When you’re a speedy 5-foot-6 second baseman with a line-drive stroke, Jose Altuve comps come with the territory. When you’re drafted by the Houston Astros, they are pretty much inevitable. The player in question is Tony Kemp.
A fifth-round pick this year out of Vanderbilt, the 21-year-old Kemp is looking to forge his own identity in pro ball. He did so as a collegian. The Nashville native was the 2013 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and a first-team selection on Baseball America’s All-America team. In his junior season with the Commodores, he hit .388/.480/.496, with 32 stolen bases. In his first month with the short-season Tri-City Valley Cats, he is hitting .314.
Kemp — who differs from Altuve in that he swings from the left side –talked about his game a week after his debut.
Kemp on his first impressions of pro ball; “The quality of play [in the New York-Penn League] is about the same. The SEC has very good competition, top to bottom. Friday through Sunday, you’re going to see a guy in the low- to mid-90s, which is what you see here. One difference is some of these pitchers have better movement; they have better two-seam action than guys in the SEC. They’re a little more advanced, which they should be. This is professional baseball.”
On what he‘d like to improve upon: “Adjustment-wise, there’s not really any one thing. You can improve in all aspects of the game and can’t ever be content with your play. But I’d probably say that, hitting-wise, I need to make sure I’m keeping the ball on the ground and getting on base. Hopefully I can drive some balls into the gaps.
“Defensively, I need to make sure I scoop up anything hit at me. I also want to make as many of the tougher plays, to my left and my right, that I can.”
On his offensive approach: “If I hit the ball on the ground, there’s a better chance I can get on base. If I put it in the six hole, the shortstop is going to have to throw across his body, and that’s a tough play for him to throw out a runner with my speed. Batting average on balls in play is also higher when you hit it on the ground.
“It’s kind of funny, I hit a home run the other night and people were… the hitting coach and I talked about having more power the higher levels you go up. If I just keep my line-drive approach, some of those line drives will turn into home runs. Jose Altuve made a good adjustment to drive balls. He’s using his bat speed. Getting good coaching in the Astros organization plays into that.
“My setup is pretty much geared to up-the-middle. I try to keep the bat as flat as I can through the zone. By doing that, the middle and left side of the field is good, because if they come inside, you’re ready for that inside fastball.”
On pitch recognition: “With certain righties, if the ball starts outside it’s going to end up off the corner. That’s something, in the back of your mind, you have to know. With lefties, their two-seams are going to ride in on you a little bit more. If it starts on the outer half, it’s going to end up over the plate, so you need to be ready to put a good swing on it.
“We had scouting reports before every game at Vandy and would make sure we knew what each pitcher was throwing, and what his movement was like. Our reports were pretty advanced, and I definitely used them. If a pitcher is a sinker-slider guy, that’s what you’re going to look for. You’re not going to try to pull the ball, you’re going to try to drive it the other way to the gap.”
On defense and stealing bases: “I’ve been playing second base for about a year and a half, and I think I’m come pretty far. I’m making good adjustments and turning double plays well. I’m making sure I’m getting into a good rhythm. I feel comfortable out there.”
“I’m not really worried about stealing bases. If I’m able to steal one, yeah, I’ll steal a base. But what I’m most interested in is getting on base. That’s how I can help us win games.”
TRI-CITY MANAGER EDDIE ROMERO ON KEMP
“Tony is a guy who brings a lot of life to the ball club. We’re working with him defensively. He’s got speed and makes things happen. He’s pretty much a catalyst in our lineup. He can steal bases, go first to third, score runs; he’s a leadoff-type. He looks like a guy with a bright future.”