Setting Expectations On Matt Kemp

kemp_matt_hr_5.10.14On May 21 in New York, Matt Kemp doubled for his only hit in four plate appearances in a 4-3 Dodger win over the Mets. At the time, his slash line was .273/.338/.469. His wOBA was .354; his wRC+ was 129. Only 34 players had a wRC+ higher than 129 last year; among those not to get there were Chase Utley, Ryan Zimmerman, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Gonzalez. It wasn’t anything near “vintage Kemp” — in 2011, his wRC+ was 168, and he did it over a full season, not just seven weeks or so — but it was totally fine. Despite his usual poor defense in center, his bat was above average, considerably so. (29 percent, to be exact.)

On May 22 in New York, Kemp went 0-4. He struck out twice. He misplayed several balls in center field, in what is to date his final appearance there. And then the ugliness began. Kemp was told that he was no longer acceptable in center, and would be playing left from now on. He didn’t start the next night in Philadelphia. Or the next, though he pinch-hit. Or the next, or the next, or the next, though he again pinch-hit in the final game.

Finally, on May 28, he started in left field against the Reds. He went 0-4. And the next night. And the next night. He got two hits on May 31 as the Dodgers battered Pittsburgh starter Brandon Cumpton, but went 1-4 the next night, 0-4 the next, 1-4 the next, 0-4 the next. Between May 22 and June 4, Kemp had 39 plate appearances. He didn’t walk. He struck out 14 times. He had four hits. Whether it was pouting over the move, or the extended absence throwing off his timing, or just a badly-timed slump, or a combination of all of it, he was absolutely atrocious. By the end of the White Sox series, his line was .238/.291/.398. His wRC+ was 94. Thanks in part to what was admittedly something of a dumb base running mistake in the first game in Denver, high-fiving Davey Lopes before getting tagged out on a pop-up slide at second, a certain segment of fans were… displeased. Often irrationally so.

And so on, as though people have already forgotten the hamstring injury and the other hamstring injury and the shoulder injury and the shoulder surgery and the other hamstring injury and the other shoulder injury and the destroyed ankle and the additional shoulder surgery and the ankle surgery. Kemp struggled, and looked bad doing it, all while Joc Pederson continues to tear up Triple-A, hitting .339/.448/.638 in the offense-friendly climate of Albuquerque and the PCL.

You get it, on some level, I guess. It’s easy to forget that many fans are the instant gratification type who don’t really understand, or even care to understand, the facts and economics of the situation. All they know is that the Dodgers have too many outfielders, they have one who looked really, really bad recently, they have a kid in the minors tearing it up, and they remember Yasiel Puig‘s impact last year.

Expecting Pederson to come up and make that kind of splash is foolish, of course, and I even heard it repeated on a national broadcast the other day. It’s dangerous for fans to expect that. Pederson has of course been outstanding, and like everyone else, I look forward to seeing him come up. I also know that his track record against lefties is limited, he was pulled from a game by manager Damon Berryhill last week for “lack of effort” — this, after we all laughed off Giants writer Hank Schulman’s reports of attitude issues in May, ironic considering how many of the “boo Kemp” crowd seem to mainly dislike his attitude — and is more likely to be an adequate center fielder than an elite one. (Yes, “adequate” still would make him the best defensive center fielder on the team.)

92topps_mattkempBut of course, even if you wanted Kemp gone, think of the logistics. He has the remainder of this year’s $21m due him, then $107m through 2019. It’s so ludicrous to hear people wanting him DFA’d that we won’t even discuss it, other than to remind everyone that the previous record for most money due to a DFA’d player is ~$22m to Russ Ortiz, back in 2006. Want to trade him? Go ahead, find a fit with that contract that doesn’t require the Dodgers eating $90m or more. (Actually, I had a fun discussion the other day about the idea of Kemp to the Astros, expecting the Dodgers ate a ton of money, presuming that Houston has room to add payroll and that an outfield of Kemp, Dexter Fowler and George Springer — with Domingo Santana coming — would be fun, although obviously beyond extremely unlikely.) It’s hard to point to the Carl Crawford trade as an example; that’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and obviously the team that took on the money in that situation isn’t going to be the team on the receiving end here. It’s hard to see a realistic scenario for a Kemp trade.

To be clear, this isn’t all about how Kemp is being treated unfairly. It’s not. His play in center field has been atrocious for years, without much indication that he did a lot of work on his part to improve on it. I’m still not sure we know fully how much of his five-day absence was about how poorly he reacted to the move. I’m pretty certain that there are corners of the clubhouse who are unhappy with the entire situation and would like him gone. He’s not without blame here.

But reality and contracts and roster spots still exist, and besides, there’s this: Kemp singled and walked in the first game in Colorado on Friday. He had two hits, including a triple, and a walk, on Saturday. He had two more hits, including another triple, and a walk in Sunday’s rain-shortened game. He’s now back to a 108 wRC+, making him a better than league-average hitter. Slightly better than league-average isn’t good enough for the contract, of course, but nor is it a disaster, especially when you consider just how damaging a brutal two weeks was. No, a few games doesn’t mean he’s “back,” but a few lousy games didn’t mean he was finished, either. He’s looked like he’ll be better in (or less damaging, at least) in left field. He’s still only 29, and there’s still talent in there, even if it’s been slowed by the constant injuries.

I’m not entirely sure how this is all going to play out, especially when Crawford returns in the next week. But I do know this: Getting Kemp out of center was the right idea, and putting him on the bench now isn’t going to help matters. It’s not going to help him produce, and it’s not going to help any trade value he might have. How that’s all going to work with Crawford and Andre Ethier and Pederson, well, it remains to be seen. But while Kemp isn’t above reproach in the least, what’s not fair is to act like he’s a Ryan Howard-level debacle. He hasn’t been that on offense this year, and if he did anything wrong over the last two years, it was trying to come back from injury too quickly. While he has been a disaster in center, that’s hardly anything new.

So what that all means is simply this: The best thing we can possibly do is leave him alone, hope he stays healthy, and accept that solid production that isn’t historic production isn’t exactly a crushing problem. If this all sounds familiar, it should. I wrote the same thing nearly four years ago. We just never learn, do we?

About Mike Petriello

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