How Matt Kemp got his groove back

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

That familiar follow through to Matt Kemp‘s swing is an iconic image ingrained into almost every Dodger fan’s memory. The 2011 season was a special one for Kemp. The Bison was an All-Star for the first time in his career, recipient of the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards with a OPS+ of 172 and a career-high 115 runs and 126 RBI. He fell just short of the 40-40 club with 39 home runs and just missed out on capturing the Triple Crown. He was then snubbed in the MVP voting, finishing second to controversial Ryan Braun.

Kemp returned to the big stage in LA this year, and has had an improbable comeback earning him his first All-Star nod since 2012 and even some MVP chatter. Beast Mode has returned to Chavez Ravine, and it’s like getting the band back together.

Nostalgia aside, Kemp’s been darn good over the first half of the season.

He’s Healthy

Hamstring, shoulder, knee and ankle injuries have hampered Kemp since 2012 when he only played in 106 games. Before 2012, Kemp was bullet proof, playing nearly every day, 637 games from 2008-2011.

Back in 2014, Kemp opened up about his injuries to Robert Morales of the Daily News.

“Well, I was locked in,” he said of 2011. “Body-wise, I was feeling all the way 100 percent. You know, it’s just a different year. Every year is different. Everybody’s got stuff they’ve gotta deal with and mine the past years have been injuries I’ve had to overcome and it’s getting better and better every day.” “It’s tough,” he said. “I think it’s tough for anybody to try to go from being something to being something else and you’re trying to get back to where you were. Sometimes injuries take time to heal. It could be one year, two years, three years. But for me, every year I’ve had to deal with a different injury. There was my shoulder and my ankle, so those are two major body parts, especially for the game of baseball, especially for what I can do as far as hitting home runs and stealing bases. I’ve just gotta get my legs under me and work every day to get back to where I was before.”

Kemp reported to Spring Training this year with the Dodgers 40 pounds lighter, healthy, and dancing to Marvin Gaye. His shoulder, hamstring, knee and ankle woes were behind him. He seized the opportunity, and he never stopped hitting.

More Than A Salary Dump

The December trade was viewed primarily as a cost-cutting move with the Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers sent the albatross contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, and Scott Kazmir to the Braves along with Charlie Culberson to get their 2018 payroll below the $197 million luxury tax threshold. No one expected Kemp to be on the Opening Day roster out of Spring Training. Some even thought he wouldn’t last through Spring Training at all. The deal ended up paying off twofold.

Even skipper Dave Roberts was pleasantly surprised at Kemp’s shape coming into Spring Training.

“To be quite honest, he surprised me with the way he came in shape,” Roberts said of Kemp, who says he has shed 40 pounds since last season. “I had him in San Diego (in 2015). I saw him last year. And to see the complete contrast in body composition? I’m surprised, yeah. Pleasantly surprised and excited for him.”

General Manager Farhan Zaidi said they brought Kemp back with an open mind, a mindset that has brought born-again players like Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, Andrew Toles and Max Muncy to the major-league level with the Dodgers with shockingly favorable results in recent years.

When the news broke, it was confusing to say the least.

“My agent said ‘Los Angeles,’ and I thought he was playing,” Kemp says. “I think I was in shock like everybody else. It was cool and weird at the same time.”

It was weird, but it definitely has been very cool.

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Kemp re-envisioned himself and rebounded at what couldn’t have come at a better time for the Dodgers who have had to fight to keep afloat after devastating injuries befell the team literally right out of the gate. Turner missed the first 40 games of the season after he fractured his wrist during Spring Training, and then they lost their All-Star shortstop Corey Seager for the year due to Tommy John surgery. Last season’s NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger also started his sophomore campaign very slow. There have also been several injuries suffered by the pitching staff, placing even more importance on the offense.

Kemp has been one of the top offensive players for the Dodgers this year, and he led the NL in batting average for a big part of the first half to the season. He won the left field job out of spring training when he slugged .561 with seven extra-base hits including five home runs in 57 Cactus League at-bats. Spring Training is Spring Training, but he didn’t stop hitting.

In 87 games this season, his .312 average is tied for sixth-best in the NL. He’s second to teammate Max Muncy on the team with a .892 OPS. His 15 home runs, 141 wRC+, and team-leading 58 RBI earned Kemp a starting spot on the National League All-Star team.

