Matt Kemp Struggling To Make Contact

As of Friday morning, Matt Kemp is hitting .182/.217/.255 with zero home runs and zero stolen bases. His .207 wOBA ranks third-worst amongst qualified outfielders in all of baseball — ahead of only Aaron Hicks and David Murphy — and he currently owns a 28 wRC+ and a -0.6 WAR.

In short, he’s been dreadful, and many fantasy owners who drafted him in the first round have been limping through the month of April, waiting for Kemp to rebound and become the .362 wOBA hitter he’s been throughout his career.

Lots of speculation exists that this slump is either related to his offseason shoulder surgery or the result of a mechanical compensation from his injury last season. While Kemp has repeatedly told reporters he’s physically fine this week, the numbers indicate something has negatively changed at the plate.

His strikeout rate has ballooned out of control early this year. He’s compiled a 30.0% strikeout rate through 60 plate appearances, which is 7.1% higher than his 2012 strikeout rate. Only five qualified outfielders currently have whiffed more often. It’s his largest strikeout rate since the 2006 season, when he posted a 31.9% strikeout rate as a 21-year-old rookie with the Dodgers.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise to hear his swinging-strike rate has similarly increased to it’s highest level since 2006. Kemp owns a 15.6% swinging-strike rate and only has a 66.1% contact rate at the plate. That’s his lowest Contact% of his career, which only further highlights his significant swing-and-miss issues right now. This isn’t an issue of chasing an inordinate amount bad pitches. His O-Swing% is actually lower than it has been since 2009. Instead, the numbers indicate Kemp isn’t making enough contact at the plate to be effective — and it’s likely an outgrowth of a significant mechanical flaw in his swing.

Anthony Witrado from The Sporting News spoke with scouts about Kemp:

Scouts believe Kemp’s poor mechanics either are a result of current shoulder discomfort or were developed when it was hurt last season. He is pulling off of balls and swinging at pitches he has no chance to drive, both of which were prominent flaws in his approach last season after the injury. [Link]

Prominent flaws in his approach last season? Should we have seen warning signs from last year that something had changed with Kemp at the plate?

It may be a stretch to say fantasy owners should’ve fundamentally shifted their opinion on Kemp due to his performance last season. After all, he was dealing with an injury and still compiled an above-average 117 wRC+ in the second half. It is important to note, though, his numbers in September were quite similar to his numbers to start the 2013 season.

September (2012) .222 .270 .435 27.8% 4.3%
April (2013) .182 .217 .255 30.0% 5.0%

Of course, two months don’t trump seven previous years of production. Owners shouldn’t assume this is the new Matt Kemp. It does, however, suggest his significant struggles over the past couple weeks are not an isolated incident. Whether it’s some kind of mechanical flaw he developed late last season to compensate for his injury or simply a bad habit that has carried over, it’s certainly something owners must pay attention to.

Ultimately, the overall talent level should win out for Kemp. Players of his caliber don’t generally become terrible overnight. His updated Steamer projections have him hitting .279/.349/.490 with 25 home runs and 15 stolen bases from now through the end of the season. That’s still incredibly valuable, and fantasy owners should still remain confident enough in Matt Kemp to play him every day — even during this painful slump to begin the season.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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This dude is killing me. I blame Rihanna!