Matt Kemp Has Actually Been an Asset

Between injuries that sapped his speed, a monster contract that hasn’t aged well, and a reputation as a clubhouse problem (deserved or not) that has followed him from team to team, Matt Kemp has more often been considered a liability than an asset over the past few years. Improbably, the 33-year-old outfielder is now back where his major-league career began in Los Angeles, one of the hottest hitters on a team desperate for a big bat in the absence of Justin Turner.

Once upon a time, Kemp was a superstar, a homegrown lineup centerpiece on a club teeming with young talent. A sixth-round draft pick out of an Oklahoma high school in 2003, he was just 21 when he debuted with the Dodgers on May 28, 2006. He hit seven homers in his first 15 games before cooling off, and while he was limited to 98 games the next year by a season-opening return to Triple A and a two-month absence due to a right shoulder separation, he hit a sizzling .342/.373/.52. Once the Andruw Jones experiment ended, he took over the team’s center-field job in 2008, and in his first two full seasons, he totaled 44 homers, 69 steals, and 8.3 WAR while helping the team to back-to-back NLCS berths. He even won a Gold Glove in 2009, his only season in center after which both his DRS and UZR were in the black.

Kemp’s game fell apart in 2010, a time during which he later conceded he lost focus amid the temptations of Tinseltown. As the Baseball Prospectus 2011 annual summarized, “He incited the ire of Joe Torre and his staff by giving up at-bats, failing to hustle out of the batter’s box, blundering on the basepaths and in the field, and showing a general lack of intensity.” Then came a 2011 turnaround in which he more than lived up to the hype, with an NL-leading 39 homers and the league’s second-best wRC+; he fell one steal shy of the fifth 40-homer/40-steal season in history. He won another Gold Glove, finished second in the NL MVP voting, and in November of that year, signed an eight-year, $160 million extension — which, at the time, was the largest contract in NL history and the seventh-largest overall.

Then came injuries, an endless litany: both hamstrings, a torn labrum and rotator-cuff damage in his left shoulder, a severe left ankle sprain. And surgeries, too: two for the shoulder, plus one for the ankle, including a microfracture procedure. Over the 2102-13 seasons, he played just 179 games, and the Dodger outfield, which now included Yasiel Puig and (occasionally) Carl Crawford, as well as Andre Ethier, learned to get along fine without him. Though Kemp returned to hit .287/.346/.506 with 25 homers and 141 wRC+ in 2014, his defensive woes (-22 DRS, -13 UZR) spelled the end of his time in center field and limited him to 2.5 WAR.

By the end of 2014, they also spelled the beginning of his time as a write-off. Amid a Winter Meetings whirlwind in December of that year, the new Andrew Friedman/Farhan Zaidi regime traded him, backup catcher Tim Federowicz, and $32 million to the Padres for Yasmani Grandal and pitching prospects Zack Eflin (soon flipped to the Phillies) and Joe Wieland. On July 30, 2016, the Padres sent him to the Braves along with $10.5 million in exchange for infielder Hector Olivera, who was under suspension for a domestic-violence incident and owed $28.5 for 2017-20 once he was reinstated — even though he was immediately released. The trail of bad paper finally came full circle on December 16, 2017, when the Braves dealt Kemp back to the Dodgers for Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy — the last three owed more than $50 million for 2018 — and another $4.5 million.

Though Kemp homered 77 times for the Padres and Braves over the 2015-17 span, he hit just .269/.310/.470 (107 wRC+) and produced 1.4 WAR for his $64.5 million salary, his value further suppressed by the majors’ worst outfield defense in two different flavors (-50 DRS, -33 UZR). And everywhere he left, allegations that he was a negative influence inevitably surfaced.

While Kemp’s return to the Dodgers helped them get below the $197 million competitive-balance tax threshold for 2018, he didn’t seem to fit into the playing time picture with an outfield pool that included Puig, Chris Taylor, Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez, Andrew Toles, Trayce Thompson, and Alex Verdugo. Reports that he’d lost 40 pounds and was in the best shape of his life were greeted with the usual eyerolls. The industry-wide assumption was that the Dodgers would eventually find an AL destination for Kemp or simply release him, either way absorbing the bulk (if not the entirety) of the $43 million remaining on his deal.

