What to make of Matt Kemp in 2012?

I had intended to write about Matt Kemp for a while, but I wanted to time my doing so with him being announced the NL MVP. Well so much for that—and congrats to Ryan Braun. In the meantime, Eno Sarris over at Roto Graphs basically beat me to the punch by about a week. I had intended to write this column based around this question: How many players would I rank ahead of Matt Kemp going into 2012? For the TLDR crowd, the answer is four to eight.

Let’s skim through Kemp’s resume quickly and touch on some analysis of last season’s output. I basically agree with Sarris’s take on Kemp’s 2011 and projection, so you can refer to that article for more in-depth discussion. Here’s the abridged history and projection.

Kemp debuted in 2006 and emerged one year later, in a partial season, as somebody really worth keeping an eye on. By the end of 2007, he was hitting third for the Dodgers. In 2008, he continued to progress, showing promising power and considerable speed, spending 20 or more games each hitting first, second, third, and sixth in the order.

Coming into 2009, fantasy geeks were projecting Kemp to be on the verge of superstardom, and those who put their money where their mouths were got paid. In, 2010 we saw some regression from The Bison. While navigating an off-field relationship with Rihanna, Kemp’s numbers dropped precipitously (subtle umbrella pun intended … ended, ended).

Kemp was considered a 2010 fantasy bust, but in certain ways actually proved his worth, putting up 191 RBI-plus-runs and 47 homers-plus-steals in a “disappointing season.” It was really his .249 batting average that torpedoed that campaign. In 2011 Kemp struck back with a vengeance, posting 40 stolen bases with an otherwise Puljosian line and missing 40/40 club membership by one dinger. But, how real was this season?

Overall, I was expecting to see more luck involved in Kemp’s 2011 than I actually found. The biggest red flag is accompanied by some mitigating circumstances. I was a bit worried when I saw that Kemp had a .380 BABIP, which led the league. On the other hand, Kemp has had an abnormally high BABIP every season except 2010.

He consistently posts plus line drive rates and low pop up rates, which sums out to a career .351 BABIP. However, he still strikes out a ton. Additionally, his homer-to-flyball rate, which has been steadily climbing, took a real jump last year.

Some may argue that this coincides with his physical prime, but I’m not buying all of it. I don’t think he’s a yearly 40 HR threat and I think .290-.310 is a much more reasonable expectation for future batting averages. His walk rate did improve, but that was due entirely to an increase in intentional walks. In fact, in the past three seasons, Kemp has seen an almost identical number of pitches per plate appearance: 3.96, 3.96, and 3.92, respectively.

Even with a bit of regression expected, Kemp is still an extremely valuable and rightly sought-after fantasy asset. But how many players would I seek more intensely? Here’s my list a brief summary of my case for each.

Albert Pujols. This is self-explanatory. In 2012, Pujols will be 32, and his best days may be behind him, but reliability remains paramount when you’re paying top dollar, and it doesn’t get more reliable than Pujols. He may not be his vintage self every single day, but I’m not betting against him. Plus, if last season was largely a blip, any of us who pass are going to feel like a dope.

Ryan Braun. One recommendation I have for those smitten with Kemp’s 2011 is to reduce your risk and invest in Braun instead. When buying Kemp, you’d be more than satisfied if you get Braun’s average season from him, and since the prices are going to be so close, why not just pay for the more established brand?

Proactively, let me just add the point that I don’t anticipate the likely departure of Prince Fielder to do much to Braun’s overall fantasy value at all. Most likely, we see a bump in IBBs, which may chip away at Braun’s RBI totals, but this raises his OBP, which increases his chances of maintaining a batting-crown-competitive average and sets up more opportunities to steal bases.

While losing Prince’s bat behind him might be thought to reduce his runs scored totals, the extra times on base and a bounce-back-by-default from the void that was Casey McGehee in the No. 5 hole last year might come fairly close to evening things out.

Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo certainly has problems playing full seasons, but especially given the question marks around Hanley Ramirez (and Jose Reyes for that matter), he is just in a class of his own at the shortstop position.

This is a pure replacement value question to me. The one thing that is disheartening about Tulo is that it seems he’s not going to be a 20-steal player unless the Rockies bring somebody in who doesn’t realize how detrimental it is to get caught. Regardless, at a dozen or so swipes, I’m still all in. Finally, I have a hunch that we haven’t even seen Tulo’s best yet.

Robinson Cano. With the offense around him, his lack of plate discipline is almost an advantage for fantasy purposes. His supporting cast, positional eligibility, and home park push Cano ahead of Kemp for me. I wish he would steal double-digit bases, but the fact of the matter is, a second-base-eligible cleanup hitter in New Yankee Stadium is just too valuable to pass up.

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I would tentatively rank Kemp here, but there are four more players who I think have legitimate arguments.

Jose Bautista. Joey Bats retained his third base-eligibility again this year and proved once again that he is best in the business at hitting homers. Bautista also lost many RBI opportunities due to IBBs and pseudo-IBBs. A maturing Blue Jays order should either force pitchers to pitch to Bautista more often or drive him in more frequently.

