There is no player more polarizing on the Dodgers than Matt Kemp. Recently, as Kemp trade rumors have (predictably) started to get louder, there have been a large variety of reactions. There’s one thing that comes up frequently in our comment section, on twitter, and around the internet which I want to address, though. You can say all you want about Kemp’s defense, but Matt Kemp’s offense is not the problem.
Last year, Kemp had a significant down season, posting a .316 wOBA. That was still slightly above the major league average, but well below his career levels. After a shoulder injury and hamstring problems, perhaps this should have been expected. This year, in spite of Kemp’s ankle injury, projection systems expected a rebound. ZiPS projected a .342 wOBA, and Steamer projected a .347 wOBA. As of today, Matt Kemp has a .342 wOBA in 2014, matching the ZiPS projection precisely. This season, Kemp has a 122 wRC+, meaning that he is hitting 22% better than a league-average player. That has value; about nine runs above what an average major leaguer produces in 336 plate appearances.
Mike already pointed out some similarities to Kemp’s 2009 line in his post yesterday. Kemp was worth five wins above replacement that season. He hit .297/.352/.490, which, by raw numbers, is above his .277/.343/.432 line in 2014. However, fewer runs are scored in 2014 than in 2009, which means that raw batting lines don’t mean much when compared over a long time period. Kemp’s line in 2009 was good enough for a 123 wRC+. That means, in relation to an average batter, Kemp was only 1% better in 2009 than he is this year. The extra value came from more cumulative plate appearances, better baserunning, and better defense. The actual hitting part is almost exactly identical.
Kemp’s providing his offense in a different way than usual. His power numbers are down from his peak, certainly. His .155 ISO is lower than his career average of .197 and his peak of .262. However, it is higher than what he managed last season (.126). Shoulder labrum surgeries are notorious for sapping power and for taking a few years to heal fully, if at all. His current level of power is probably about what you can reasonably expect.
Instead of power, Kemp is producing his offensive value by hitting the ball hard. His line drive rate stands at 27.9%. Among qualified batters, that’s fourth. Kemp has shown an ability to maintain .350+ BABIPs in the past, but his ankle injury and reduced speed might change Kemp’s “true talent” BABIP long-term. Kemp is also hitting more ground balls than usual (1.59 GB/FB ratio, a career high) which would increase his expected BABIP but decrease his expected overall production. Kemp’s current sample size of plate appearances simply isn’t big enough to know if this current BABIP is sustainable or not.
Kemp’s hard-hit rate, which uses slightly different data, is a bit lower and predicts a lower BABIP than his current .360. Still, I’m a bit distrustful of the “hard-hit rate” data because of the lack of information available. Line drive rate isn’t perfect, but component batted ball data shows a potential shift in Kemp’s approach.
Of course, I haven’t addressed the elephant in the room:
What about the strikeouts?
One of the most common complaints about Kemp’s offense this season is his strikeout rate. Right now it’s 25.2%. That’s one of the highest rates of Kemp’s career, so it’s an accurate complaint. The problem is that it omits a pretty important fact, the increase in league-wide strikeout rate. When Kemp started his career in 2006, the league average strikeout rate was 16.3%. So far in 2014, the strikeout rate is 19.8%. Here’s a comparison between Kemp’s strikeout rate and the league average over the last nine seasons:
There needs to be some context if you want to compare Matt Kemp’s strikeout rate in 2006 to Matt Kemp’s strikeout rate in 2014. In order to do so, I’m using something which I am calling K-. It’s a normalized strikeout rate. 100 is league average and lower numbers are better (hence, minus instead of plus). A park’s effect on strikeout percentage is included as well; in 2006 Dodger Stadium saw slightly increased strikeout numbers, but this has returned to neutral in the past few years. Departures from 100 are percentage points; for example, a player with a 110 K- strikes out 10% more than the league average rate. This isn’t an original calculation, but the numbers aren’t available online in this form and it will help gain additional insight into how Kemp’s changes compare over the course of his career compare to how the league has changed in the same time period.
Here are Kemp’s K- values from year to year:
Kemp’s K- this season is 128, and his numbers usually hover in the same general area. His amazing 2011 had an identical normalized strikeout rate. His career average? 131, higher than his 2014 season to date.
So, yeah, Kemp does strike out a lot. He always has. He was one of the best players in baseball striking out at the same normalized rate as he has now. It’s not a valid thing to complain about.
Kemp’s offense is fine. He’s producing nearly as well as projection systems thought he would, and his strikeout rate increase matches the strikeout rate increase across all of baseball. The real issue with Kemp, and the reason why the Dodgers might (or might not) be trying to trade him is his defense. If that can eventually restore itself to the pre-2012 levels, he’ll still be a valuable player. That’s a huge “if” given his injury history, but so far he has looked passable in right field at least. He probably still won’t ever be worth his contract, but at least he still has a chance to help the team out down the stretch.