But Kemp looked good enough this spring that the Dodgers, who lost Turner to a broken left wrist — opening up time for Hernandez in the infield — began the season with him in left field. Through Monday, he had started 14 games there and two in right field. Though he’s struck out in 29.5% of his plate appearances, he’s slashed .321/.361/.536 thanks to a sizzling .417 BABIP while hitting three homers (tied for the team high) and recording a 150 wRC+ (second only to Grandal’s 177). With manager Dave Roberts generally pulling him for a defensive replacement around the seventh inning, he hasn’t embarrassed himself afield.

It’s early, and there’s no way Kemp’s .417 BABIP is sticking around. That said, for the first nine seasons of his career (2006-14), he did carry a .351 BABIP across 4,496 plate appearances, injuries and all. While some of that was the product of good contact, it was also probably the result of footspeed, too: during that same period, Kemp’s infield-hit rate ranked somewhere above the 80th percentile among all qualifiers. With that in mind, it’s probably worth noting, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello did, that there’s at least something to this “best shape” stuff: via Statcasst, Kemp has recorded the largest gain in the majors by sprint speed, outpacing last year’s mark by 1.7 feet per second; his 26.6 ft/sec is higher than his top average speeds in any season from 2015-17. (His 25.9-second mark in 2015 was his best.) He’ll never threaten to go 40/40 again, but if the wheels are in better shape than they’ve been in recent years, that should help him on both sides of the ball.

As for how he’s getting to .417, fortune is certainly part of it. But Kemp has also raised his launch angle (to 16.9 degrees, compared to 8.2 last year and an average of 11.8 degrees from 2015-17) while also recording a higher rate of barrels per batted ball than over 80% of the league. That’s always likely to produce good outcomes, and the numbers bear this out: his .353 xwOBA is still clearly above the league-average mark.

Perhaps of some benefit in this regard is that he’s gone opposite field more often that he’s pulled the ball, in contrast to his career-long tendencies:

Matt Kemp Batted Balls
Year GB% Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2017 48.5% 39.1% 36.8% 24.1%
2018 35.9% 25.6% 46.2% 28.2%
Career 42.0% 41.9% 34.9% 23.2%

So far, much of the damage Kemp has wrought, including all three homers, came at the expense of the Padres and A’s, neither of which has been anything special save for Sean Manaea’s no-hitter. By the time he gets around the league, his hot start may well be a distant memory. But so long as Turner sits, so long as Taylor, Pederson and Puig struggle, Kemp is part of the Dodgers’ solution instead of their problem. In 2018, who would have thought that?





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.

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TKDC
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TKDC

I assume there are not any suckers out there actually willing to buy into this dead cat bounce. He started last year with an amazing two months (174 and 147 wRC+ in April and May respectively), and the Braves presumably could not find any takers, though the possibility exists that Coppy got greedy.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Kemp was hurt last year. I don’t think you should write off his good months as the outliers. It won’t show up in all DL stints – it was much worse than that as he would miss a game or two, talk about a retroactive DL stint, then appear in a game only to realize he is still hurt. That was about 2/3 of his season – that bad part. if you think this is just noise, then what do you think the remainder of his season looks like? I think they will keep him – why would they want to sell? They are seeing his value and the argument against Kemp as a player is just too well known for anyone to buy. His contract may be garbage, but dude can hit.

TKDC
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TKDC

Sure, buddy. And he was hurt in 2016 and 2015, too?

And Kemp’s injuries seem to be more of the chronic and progressing kind. To the extent that you want to blame his injuries, why do you think he’s suddenly going to stay healthy when he’s older than ever (I know, we’re all older than ever)?

carter
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carter

I get what you are saying, but losing 40lbs is a real thing. If you’ve ever gone from fat to thin it is amazing how much better you feel, and how much less pressure you are putting on things like your back, and your knees.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Why even follow up with this? I get it, we don’t agree. I think he was a valuable hitter in the years which you mention. It was above average production based on metrics that don’t particularly favor his skillset (low BB). He hit 35 HR in 2016, I am not trying to call that out as poor. There is a reality that he gets pitched tough every at bat – it is a bit problematic to compare his counting stats to those that don’t. People looking at numbers don’t respect him, but the pitcher on the mound does. As the commenter below said, he lost 40 lbs. It is odd to me that we want to bury a players and other times we love stories of redemption.

Ivdown
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Ivdown

Didn’t injuries basically wreck his 2017 season after mid-June?