For Tony Kemp, Barrels are Overrated

Tony Kemp did not make the cut when the All-Star Game finalists were announced on Sunday; the American League second basemen will be represented by the trio of Marcus Semien, Jose Altuve, and DJ LeMahieu. Semien and Altuve are both having fine seasons, and not for the first time, and while LeMahieu has been comparatively subpar thus far this year, he was one of the AL’s top hitters in 2019 and ’20. Kemp does not have that kind of track record, and isn’t even a full-time player or a single-position one, but he’s nonetheless in the midst of a career year that deserves a closer look.

Through Monday (the cutoff for all the stats herein), the 29-year-old Kemp was hitting .274/.401/.438 in 186 PA, splitting his time between second base (40 games, 24 starts) and left field (24 games, 19 starts). After starting just six of Oakland’s first 22 games, he’s started 37 of the past 54 and 25 of the past 33, earning an increasingly larger share of the playing time thanks to his improved hitting. After slashing just .200/.385/.233 (98 wRC+) in 40 PA in April, he improved to .292/.368/.438 (125 wRC+) in 59 PA in May, and .294/.430/.529 (169 wRC+) in 87 PA in June.

Kemp’s overall slash stats and wRC+ all represent career highs and are well beyond the .235/.320/.359 (89 wRC+) he hit for the Astros, Cubs, and A’s in 863 PA from 2016 to ’20. He doesn’t have enough playing time to qualify for the batting title, but through Monday, his .401 on-base percentage ranked third among AL hitters with at least 150 PA, behind only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (.443) and Yoán Moncada (.403), and his 140 wRC+ ranks 15th, two points behind Altuve, six points ahead of Semien, and 37 points ahead of LeMahieu.

Again, I’m not suggesting that Kemp deserved All-Star consideration for what amounts to his first season with at least 1.0 WAR (he’s at 1.4), but it’s an impressive performance nonetheless, one that has helped the A’s to the AL’s fifth-best record at 47–34. I’ll admit that he hadn’t caught my eye to any great degree until a reader (presumably not Tony Kemp, despite the screen name) called attention to him in last week’s chat, but after 30 seconds of peering at his stats page, I resolved to investigate more closely.

A few things stand out about Kemp, starting with his diminutive size. At least in terms of listed height, at 5-foot-6, he’s tied with Altuve as the majors’ shortest player, and at 160 pounds, he’s among the lightest as well. He’s shown increased patience at the plate this year, swinging at fewer pitches outside of his ultra-compact strike zone, and he’s doing all this without hitting the ball very hard. The combination of factors suggests a player figuring out his own strengths and limitations, and Kemp’s own statements (more on which below) back that up.

On the subject of patience, Kemp is swinging at a career-low 40.9% of pitches, down from last year’s 43.1% and 46.5% in 2019. He’s cut his chase rate from 30.1% to 23.3% in that span, as well as his swinging-strike rate from a career-high 7.6% in 2019 to a career-low 4.5%, the seventh-lowest rate among players with at least 150 PA. After consistently averaging around 3.6 pitches per plate appearance, Kemp has boosted that to 3.92 this season and put the first pitch into play just 9.5% of the time, down from 14.9% last year, and his first-pitch swing rate has fallen from 34% to 23%.

The payoff for that improved discipline has been a 16.7% walk rate — up from last year’s 13.2% and his previous career mark of 10.2% — that ranks sixth in the majors at the 150 PA level. Meanwhile, Kemp is striking out just 14% of the time, making him one of just five players at that cutoff with more walks than strikeouts, along with Yandy Díaz, Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Santana, and Juan Soto.

While Kemp’s 88.9% contact rate is exceptional (eighth among the same group), his 85.2 mph average exit velocity is not, placing him in the third percentile among players with at least 100 batted ball events this season (he has 127); similarly, his 22.8% hard-hit rate is in the second percentile. Remarkably, he has yet to barrel a single ball, even in the service of producing any of his 14 extra-base hits (eight doubles, two triples, four homers). In his career, he’s barreled just five balls out of 755 BBE; his 0.7% rate is the seventh-lowest among players with at least 500 BBE in the Statcast era.

Here it’s worth referring back to the Statcast definition of a barrel: a batted ball event whose combination of exit velocity and launch angle produces a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. It takes at least an exit velocity of at least 98 mph to produce a barrel, with a corresponding 26–28 degree launch angle; at 99 mph, the range is 26–30 degrees, and at 100 mph, it’s 24–31 degrees.

Kemp has only hit five balls at 98 mph or higher this year, plus two more that round up, though none of them had the requisite launch angle to put him in range:

Tony Kemp’s Greatest Hits, 2021
Date Opp EV LA xBA xSLG Result
6/1/21 SEA 100.2 34 .377 1.425 Homer
6/21/21 TEX 98.9 15 .643 .925 Single
5/8/21 TB 98.6 22 .420 .993 Double
5/23/21 LAA 98.5 18 .426 .751 Single
5/28/21 LAA 98.0 23 .440 1.067 Line out
6/19/21 NYY 97.8 24 .431 1.087 Homer
4/18/21 DET 97.7 3 .483 .555 Single
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Only one of those seven balls exceeded a .500 expected batting average, and only one even came close to the 1.500 expected slugging percentage. They were still productive hits (except for the lineout), but they didn’t meet the definition of a barrel — not that you’d suspect as much when you see a hit like this, his June 1 homer off the Mariners’ Daniel Zamora:

Anyway, what Kemp has done in spite of his lack of barrels stands out. In the annals of Statcast, we have 2,416 player-seasons with at least 100 BBE. Of those, 46 players failed to barrel even a single ball, with Ben Revere‘s 536 BBE in 2015 the single-season high by any such player and Dee Strange-Gordon’s 490 from 2018 the second-most. Strange-Gordon not only has two other seasons in the top 10 in terms of most BBE without a barrel, but he also hasn’t produced any from among his 893 BBE in the Statcast era, though that doesn’t cover the entirety of his major league career, as he debuted in 2011.

Of the 46 players in the “Zero Barrels Club,” Kemp has the highest wOBA (.369) by 34 points and the highest slugging percentage (.438) by 13 points.

The components that make up slugging percentage are part of wOBA, so the two axes on that scatter chart aren’t independent. Even so, you can get a sense of the extent to which Kemp has maximized what a hitter can do without ever barreling a ball. It’s very tough to surpass a league-average wOBA (which has ranged from .311 to .321 in the Statcast era) without such high-quality contact once in awhile, and even tougher to slug .400.

The players who have approached what Kemp has done did so in similarly-sized samples: Tapia had 125 BBE; Tomlinson had 138; and Presley recorded 200. The phenomenon has decreased in frequency as more teams and players have taken Statcast data into account. While there were 14 players who went barrel-free in 2015, nine in ’16, and eight in ’17, Andrelton Simmons (102 BBE) was the only one last year, and David Fletcher (258 BBE) and Nicky Lopez (172 BBE) are the only ones besides Kemp to do it this year.

Kemp’s performance calls to mind a catchphrase the Dodgers have made famous in recent years: “Barrels are overrated.” But while he isn’t hitting the ball very hard, he is hitting it in the air more often, setting career lows in groundball rate and groundball/flyball ratio:

Tony Kemp via Statcast
Season GB/FB GB% EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2018 1.39 44.7% 84.1 0.5% 17.6% .263 .219 .392 .300 .327 .281
2019 0.95 40.7% 86.2 1.0% 15.3% .212 .189 .380 .273 .285 .249
2020 1.00 35.4% 85.8 1.2% 15.9% .247 .256 .301 .349 .307 .328
2021 0.77 33.6% 85.2 0.0% 22.0% .274 .232 .438 .324 .369 .321

Such a combination can produce a slew of routine fly balls, which helps to explain why Kemp’s xBA and xSLG are so low. While players can make up some of that ground via their speed, it’s worth noting that at least as measured by Statcast, Kemp’s sprint speed places him in just the 42nd percentile, and he hasn’t been above the 44th percentile since 2018 (62nd). He doesn’t steal many bases (he’s 4-for-5 this season), has just two infield hits, and none of his doubles are “hustle doubles,” where speed and aggressive running netted him an extra base. He ropes the occasional ball into the right field corner or the right-center gap, well-placed if not necessarily hard-hit (six of his eight doubles were 95.0 mph or greater).

Earlier this month, Kemp described his attempt to hit for more power. Via the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matt Kawahara:

This spring, Kemp said, he decided to “toy around” with upping his exit velocities. He aimed to drive pitches. He tried a two-hand follow-through on swings.

“In conclusion,” he said, “I was not happy with how much I was swinging and missing in spring training.”

…”I figured, yeah, I can hit the ball harder. But my contact through the zone is really what makes me who I am,” Kemp said. “And I think sometimes that gets lost in baseball now, is people get so caught up in exit velocity instead of just a base hit. A base hit might be 80 mph off the bat. But it’s a base hit.

“So I just decided to switch gears. And the swinging hard and having higher exit velocity, I just put that on the shelf and said, ‘You need to be yourself, and whatever your strengths are that got you to the big leagues and help you stay, those are what you need to really work on.'”

That’s a fine example of a player figuring out who he is, and a reminder that the game still has room for a variety of approaches at the plate rather than requiring a one-size-fits-all emphasis on exit velo and launch angles. Kemp’s Statcast numbers do suggest the possibility of regression ahead, but for now, everything is working, and watching him maximize what he can do is a lot of fun.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Kemp was a fan favorite in Houston and I’m glad to see him have success in Oakland. I’m surprised by those sprint speed numbers, as he had a reputation as a burner.