I wasn’t really planning about writing about Matt Kemp twice in a row, but that was before (via mlbtraderumors.com) this article from FanGraph‘s Dave Cameron popped up, asking: Is Matt Kemp Overrated? I like FanGraphs quite a bit, and they usually do some very interesting work over there, but I’ve got to question some of his reasoning on this one.
With the trade deadline just a few weeks away and the C.C. Sabathia and Rich Hardenmoves thrusting the spotlight back on the veterans-for-young-players deals, one name comes up time and time again in regards to the Los Angeles Dodgers – Matt Kemp. Loved by some and loathed by others, the divide between those two camps on Kemp’s value is astronomical. So, which polarizing position is closer to the truth? Is Kemp an all-star slugger in the making, or is he simply a guy who coasts by on natural ability and will never live up to his potential?
Is he really “loathed” by people? I’m not even questioning Cameron yet, I just hadn’t heard that re: Kemp. I’ve heard the complaints about his occasional mental mistakes, and the rumors of his poor clubhouse demeanor (although I’ve always felt that was A) overblown by the media and B) perhaps not even true at all), but “loathed”. I think there’s people who loathe Juan Pierre, fair or not. Lots of people definitely loathe Andruw Jones right now. I never really thought of Kemp as being in those categories. Either way, Kemp has yet to play a MLB season in which he even gets into 100 games (this year will be the first), so it’s pretty early in his career to be making sweeping generalizations.
Most Dodger fans online are firmly in the first camp. Despite not being given regular playing time and having to force his way into the line-up, Kemp hit .342/.373/.521 as a 22-year-old last year, cementing his status as one of the Dodgers best hitters in the ‘07 campaign.
I’d say it’s safe to say that here at MSTI, we’re in that first camp. You may also remember that not only was that 2007 line impressive, I wrote an entire post on it in fact being historically good for a player of his age. The takehome point on the original Baseball Prospectus article that I referenced there was that just ten right-handed hitters since World War II have hit .320 or better in a season in which they were 22 or younger, and besides for Kemp that list included “four Hall of Famers, three guys who probably would get voted into the Hall of Fame if they retired today, and a guy (Miguel Cabrera) who’s absolutely on a Hall of Fame trajectory.” Kemp’s batting average was actually second highest on that list behind only Alex Rodriguez, so yes: we back Matt Kemp around here.
However, that .894 OPS was built on a house of cards – a remarkable .417 batting average on balls in play that was in no way repeatable. Even though BABIP for hitters is indeed influenced by skill, and they do have control over whether their balls in play become hits or not, there are still upper and lower bounds on what is actually skill and what is noise. Even the very best BABIP-skill guys post numbers in the .350 to .360 range over significant samples, so it was pretty obvious that Kemp wasn’t going to be able to sustain that performance.
Indeed, his BABIP has fallen to a still-high .380, and thanks to a simultaneous increase in strikeouts, his overall performance has taken a pretty big step back.
I have to admit that I was unaware that his BABIP was so extremely high last year. But then again, I’ve never really bought into the idea of BABIP as much as some other sabermetric sources have. As Cameron himself says, it’s not all luck – it’s “indeed influenced by skill”. Even in this current season in which Kemp has admittedly not been as good as last year, he’s still got a very high BABIP. The fact seems to be that when he hits the ball, he hits it hard and gets on base, to a degree that is higher than average. What happens when he gets his bat on the ball isn’t the problem. If there is a problem, it’s this:
In fact, Kemp’s contact rate has become a real problem, as he’s now posting a 30.4% K%. Among hitters who have a K% of 30% or higher, he’s the only one who doesn’t walk at least 10% of the time and he has the lowest Isolated Slugging Percentage of the group as well, coming in at .149.
Cameron is completely right, here. Kemp’s on pace to strike out 178 times this year, and unless you’re Ryan Howard, that’s totally unacceptable.
Striking out a lot is okay if you also draw a bunch of walks and hit for power, but Kemp isn’t off-setting the swings and misses with enough positives, and as such, he’s a below average major league hitter right now.
Like I just said, I agree that Kemp is striking out entirely too much, but calling him a below average major league hitter? Really? He’s got a 100 OPS+, which by definition makes him exactly an average hitter. And you’ve got to read into it more than that. He’s only 23 years old and focused more on basketball than baseball until he was drafted, so you’ve got to figure that there’s still plenty of room to improve, right? The list of Hall of Famers (not that I’m predicting this for him by any means) who either weren’t even in the bigs or struggled mightily at 23 is a long one, I’m sure.
Considering he turns 24 in a few months and doesn’t offer much in the way of defensive value, that’s something of a problem.
Wait, are we saying now that he’s… too old to improve? Another way of saying “turns 24 in a few months” (just a week before the end of the season, actually) is “he’s 23 right now”. That still counts as young. For all the hype over Matt LaPorta last week, he’s only a few months younger than Kemp (9/84 for Kemp, 1/85 for LaPorta), and he’s spending his age-23 season in AA ball, having yet to taste the majors. Granted, he spent time in college that Kemp did not, but the fact that somehow turning 24 is the end of the road for a player’s development is an enormous mistake here. If he was turning 28 in a few months and had made no improvements, then maybe we have something to discuss.
And, “doesn’t offer much in the way of defensive value” is a ridiculous statement. I won’t argue that Kemp’s had his adventures in the outfield. But I would put forth that anyone who’s watched more than a few LA games over the last few years would unequivocally state that Kemp has improved immeasurably this year in the field, which points directly back to what I just said – youth and inexperience. He probably won’t ever win a Gold Glove, but you cannot tell me that a guy who’s made one error while being tied for the MLB lead in assists offers no defensive value. You just can’t.
Despite his physique, Kemp’s power remains more of the doubles variety, and his aggressive approach at the plate only works if he makes up for all the bad swings with long drives that fly over the wall. The “he’s young” thing only works for so long, and Kemp is rapidly getting to the point where he needs to produce at the plate, because when he’s a below average hitter, he’s not helping anyone win baseball games.
Again with the age thing. You’re right, “the he’s young thing” only works for so long. But do you know when it does still work? When he’s still young! Like I just said above, he’s 23 years old. And again, he’s not a below average hitter. As for not helping anyone win baseball games, well, he’s 4th on the Dodgers in VORP (and the highest-ranking outfielder), so there’s that.
As for saying he has doubles power, I think that’s a little unfair. Kemp had only two full minor league seasons, and put up homer tallies of 18 and 27. It’s a well-known fact that power is often the last skill to come for a young player at the big league level, and Kemp is already averaging 17 homers per 162 games. That might not be Matt Holliday power, but then again, where was Matt Holliday when he was 23? That’s right, down in the AA Texas League hitting only 12 homers. I guess the power was never going to come for him, either?
This isn’t to say the Dodgers should dump him the first chance they get, but if LA does trade Kemp in the next few weeks, beware the narrative that they’re giving up a young star. They’re giving up a guy with potential, but the jury is definitely still out on whether he’s going to fulfill it or not.
Here’s the problem. Cameron says that Kemp has potential, which he may or may not fulfill. That much seems obvious. But half the article was about how Kemp can no longer use youth as a crutch. So which is it going to be – that he’s still got time to fulfill that potential, or that he’s already too old to improve? Look, I don’t disagree that Kemp hasn’t been as impressive as he was last year, and the strikeout rate is clearly becoming worrisome. However, when I see a guy who’s accomplished as much as he has in the majors at such a young age, I have a hard time believing that he won’t improve as he gains some much-needed experience. And hey, maybe I’m wrong. But I know I’d really like for him to still be in Dodger blue over the next few years as he figures it out.
- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness