The Case for Matt Kemp

The awards season will wrap up when the National League Most Valuable Player is announced a little later this afternoon, and I think this race is a little more open than its AL counterpart. The Brewers have a pair of candidates, the Phillies have a pair of candidates, and the Dodgers have a pair of candidates as well. Clayton Kershaw already took home the Cy Young Award and doesn’t have the same kind of MVP buzz that Justin Verlander did, but he’s not even the best MVP candidate on his own club. That’s the new $160 million man, Matt Kemp.

In terms of our version of WAR, the trademark stat here at FanGraphs, Kemp was the most valuable player in the National League this season and by a not small margin either. His performance was worth 8.7 wins, a half-win ahead of Roy Halladay (8.2) and nearly a full win ahead of Ryan Braun (7.8). No other players in the Senior Circuit eclipsed the seven-win plateau. WAR is far from perfect and it’s not designed to end arguments; in fact it’s much more effective at starting them. So even though Kemp was pretty well separated from the pack in terms of wins over replacement, let’s further reinforce his candidacy for the MVP Award.

There’s no better place to start than with Kemp’s offense, which was downright remarkable. He led the NL in homers (39), total bases (353), runs scored (116), runs driven in (125), and OPS+ (171) while placing third in average (.324), fourth in OBP (.399), second in extra-base hits (76), second in SLG (.586), fourth in ISO (.262), second in wOBA (.419), second in wRC+ (171), second in batting runs (+58.6), and second in stolen bases (40). He was one measly homer short of becoming the fifth 40-40 player in baseball history, and you just know one of those big NL West parks cost him one or two longballs over the course of the season. Name the offensive metric, and Kemp was in the top four. Relative to league average, he just had a typical Albert Pujols year with the bat while stealing 40 bags and playing an up-the-middle position.

Kemp may have enjoyed some good luck in 2011, finishing with a .380 BABIP that led all qualified hitters, not just NLers. A high BABIP doesn’t automatically mean luck and regression to the mean though, many players see a lot of balls drop in for hits because they’re exceptionally good hitters. Kemp’s 23.2% line drive rate was the 14th highest in baseball, and his infield fly rate of 2.2% (of fly balls, not of all balls in play) was the fifth lowest in the game. No type of batted ball turns into a hit more often than a line drive, and no type of batted ball turns into an out more often than a infield fly ball. The high BABIP isn’t necessarily a fluke, though I’m sure he had a little luck going for him. I don’t think anyone can have this kind of offensive season without a little extra help.

Defense is the one area where Kemp did not excel in 2011, at least depending on who you ask. UZR rated his defense at 4.6 runs below-average, the third time he’s been below the rest of the pack in the last four seasons. DRS is a little more forgiving, saying he saved one run this season, the fourth time in five years he’s been on the positive side of the ledger. Total Zone has him saving five runs after four straight years of being within one run of average. UZR is what is input into WAR, but substituting DRS raises Kemp’s WAR to 9.3 while substituting TZ makes making him a 9.7 win player. That’s pretty special.

The idea that Kemp shouldn’t garner serious MVP consideration because his team wasn’t all that close to a postseason berth — the Dodgers finished 11.5 back in the NL West and 7.5 back of the wildcard — doesn’t even register on my radar. It’s an individual award, not a team award, and I can’t fault Kemp for other 24+ guys he played with this season. His MVP candidacy shouldn’t be downplayed because GM Ned Colletti thought it was a good idea to trade Carlos Santana for Casey Blake or James McDonald for Octavio Dotel.

As far as his competition goes, the closest by WAR is Halladay, who didn’t beat out Kershaw for the Cy. I have a hard time thinking he’s finish higher that the Dodgers’ lefty in the MVP voting than he did in the Cy voting, but the BBWAA has surprised me before. Braun (.433 wOBA) and Prince Fielder (.408 wOBA) both had monster seasons but also hit fewer homers (and stole fewer bases) than Kemp despite playing in much more hitter friendly park. Neither player is anything special with the glove either, and they both man corner spots. Joey Votto and Lance Berkman also deserve consideration, but again, they were just a notch below Kemp offensively and play in the corners somewhere.

Kemp’s MVP case can be built on both old school stats (runs, RBI) and new school stats (WAR, wRC+), but he won’t get any help from playing for a contending team. His 40-40 bid also didn’t get a boost from playing in a cozy home ballpark. The offensive performance was dominant enough that Kemp’s name will be forced into the MVP conversation among even the most ham-fisted of voters.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

21 Responses to “The Case for Matt Kemp”

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  1. Anon says:

    That’s the new $180 million man, Matt Kemp.

    180? I thought it was 160.

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  2. iluv2partynaked says:

    Just listened to a Jayson Stark (has a real vote!) bit about this on ESPN, in which both cited fangraphs and said (paraphrasing): the difference in WAR between Braun and Kemp can be attributed to the adjustment for playing CF vs. LF.

    A) This sounds off; is it accurate?
    B) If Kemp played ok LF or Braun played a not-so-ok CF for the year, how would it fudge up all the WAR numbers? I.e. Would Braun’s WAR benefit if the Brewers signed the world’s most lead-footed LF and moved him to play bad CF?

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    • Ed, Ed, and Eddy says:

      has to do with park factor as well

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    • B N says:

      If Kemp played LF, I’d imagine his WAR would take a small hit. I doubt that his UZR would get all that much higher playing that other position and he’d get hit with the positional adjustment.

