The love-hate relationship the casual Dodger fan has with Matt Kemp is astonishing. Yes, he’s had a rough nearly 18 months, but he’s finally starting to look like the Kemp of old.
I still contend he won’t ever be the Kemp, circa 2011, but he’s still good enough to play every day (but preferably, not in center field, as you’ll see down below).
Kemp has a .267 batting average and a .336 on-base percentage. Those numbers aren’t that dissimilar to his .270 and .328 numbers (respectively) from last year. The major difference is Kemp’s power. He’s slugging .483 this season, up from .395 in an injury-riddled 2013 season. His isolated slugging is .216 (up from .125), which is “great,” as defined by FanGraphs. And he isn’t getting any luckier than he has in his career, as his batting average on balls in play is .351, and his career mark is .352.
His ISO has already come back down, just as his BABIP, walk rate and batting average have all increased, which is normal.
This is good. It means he shouldn’t be due for much of a regression. Almost half of his 31 hits have gone for extra bases (10 doubles, five home runs). And the home run he hit on Saturday in the eighth inning was a flashback to classic Matt Kemp. He took a pitch up in the strike zone and hit it out to straight-away right field. He has the best opposite field power of any Dodger hitter since Mike Piazza, and might have the best opposite-field power potential of any player in baseball.
He’s a proven run producer, unlike Yasiel Puig. But seriously, Kemp’s weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is 132, good for 18th-best of all MLB outfielders.
Kemp is striking out at a rate not seen by him since his rookie season, when he struck out in 31.9 percent of his at-bats. That isn’t uncommon for a 21-year-old. This season, he has a 28.9 percent strikeout rate, which is down from the low-30s just a week or so ago. Naturally, hitters are going to strike out more when they’re hitting for more power. But Kemp is also walking at the second-best rate of his career — 9.8 percent. While he won’t be mistaken for Jose Bautista at the plate, he’s more than offsetting his high strikeout rate — something some fans can’t seem to grasp. Kemp is going to strike out, there’s no avoiding that. If he’s walking and hitting for power while doing it (and still hitting for a repsectable average), then I’m not quite sure what the problem is, other than the stigma that comes with strikeouts.
His strikeout rate has decreased in recent weeks, which is a result of him hitting better overall.
And his strikeout problem isn’t the result of swinging more freely. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone compared to last season (30.8 to 31.4 percent), yet he’s making more contact on those pitches than last season (46 to 50 percent). He’s also swinging-and-missing less (13.9 to 15.3 percent). So really, he’s just timing his swings-and-misses “better,” accounting for more strikeouts. Not to mention strikeout rates have increased throughout baseball this season. Starting pitchers are striking out 19.7 percent of hitters (up from 19.4 last season) and relievers are striking out 22.1 percent of hitters (up from 21.7 last season).
For as good as he’s been offensively, his defense is another story. It’s been atrocious, and the reason he’s only been worth 0.1 wins above replacement this season. His ultimate zone rating per 150 games played is -35.5, which is, believe it or not, worse than his -35.0 mark from last season. He’s already -5 defensive runs saved, meaning his defense has cost the Dodgers five runs rather than simply an average defensive center fielder. With Puig being a plus defender in right field, it seems Kemp’s destination — sooner rather than later — is left field (with Joc Pederson taking over in center field). Seriously, check out these plays Pederson made in the last week. His defense in center will be a massive upgrade.
But for now, with Hanley Ramirez (somewhat) struggling and Adrian Gonzalez (absolutely) struggling, it’s nice to see Kemp picking up the slack.
(Statistics as of May 12, 2014)