRC+ is a top-25 mark, better than stars like Josh Donaldson, Alex Gordon, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Carpenter and Ryan Braun. In the second half, he’s been one of the seven best hitters in the game — one of only a handful of players with double-digit homers since the break. Since he has a 126 wRC+ mark for his career, this is an above-average hitting season for him. It’s his third-best year, and for the first time since 2011, he’s been healthy enough to collect more than 500 plate appearances in a year.

So… which is it?

We’ve written a lot about Kemp in the past few months, and little of it has been positive. In July, Jeff Sullivan looked into just how horrendous Kemp’s center field defense was; then, just before the trading deadline, he investigated how much money the Dodgers would need to eat if they wanted to move Kemp and his huge contract. Jeff wasn’t wrong about any of it. Kemp is a terrible center fielder. No one wants that contract, as evidenced by the fact Kemp cleared waivers. The 8-year /$160 million contract that looked so good when Kemp signed it after his phenomenal 2011, and even better when he started off 2012 with one of the best months anyone has seen in decades, now seems like yet another expensive millstone.

But it still seems a bit simplistic to merely look at the 2014 WAR and consider Kemp a disaster, as many still seem to do. In fact, there’s a lot more to the story. (Let’s pause here to acknowledge that yes, I am a Dodger fan, so if you want to write this all off as homer-ism, go right ahead, though hopefully the numbers will tell the story.) The Dodgers may never get the value they expected from the contract, but there’s still a lot to like here. This isn’t, for example, the next Ryan Howard contract.

For one thing, WAR measures what has happened, rather than telling you what will happen. And what has happened is Kemp has been an enormous detriment to his team in center field, giving back much of the value he’s provided on offense. This isn’t a new thing. Kemp’s 2010 defensive season is still the worst DRS has seen. That Kemp managed to win Gold Gloves in both 2009 and 2011 is just another indication of how hilariously flawed and irrelevant that award is. He was never really good in the outfield; he was just various shades of bad.

That matters, obviously. Defense is important. It’s just that while Kemp hurt the Dodgers earlier this year and for most of the previous years with terrible center field defense, he’s never going to play center field for the Dodgers again. No matter how much he wants to, it’s not going to happen, especially not with Joc Pederson in the mix.

Which is to say a semi-competent corner outfielder causes less damage than a terrible center fielder. And Kemp’s 2014 overall WAR still includes the time he spent being that terrible center fielder, which is not the current scenario. He still needs to prove he can even be that semi-competent corner outfielder, of course, because he still hasn’t been ranked particularly highly for his work in the corners. But even if I did want to put stock in two months of defensive metrics for a position he hasn’t played in five years, Kemp’s UZR/150 in right is only about half as bad as it was in center. No one expects good. It’s not unreasonable to expect adequate, given time.

Of course, Kemp isn’t being paid for his defense. When he put up a merely league-average hitting season last year, along with a .395 slugging percentage and a .239/.294/.397 line by the first week of June this year, it was fair to wonder if Kemp was cooked. So what’s changed?

Well, two things. The first is easy: health. Kemp once played in 399 consecutive games, but that’s been forgotten considering how many injuries he had to deal with in 2012 and 2013:

  • May 2012: left hamstring (DL, 14 games)
  • June 2012: left hamstring (DL, 37 games)
  • August 2012: left shoulder in wall collision (offseason labrum surgery)
  • May 2013: right hamstring (DL, 24 games)
  • July 2013: left shoulder (DL, 14 games)
  • July 2013: left ankle (DL, 52 games)
  • Sept 2013: left ankle (2 games plus all of playoffs)
  • October 2013: left ankle and left shoulder (surgeries)
  • April 2014: recovery from surgeries (5 games)

We know, obviously, shoulder injuries can do serious damage to power hitters, which Peter Gammons went into great detail about with Dr. Neal ElAttrache in 2013. Kemp noted the impact it had when speaking to ESPN/LA in February:

“I couldn’t really get through the ball. If anybody knows my swing, when y’all see that go up in the air like that,” Kemp said, lifting his left arm over his head, “you know something good happened. I was cutting my swing off. I couldn’t get extension, man. I couldn’t do a lot of things.”

Let’s take a look at some heat maps. The three below represent 2011, his MVP-caliber season; 2013, his injury-plagued mess; and 2014, his rebound. (Kemp’s 2012 was skipped only because he was so good in April before he got hurt and so bad after his return that it’s not effective to show a “before” and “after” comparison, as these heat maps can’t be sorted in-season.)

kemp_heat-map

These are from the catcher’s point of view, showing slugging percentage, and it’s not hard at all to see the difference: When Kemp’s shoulder was injured and/or still healing, he was unable to do anything with the inside pitch. When he’s right, he crushes it. Kemp’s 2011 and 2014 season look very close to one another.

The second change has been a bit harder to see if you weren’t looking for it, but it seems he has made some mechanical fixes to his swing, which he started during the All-Star break:

Dodgers assistant hitting coach John Valentin revealed that Kemp has changed the way he stands at the plate, and video evidence confirms it.