It is often overlooked how shallow third base can be because there are number of elite and high-end options (Bautista, Evan Longoria, David Wright, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Zimmerman and Adrian Beltre), but if you’re considering the long view replacement value, there’s not much in the way of middle class at the hot corner, so I wouldn’t hesitate to lock in Bautista.

Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto. These are the safe first base picks. They all provide ultra-high-end production, but only Votto offers any speed, and they all sacrifice positional value. Taking Kemp ahead of any of these players is defensible, but there is some gamble involved, and security is defensible as well.

Say you are in a 12-team league and picking fifth, where I would tentatively rank Kemp. If you take Kemp here, none of these players will be available when you pick again. If you wanted to emulate their production, perhaps Fielder would be available, but more likely you’d be left with Mark Teixeira. On the other hand, if you took one of these guys, you might be left with Carlos Gonzalez, Josh Hamilton, Justin Upton, or Andrew McCutchen. I prefer the second pairing in aggregate.

This example actually illustrates what I think is a subtle difference in auction and draft values. In an auction, you can theoretically be in on any player. However, in a draft, entire tiers of players at a specific position can come off the board without you having a turn to pick.

Sometimes, the way a draft plays out constrains your realistic roster construction strategies in ways that either dictate your choices or infringe on your ability to fully capitalize on opportunities to seize value. Auctions afford greater flexibility, so the proposition, “Kemp, then [not] top-tier first baseman” is not exactly an ultimatum.

Some might argue Longoria should be in this discussion as well, while others might urge us to remember the force that is Hanley Ramirez. Others still might have faith that Jacoby Ellsbury puts forth a power display that mirrors last year’s.

Addressing these propositions in reverse order, I don’t believe Ellsbury will replicate his power. Ramirez certainly has the potential to make all his doubters feel like idiots, but I see his arguments to be with the Wright, CarGo, Justin Upton, McCutchen, Carl Crawford resurrection crowd.

Regarding Longoria, all will go right for him at some point and we will see a top-five season (or several of them) before he retires, but that will require the speed, power, and batting average to be firing at the same time, and it just seems that one is always off. I’d rather gamble on Kemp’s battle against regression than Longoria’s battle for full breakthrough.

Finally, in the above paragraph I mentioned Justin Upton and Carlos Gonzalez, and I like both of them. Both of these players are fully capable of outproducing Kemp, but I’m anticipating both being a little cheaper—CarGo possibly by a whole round or more.

While I don’t really lack for confidence in The Bison, my inclination is to favor these two options at their prices ahead of Kemp at his. Generally speaking, I’m an advocate of best-player-on-the-board, but sometimes in the very early round of drafts, you can anticipate your pairings over two sets of rounds.

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The Miracles
The Miracles

Thanks for the fine shadings on Kemp and the draft strategy. I’d like to be in an auction league sometime, but the snake is what I’m in and will be next year. Currently my first three rounds of picks are gone with keepers Longoria, Halladay and Upton. Who will be left at 1B, you think, who could give me production? Is it a 1B in the fourth round or nothing? In other words, could I gamble on Trumbo/Freeman/Goldschmidt/Morse somewhere down the line and be okay? Or do I take Konerko b/c he’s the last of the established sluggers?

Jim G.
Jim G.
Good article Derek. The other factor with Fielder leaving is that Braun may increase his steal total. He won’t be anchored at 1st as much as when he needed to be a potential Prince-RBI. RE: Miguel Cabrera, if Leyland plays him at 3rd during inter-league play (to keep VMart in the lineup playing 1st), that will increase his value with eligibility at a prime position. Votto had an amazing year considering how rough the season was for the Reds. If he keeps those power and average numbers up his RBI total could be amazing if Phillips and others ahead of… Read more »
Good article.  I particularly like the tactical draft analysis of how your first and second round picks are likely to pair off and how that impacts your view of Kemp’s draft value. Just to play devil’s advocate for a second, I offer a pet theory on the special value of players with elite speed/power combinations. When the original Rotisserie baseball book came out, the star of the show was Dickie Thon who, pre-beaning, had hit 20 homers and stolen 34 in a pre-power inflation league.  I think of this as kind of a lesson from the fantasy founding fathers: speed+power=championships. … Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
Derek Ambrosino
Steve, Overall, I agree with your theory. Where I see my own shortcomings – if I had to identify a player class I too often undervalue – is the middle tier MIs – and I feel this way largely because of your point. I often like to play boom or bust on the MIs because in a vacuum, I think the Elvis Andruses of the world are overvalued relative to the true MI elites or the bargains to be found late. But, the nuance that point misses is that if you are falling behind in steals, a 35-40 SB MI… Read more »
Derek…I also see your point and in practice rather than theory, it’s often difficult to avoid players who’s value is largely if not completely tied up in speed.  However, I think the point is still valid that if you have more players who have some kind of speed and power mix, you’ve diffused the risk if you should lose your speed power specialist.  At least to the point where you can still be competetive and eek out points (especially by making sure you finish above others who have punted categories rather than being in the last place mix with them). … Read more »