Matt Kemp’s Wish is a Pitching Staff’s Nightmare

The Dodgers’ outfield situation might be more complicated than ever. Yasiel Puig is one of the league’s better young players, you’re all familiar with the three expensive veterans, Scott Van Slyke is a better player than even the Dodgers might’ve recognized, and Joc Pederson is hanging out in Triple-A with a four-digit OPS. It’s pretty obvious that some bodies are going to have to be moved, and one trade possibility is Matt Kemp. Kemp was the subject of rumors over the offseason, and those rumors haven’t gone away now that Kemp’s on the field and getting kind of squeezed out. The idea is he isn’t yet 30, and he’s an athlete who can be a source of right-handed power. If the Dodgers were to cover some of Kemp’s remaining contract, they would be able to find a destination.

On paper, Kemp is a two-time winner of a Gold Glove. Yet one of the problems here is that Kemp doesn’t appear to be a good defender. He’s been moved away from center field by a team without a true center fielder, and Kemp’s reduced mobility reduces the value he can provide, to the Dodgers or to someone else. Worse, Kemp isn’t accepting the aging process. From a newsy article Wednesday, by Ken Rosenthal:

The outfielder’s agent, former major-league pitcher Dave Stewart, told FOX Sports on Wednesday that Kemp again wants to be an everyday center fielder, something that isn’t in his immediate future with the Dodgers.

“Whatever they want to do we’re favorable to, as long as it gives him an opportunity to play every day,” Stewart said. “He’d like to eventually go back to center field. He’s not opposed to right or left. But his hope at some point is to get back to center.”

It’s not a hard line. Kemp isn’t saying center field, or else. Ichiro has always wanted to pitch, and he hasn’t been allowed to pitch to date, and it hasn’t stopped him from having a successful and reasonably happy career. Players want lots of things. But Matt Kemp probably shouldn’t be a regular center fielder ever again. It’s an open question as to how much longer he even belongs in an outfield at all. Power isn’t Matt Kemp’s only question mark as the Dodgers and other teams consider their options.

This is a post that has to talk about the advanced defensive metrics we have. There’s no getting around it. This season, among regular and semi-regular center fielders, Kemp ranks second-worst in UZR/150, and first-worst in Defensive Runs Saved/150. Meanwhile, this season, among regular and semi-regular left fielders, Kemp ranks first-worst in UZR/150, and third-worst in DRS/150. Kemp has played two positions in 2014, and he’s been lousy at each. This much is hard to deny.

Of course, last October, Kemp had ankle surgery. It wasn’t a minor procedure, and Kemp might still be trying to get back to 100%. So we can look over a longer scale, to see how Kemp ranked before going under the knife. Over the 2004 – 2013 decade, among center fielders, Kemp ranked sixth-worst in UZR/150, and ninth-worst in DRS/150. Over just the four years between 2010 – 2013, he ranked third-worst in UZR/150, and fourth-worst in DRS/150. This is one of those situations where both the advanced metrics agree, and they agree on the idea that pre-operation Kemp was a comparable defensive center fielder to Shin-Soo Choo, who is not a center fielder.

So, before having surgery, and when he was younger, Matt Kemp was a statistically poor center-field glove. Now his trunk has a few more rings, and his ankle’s been opened up by sharp metal knives. Kemp doesn’t turn 30 until September, but the deeper you investigate, the less there is to like. He might want to return to center down the line, but a team might instead prefer he DH.

Repeated hamstring problems have presumably taken their toll on Kemp’s numbers, but it’s not like that’s the kind of thing that goes away with age. Kemp would appear to be more delicate than most, and to watch him make a diving attempt in the outfield is to also watch him return to his feet with a grimace. Infrequently does he really look comfortable, and one can only play the surgery-recovery card so long. Particularly when the track record is what it is.

It’s of some interest that Kemp doesn’t score awfully according to the Fan Scouting Report. Perhaps the fans have seen something the numbers haven’t caught. Between 2010 – 2013, the league-average center fielder had a 59 overall rating. Kemp came in at 62. But let’s look at an actual breakdown.

Player Instincts First Step Speed Hands Release Arm Strength Arm Accuracy Overall
League CF 59 70 75 59 53 47 50 59
Kemp 42 60 78 59 56 75 62 62
Difference -17 -10 3 0 3 28 12 3

Kemp scores well above average in arm strength and arm accuracy. However, he’s well below average in instincts and first step. Instincts and first steps are of a greater importance for center fielders than having a good arm. Worse, Kemp’s speed has steadily declined, from an 84 rating in 2010 to last year’s 69. Pre-surgery Kemp was seemingly getting slower, and fans didn’t think he got good breaks. Post-surgery Kemp isn’t likely to be in far better shape.

Thanks to the Inside Edge data, we can look at some plays that Kemp hasn’t been able to make in 2014, playing both left and center fields. Perhaps some of the issue in left has simply been a lack of familiarity, but that excuse doesn’t carry over to center, which is Kemp’s historically regular position. Here comes the .gif frenzy.

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You see a lot of slow breaks. Those Curtis Granderson plays came in the same game, and the Mets broadcast couldn’t say enough about the difficult game Kemp was having in the field. We might even be able to learn a little something from a play that Kemp did make successfully.

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Kemp had to catch the ball behind him, awkwardly, which is part of the reason he fell down. He wound up out of balance, having nearly overrun the ball. He overran one of the Granderson hits above. Kemp just might not get great reads on routes, and that would certainly explain a lot of what the numbers are indicating. And elements of defensive play can improve, but Kemp’s got 7,000 big-league innings in center so it’s not like there’s much more room to grow. Perhaps he’s simply not gifted in the way Peter Bourjos is gifted.

Matt Kemp is still an incredible athlete. He can still move quickly even when he’s not sprinting, and he does have a good arm. He can make most of the plays hit to his position. But in the outfield, whether it be in left or center, Kemp isn’t defending in isolation, really; he has to be compared against the rest of the league, and the rest of the league also values good outfield defense, so Kemp is being compared against other high-level athletes. Matt Kemp’s outfield defense doesn’t suck, just like Pete Kozma‘s hitting doesn’t suck. But when you’re looking at only the uppermost tier, among the players there will be better ones and worse ones.

Matt Kemp would one day like to return to center field. That’s almost certainly not going to happen in Los Angeles. And one hopes that’s almost certainly not going to happen anywhere else, either. Kemp wasn’t a very good center fielder even before having a major operation, and pretty soon there’s going to be a 3 in front of his age. It’s not even clear he’s a particularly capable corner outfielder, and though his bat remains sufficiently intriguing to justify a trade pursuit, Kemp should probably be traded to a team in the American League that down the road could slot him in at DH. That might not be what Kemp wants, and that might be a future obstacle, but what Kemp wants could drive a pitching staff crazy. What Kemp wants would make his baseball team worse.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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