“He actually has straightened his stance,” Valentin said. “It used to be locked. What that created was a difficulty to have the freedom to stay through the baseball. This offers a clear path to hit balls in and away.”

 At the start of this season and for much of his career, Kemp has hunched over a bit. Now, he’s more upright, and his stride has changed along with it, allowing him to push balls to right-center regularly.

Does that hold up to scrutiny? Well, yeah. The GIF below shows Kemp’s stance from a May game against the Reds, and another from an August game against the Cubs. Other than making sure they were both at Dodger Stadium against righties — to keep the camera angle consistent — they were selected at random:

kemp_stance_change

If you focus on his feet, and to a lesser extent his front elbow, you can see the difference. While I’m hardly enough of a hitting coach to tell you why one is better than the other, the fact is that he was only OK before it (that this was changed to kick off the second half is a nice dividing line for us) and has been outstanding since. Eleven of his 19 home runs have come in the second half, despite “half” being a total misnomer. He’s had only 166 second-half plate appearances, compared to 305 in the first half. Six of his nine longest homers have come since the break, as well, which is important for a player who saw his batted ball distance decline precipitously last year. Thanks to Bill Petti’s spray chart tool, we can even see the difference within this season; Kemp has added 16 feet to his average fly ball distance since the All-Star break. As Kemp gets further out from his shoulder surgeries, with a clear mechanical change to look at, these are all very good signs.

It’s important to remember Kemp probably is never going to be the superstar the Dodgers envisioned when he signed that mega deal. The player who signed that contract was an iron man with exceptional speed, enough to steal 40 bases and at least fake it in center. The player he now is will always have to deal with questions about his durability, and he’s limited to trying to simply be competent in a corner outfield spot. He probably fits best on an American League team that can let him DH, and maybe that’s in his future.

But he’s not even 30 — at least for a few more weeks — and he’s hitting a lot like the very good hitter he once was, despite what the WAR says. He still doesn’t have a lot of trade value. Then again, if he can hit like this, in a Dodger lineup that may only have one other righty power bat (Puig) if Hanley Ramirez walks this winter, it may not matter. The Dodgers might just be happy with what they have.



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Mike Petriello lives in New York and writes about the Dodgers daily at Dodgers Digest, as well as contributing to ESPN Insider. He wrote two chapters in the 2014 Hardball Times Annual as well as building The Hardball Times and TechGraphs, and was an editorial producer at Sports on Earth. Find him at @mike_petriello.


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thinkblue
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thinkblue
1 year 8 months ago

Great write up, Mike. We saw a glimpse of 2011 Kemp in the field last night with a great catch in the 8th and amazing throw to get out (the admittedly slow) Montero.

Raul Franklin
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Raul Franklin
1 year 8 months ago

He played that ball well last night, but did you notice how the throw was on the wrong side of the plate? I thought that was a great play by Butera to not get called for interference, catch the ball and wheel around to precisely apply the tag on the back foot of Montero.

Stank Asten
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Stank Asten
1 year 8 months ago

You need to stop using clearing waivers as evidence that no one wants a contract. It’s plausible that no one wants to take on Kemp’s contract, and there are many ways to show that plausibility. His clearing the revocable waivers might be one item you might use to show it. However that event does not by itself prove anything. You can’t take an event that happens to both Adrian Beltre and Matt Kemp, and have that mean opposite things to your convenience. That’s lazy and dishonest journalism.

baycommuter
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baycommuter
1 year 8 months ago

Stop throwing around perjoratives like “lazy and dishonest” on this board, leave that for Yahoo.

Garrett
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Garrett
1 year 8 months ago

It’s pretty easy to make an assumption that in the case of Kemp nobody wanted him. In the case or Beltre or Darvish everyone knew that the Rangers weren’t going to be trading them.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
1 year 8 months ago

I think you’re probably right, but would the Dodgers really let Kemp go if he were claimed? The OP frames his argument like a giant jerkface, but his point is not entirely wrong.

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City
1 year 8 months ago

Yes.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
1 year 8 months ago

Raul Franklin
Guest
Raul Franklin
1 year 8 months ago

Stank, while you’re not wrong that clearing wavers means different things for differnt players, that is a an aside within an aside in a well-analyzed article about analyzing Kemp’s stats and on the field play.

If you want to write an article about wavers, and the implications for interpreting a player’s value to different teams, I would be interested in reading it, so long as you’re not lazy and dishonest.

Andy
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Andy
1 year 8 months ago

Wouldn’t an AL team be interested in Kemp as a DH?

Mets
Guest
1 year 8 months ago

pretty sure yes.

Senor_Met
Member
Senor_Met
1 year 8 months ago

Hell, I know a couple NL teams that might be interested in him as a corner outfielder…

Al
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Al
1 year 8 months ago

Batting #’s look really similar to Alex Gordon’s.
I don’t really have a point here, just found that interesting.