      With that said, if Braun played CF? Oof. I have to think all the positional adjustment boost in the world is not going to offset those fly balls that drop. So if they hypothetically switched positions, I’d have to think Braun would see the worse of it. My guess would be that there’s no way to boost Braun’s WAR via positional adjustments. But there would be a way to sandbag his competition by making them play less valuable positions than they could…

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        If Kemp moved to LF, his UZR would improve by about 10 runs/year. And if Braun moved to CF, his UZR would worsen by about 10 runs/year. The positional adjustments (-2.5 for LF, +7.5 for CF) are based on the fact that this is what historically happens when a player moves between the two positions.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Looking at the leaderboards, the overall difference between Braun and Kemp is 8.7 runs. The difference in their positional adjustments (+2.2 vs -6.5) is also precisely 8.7 runs.

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  3. filihok says:

    In Colletti’s defense (did I just type that???) Dotel put up twice as much WAR as McDonald this season

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    • @3_2count says:

      Too bad Colletti traded McDonald for a quarter season of Dotel last year and didn’t get the reap the benefits of Dotel’s year.

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      • Evan says:

        Even worse Colleti traded Dotel to the Rockies with 15 games left in the season in 2010 for Anthony Jackson (a 26 year-old slap hitting, not great defensive OF in AA). After the season, Rockies then offered him arbitration, he declined. The Rockies got the 45th overall pick in the 2011 draft.

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  4. sheath1976 says:

    Sorry Matt, Ryan just BEAT YOUR ASS by like 60 points. Congrats to ryan braun the NL MVP.

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  5. Drew says:

    Who are the two Phils candidates mentioned in the second paragraph? Doc and Lee?

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  6. Bryan says:

    Kemp got six third place votes. What does it mean to say that Kemp was the third most valuable player in the league? I understand, though I compeltely disagree, that some people think Braun’s team making the playoffs made him more valuable. In that case, shouldn’t Kemp have been disqualified because his team missed the playoffs? If we admit that Kemp had any value at all, don’t we have to agree that he had more value than Braun, since he had the same offensive numbers as an average defensive CF, rather than a weak defensive RF?

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  7. Dan Michler says:

    I hate baseball awards voting! Tim Kurjian (ESPN) gets a vote. He explained why he chose Braun over Kemp. To summarize, he stated Kemp was clearly the better player, but Braun played in meaningful games on a postseason team. This is completely illogical. Last I checked this is an individual award. Tim also stated that Braun was ‘excellent’ in left field and that Kemp is a great center fielder. That is just laughable on both accounts. I go to alot of games in Miller Park and Braun just looks completely lost in left field. He’s improved since switching from third base, but he’s still terrible. And our eyes tell us what the UZR confirms year after year…Matt Kemp is not close to being an elite defensive center fielder. Tim Kurkjian…C’MON MAN! And lets not get started on the AL voting where several voters had Bautista outside their top 5…..

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    • Tony Fernandez says:

      The MVP voting is a joke. It’s about time we change the name of the award because obviously some people have trouble understanding the word valuable. That is, who has the most value, as in, who is the best. Since writers (ironically enough) have trouble with a simple word, we need to change the name of the award. How about most outstanding player? Though that shortens to MOP and that word is reserved for a certain class of pitchers. Most best player? Best doesn’t need a qualifier. I guess it would have to be most skilled player. There’s no getting around what the award would really be for, then.

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  8. Dan Michler says:

    The baseball voters always seem to think baseball should work just like basketball. In the NBA, you can add 1 player and go from terrible to elite. In the NBA, team performance is a completely logical qualifier in determining an MVP. You can’t truly be the best player in the league and play on a poor team. In baseball this is far from true. The impact of an individual player just isn’t nearly as significant. Place Albert Pujols in his best season on this years Pirates team…and their still the Pirates. They’ll be a little better, but he isn’t taking them from the bottom to the top. Steve Carlton’s season with the 1972 Phillies is another great example. The voters need to let go of the longstanding notion that team performance should play heavily into deciding a baseball MVP. Baseball is a statistical game. More times than not, the numbers will accurately tell us who was the most valuable player. In the NL this season, that player was Matt Kemp. When you factor in the fact that Kemp played in a pitchers park with less support around him in the order, and Braun played in Miller Park with Prince hitting behind him, this really shouldn’t have been close.

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  9. rogue_actuary says:

    I was watching that Tim Kurkjian interview thinking “I wonder how much more ridiculous this will sound in a few years than it does now…”

    Tim probably thinks that he’s cutting edge because he’s using OBP and SLG. And OPS (he mentioned those three things separately in an extremely soft-toss interview about his vote).

    FanGraphs should join forces with the other SABR-inclined websites and generate alternate award winners. Even going so far as to do so retroactively. Then, when we refer to awards, the people whose heads aren’t firmly up their butts will have a shared medium.

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  10. Phil says:

    Why is it such a big point if your team makes the playoffs or not? I remember Andre Dawson winning NL MVP with a last place Cubs team.

    Also, I feel Braun DID deserve the award over Kemp. Did they both have comparable numbers in almost every category….yes. Stolen bases is probably the only category Kemp really broke away from Braun on. However, for having comparable stats beyond that, take into consideration that Kemp had 27 more intentional walks and 39 more at bats, resulting in 66 more plate appearances and 11 more games played. Could Braun have had an 0 for 66 slump had he played those other 11 games like Kemp played….possibly. But with the stats Braun put up, I’m going with the odds that Braun would have produced over those 11 games at the pace of the other 150 he played. This would have allowed Braun a pretty good chance to have surpassed Kemp in pretty much all categories he beat him out in.

    Taking all this in….congratulations to a well deserving Hebrew Hammer, Ryan Braun.

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  11. shthar says:

    The years where the MVP is undisputed are much more boring.

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