Kemp’s become one of the top fastball hitters in baseball with a .384 batting average. Historically he’s hit left-handed pitchers better (.319 career average), but he’s hitting both RHP (.314) and LHP (.309) equally well this season. He’s crushing the first pitch he sees (.348 with 5 home runs), and he’s hitting .431/.468/.754/1.222 with 6 home runs with runners in scoring position (65 at-bats). The Dodgers are hitting .247 as a team with RISP, 10th in the NL.

It’s true that sometimes when you step away from something for a while, you can get a fresh outlook and second wind to return better and wiser. Even while writing, I often step away to give myself a breather and return to my laptop with a different mindset.

Let’s compare Kemp’s first half in 2011, the year he should have won the MVP award, to his first half this year. You can see just how good he was.

Pre All-Star Break 2011: .313/.398/.584/.982, 22 home runs, 19 doubles, 2 triples, 67 RBI, 47 walks, 82 strikeouts, 27 stolen bases in 329 at-bats and 92 games.

Pre All-Star Break 2018: .312/.354/.538/.892, 15 home runs, 18 doubles, 58 RBI, 20 walks, 71 strikeouts, 0 stolen bases in 279 at-bats and 87 games.

The speed is gone, but then again he never was able to sniff anywhere near 40 stolen bases again after 2011. Nevertheless, his comeback, including his offensive production and his acceptable defense, has been one of the defining stories of the 2018 Dodgers.

He’s patched things up with Yasiel Puig and the fans.

It also helps that Kemp looks a lot more comfortable back in Blue the second time around, and he’s moved forward with Puig and some of his old teammates that he may have clashed with in the past.

Kemp and former manager Don Mattingly had a testy relationship after Donnie Baseball notoriously moved Kemp out of center field in 2014, a reaction he now regrets. In that same Spring Training interview with Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, Kemp also went on to make amends with the fans who interpreted his past comments after being traded to Atlanta as an insult to Los Angeles as a baseball town.

“Somebody had asked me how it was to be in Atlanta, and I said that Atlanta had always been known as a Braves city, a baseball town,” he said. “L.A., when I first got here, it was all about Kobe [Bryant], [Shaquille O’Neal]. As the years went on and we started winning, it became a baseball town. Never said L.A. wasn’t a baseball town. I would never disrespect the fans that helped me get to who I am. And that’s the truth.”

The fans have welcomed him home, and team chemistry is a lot better this time around.

Kemp was traded to San Diego. Egos were bruised and fans were bitter. At the time there was an outfield logjam with Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson, Puig and Kemp all on the books. Unfortunately someone had to go.

After the trade, Kemp became a shell of his former self. His defense became one of the worst in all of baseball. It was actually sad to see him so heavy and seemingly on a downward spiral in his career.

His determination and renewed positivity, leaving old demons behind him, is a lesson we all can learn from.

Dave Roberts, who was Kemp’s bench coach in San Diego, summed up Kemp’s return to the Dodgers like the baseball sage that he is.

“He never wanted to leave, but everything happened for a reason,” says Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “Because he left, we’re getting an even better Matt Kemp the second time around.”

There’s still a surplus of outfielders in the Dodgers’ system including Alex Verdugo, who’s hitting .350 with 7 home runs in 57 games with Triple-A Oklahoma City this year, and Andrew Toles. However, Kemp is unlikely to see a decrease in playing time at this point.

Most Dodger fans — and Kenley Jansen — never wanted Kemp to be traded in the first place. The fans are the ones who have voted Kemp into the All-Star Game. Trades are common in the sport, but Kemp’s comeback is a rarity. It’s been four years since the trade, but he’s playing like he never left home.

Jansen, who is also representing the Dodgers in the All-Star Game, explained Kemp’s triumphant return.

“I don’t think he changed, I think he just grew,” Jansen says. “We’re all going to grow up in our lives, and he probably learned from what happened.

We all deserve second chances, but we don’t all take those opportunities and make the most of them. As the Dodgers wrap up the first half of the 2018 season, they’ll need Kemp in their second-half quest to capture their sixth-straight NL West division title. They’re one game behind the Arizona D-backs, but they probably would have been much further back without Kemp. There’s a wide open NL MVP field this year, and Kemp’s revival in Los Angeles could lead to a very redeeming conclusion.

About Stacie Wheeler

Stacie Wheeler
Stacie Wheeler, born and raised in So Cal, has been writing about the Dodgers since 2010. She wrote daily as the co-editor of Lasorda's Lair for five long years, and she has also written for Dodgers Nation and Dodger Blue 1958. She currently contributes to The Hardball Times. Stacie graduated from the University Of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in Cinema-Television. You can also watch her videos on her YouTube channel, DishingUpTheDodgers.