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.)
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:
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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