Kemp: .282/.347/.484 19HR, 68 RBI, 134 wRC+
Gordon: .275/.353/.452 19HR, 66 RBI, 127 wRC+

ivdown
Guest
ivdown
1 year 8 months ago

So you’re saying Kemp is one of the best players in baseball :) haha

You could not have taken 2 guys more on the opposite ends of the spectrum as far as defensive value, it’s pretty nuts.

Everdisio #26
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Everdisio #26
1 year 8 months ago

As a Giants fan I think Kemp should get to play centerfield, after all he is a gold glove. But seriously, the Giants have improved because Morse is not playing LF, that guy is brutal out there. Keeping Kemp out of CF is the best move Mattingly has made this year.

Hurtlockertwo
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Hurtlockertwo
1 year 8 months ago

I agree

Raul Franklin
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Raul Franklin
1 year 8 months ago

As a Dodgers fan, I’m not at all convinced that Mattingly has made good moves this year.

Mets
Guest
1 year 8 months ago

If Verlander were healthy, you might think those 2 contracts could be swapped.

I’m thinking Kemp plus $ for Ubaldo could be a decent swap for both teams.

ivdown
Guest
ivdown
1 year 8 months ago

I want nothing to do with Ubaldo, I don’t trust him at all.

Verlander I may still believe in a little bit, but I’d rather have the bat at this point (plus Kemp is one of my favorites). This one is definitely at least intriguing.

Kemp 4 Ubaldo
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Kemp 4 Ubaldo
1 year 8 months ago

Verlander has lost like literally 30mph off of his fastball. You do not want Verlander.

Garrett
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Garrett
1 year 8 months ago

I don’t think you know what “literally” means.

jorgesca
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jorgesca
1 year 8 months ago

“literally”

TKDC
Guest
TKDC
1 year 8 months ago

He has lost literally 3mph off his fastball. Maybe that was just a typo?

jB4s7
Member
jB4s7
1 year 8 months ago

“So what did you do with your shitty pants?
“What? Nah dude I didn’t really shit my pants, I LITERALLY shit my pants.”

Kemp 4 Ubaldo
Guest
Kemp 4 Ubaldo
1 year 8 months ago

lolwut

capnsparrow
Member
capnsparrow
1 year 8 months ago

Do you run the Bad MLB twitter account?

capnsparrow
Member
capnsparrow
1 year 8 months ago

I want to TLDR ya sooooo bad just for the giggles! Kemps contract is only horrendous to the poor clubs that cant afford it anyways. Wait til you see this offseasons deals for pitching.

Swfcdan
Guest
Swfcdan
1 year 8 months ago

“He probably fits best on an American League team that can let him DH, and maybe that’s in his future.”

C’mon, he’s not that bad. He’s a competent enough corner outfielder to play there for most teams. Over-exaggeration there.

sabermetricnoob
Member
1 year 8 months ago

Great look at Kemp, the injuries have halted his great career, but he has proven to be a determined player to work his way back and hopefully help out his team throughout the playoffs. Major ankle and shoulder injuries take a long time to come back from, and I am glad that the Dodgers and Kemp have had the patience to get him going again. He is hitting home runs to right and right center and that is a key sign to show that his shoulder is healthy again.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
1 year 8 months ago

I mean Kemp’s problem has always been reads, jumps, and routes. The amount of time it takes him to start running towards a fly ball is really noticeable. Most of the time when a ball is hit behind him, he runs at it like he has no idea where it’s going. Most of the good plays he’s made for a while only look good when you don’t look at what happened immediately before he made the catch.

These are things I feel must be teachable. Is there any chance he can practice and get better at tracking fly balls?

Raul Franklin
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Raul Franklin
1 year 8 months ago

I have wondered the same thing. It’s probably more likely in the off-season, when he can woodshed one skill at a time.

cactusdave
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cactusdave
1 year 8 months ago

I agree with this as well. It’s ridiculous that Kemp isn’t a better defensive outfielder given his skill sets. He can still run better than mostand he has a very good throwing arm.

He gets late jumps and takes terrible routes to the ball making the catches decidedly more difficult than they need to be. That said, he doesn’t need to cover nearly as much ground in right field obviously, and his arm his suitable for that position.

Ray Guilfoyle
Guest
1 year 8 months ago

Great writeup, Mike.

Derek Brink
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Derek Brink
1 year 8 months ago

Kemp is the perfect example for those who rally against War being the end all be all. There are literally dozens of players Kemp is more valuable than who have higher Wars because of his poor cf is play.

I constantly hear people belittle Kemp’s value then suggest their team trade for him. HonestlyKemp fits best on the Dodgers where there unlimited mmoney makes it possible to pay guys like him.

DUTCH4007
Member
DUTCH4007
1 year 8 months ago

Look at Victor Martinez best of times worst of times season. First in RC (167) and second to last if you add base-running and defense runs lost.

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