Let’s Try To Be Honest About Matt Kemp’s Defense

Hey, you guys sick of talking about Matt Kemp yet? No? Cool. Among the many conversations about whether the Dodgers should trade him or keep him — as I’ve said, I believe he’s more valuable as a Dodger than elsewhere, though I also don’t believe that “right-handed power” is a check box you must have as a requirement to win — is how we should regard his defense. Despite a very good offensive season last year, it’s terrible defensive metrics that kept him at a 1.8 WAR, or basically a league-average player.

Clearly, some of that was due to cover-your-eyes awful defense in center field for the first six weeks, and he’ll never play there again. But of course, he’s always been an awful center fielder. Don’t let the two ridiculous Gold Gloves fool you — for years, he was able to fake it by outrunning poor instincts with great speed, and as age and injury have added up, he wasn’t able to acceptably do that any longer. Really, he should have never been a center fielder in the first place, as I’m sure I could find an archive of mine from 2009 saying, but he was, and it rarely worked.

But how about in a corner, where he looked better in right in 2014 while still being graded as negative? That’s the subject of a (too) lengthy post of mine today at FanGraphs, which I’m sharing here to drive both traffic and discussion. There’s this fun image:

If outfielders can be expected to make 99% of routine plays and zero percent of impossible plays, the only way to judge them is by what they do in between. So let’s do that. Using our Inside Edge spray charts, and turning off all of the balls that were marked as not possible to field, here’s a composite I’ve created of Kemp’s “missed plays” at all three positions in 2014, with the ones coming while he was playing center field shaded in blue:


…but also this harsh reality:

Kemp came up as a corner outfielder, back in the days when the Dodgers were fooling around with Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones in center. In 2007-08, he played more than 1,000 innings in right field, and he wasn’t graded very well back then, either. We’re not talking Brad Hawpe bad, but of the 29 right fielders with 1,000 innings over those two years, he ranked 16th (DRS), 19th (Defense), and 22nd (UZR/150). His issues then were the same as they are now, in that poor instincts and range (-9.2 RngR, 22nd, ahead of mostly much older players likeBobby Abreu, Griffey, Jermaine Dye and Vladimir Guerrero) hurt him more than a strong throwing arm and relatively sure hands helped.

Of course, 2007-08 were his age-22 and -23 seasons. That was a long time ago, before his leg injuries, and defense tends to peak early. Like you, I cast a wary eye on the accuracy of defensive stats from six and seven years ago, but we also can’t ignore that the reasons why he graded out poorly are the same reasons we still see today.

My takeaway: He deserves a shot to put in a full season in the corners, but hoping for even average seems like a long shot. I’ll take adequate. I’ll take competent. Many don’t think that’s even possible. Maybe they’re right; we’ll see, though of course the worry is that you’re not just talking about 2015, but also the four years on his deal after that. But the fact that different teams surely evaluate this differently have to strongly color the potential trade process. It’s what makes speculating on this so hard. We really don’t know what he’s going to be out there.

About Mike Petriello

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