It’s Good To Have You Back, Matt Kemp

Here’s two notable players having basically the exact same season:

136 564 19 66 10 9.20% 18.40% 0.275 0.353 0.452 127
132 525 19 68 8 9.30% 25.00% 0.282 0.347 0.484 134

One strikes out a bit more, but he hits for more power to make up for it. As hitters, they are almost exactly identical.

The top one, Alex Gordon, is an MVP candidate in the American League. The bottom one, Matt Kemp, is still reviled by a considerable portion of the Dodger fanbase and is considered to be a salary dump candidate by fans of other teams. Obviously, I’ve left out one critical component here, which is that Gordon is one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball and Kemp has generally been among the worst, which makes Gordon a much more valuable player than Kemp. But the point is, after two years of injury-related struggle, from early 2012 through early 2014, Kemp’s bat is finally back to something approximating what it once was.

That’s the point of my Kemp piece at FanGraphs today, which I’ll leave a part of here but otherwise implore you to read in full:

Eleven of his 19 home runs have come in the second half, despite “half” being a total misnomer. He’s had only 166 second-half plate appearances, compared to 305 in the first half. Six of his nine longest homers have come since the break, as well, which is important for a player who saw his batted ball distance decline precipitously last year. Thanks to Bill Petti’s spray chart tool, we can even see the difference within this season; Kemp has added 16 feet to his average fly ball distance since the All-Star break. As Kemp gets further out from his shoulder surgeries, with a clear mechanical change to look at, these are all very good signs.

Between health and mechanical changes, the Kemp we’ve seen over the last two months has been absolutely outstanding, one of the best hitters in baseball, and yet it still feels like Kemp isn’t getting the credit for it he should be, both because he was so bad on defense that his WAR is still just 0.9 — and argue about WAR and defensive metrics all you want, but there is no scenario here that ends in anything but “Kemp is and has been an awful center fielder” — and because we’d seen him struggle for so, so long.

Now, if you look through the recent Kemp posts we’ve done here — warning, attempt at a fun new feature! — we’ve been saying that here for a while, first that the expected return on any Kemp trade would likely be so minimal as to make it not worth it, then realizing that he was playing better:

[slider category=”matt-kemp” count=”8″]

But he’s really turned it on lately; as I said in the FanGraphs piece, he’s the No. 7 hitter in baseball by wRC+ since the All-Star break, and since there are real reasons we can see for change, there’s hope that it’s not just a “hot streak.” He still needs to improve in the outfield and give up his hopes of ever playing center, but the hope is that as he gains more playing time in right, that will come, and he looked quite good out there on Sunday afternoon.

None of this guarantees future success, of course, because he’s been hurt so much over the last few years that if he turned up tomorrow with a bum hamstring or ankle or duodenum or liver or whatever, I don’t think any of us will be surprised. The repeated leg injuries have probably put the days of 40 steals behind him. The contract may still end up being one the team regrets. For now, we can at least say we’re seeing something like the old Matt Kemp at the plate, the one that was so deadly, and with the horrible struggles of Yasiel Puig, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Welcome back, Matt. We missed you.

About Mike Petriello

Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is