MSTI’s 2010 in Review: Center Field

Matt Kemp (D-)
.249/.310/.450 .760 28hr 2.3 WAR

Hoo boy. Where do I even start with this one? Remember, Kemp came into the season as arguably the best center fielder in baseball, and most thought that he’d only scraped the peak of his potential. So to say that expectations were sky-high is largely understating it, and he certainly got off to a start that would justify such hype, hitting seven homers in a ten game stretch in April.

I know April 21 is hardly any sort of sample size into a season, but it’s important to remember how in love we were with him at the time:

Matt Kemp may be the single most dangerous hitter in baseball right now, to the point where I’m getting prettttty close to not issuing my standard “non-Pujols division” disclaimer. He’s tied for the MLB lead in homers, he leads MLB in RBI, and he’s one game short of having a hit on every single day of the season. (And even in that game, on April 9 in Florida, he had a walk and three deep flyballs.) He’s homered in 5 of the last 8 games, and his slugging percentage right now is .750. If that number doesn’t mean anything to you, just know that if he was able to keep it up throughout the season, it’d be tied for the 11th highest mark in baseball. Ever.

Of course, no one ever expected he’d keep that up for a full season, but in the back of our minds, we allowed ourselves to remember that this was someone we’d all hoped would break out, not just some no-name who’d had a few fluky hot weeks. Near the end of April, on the 28th, he had a .934 OPS… and then Ned Colletti had to go call him out for his subpar baserunning and defense, which seemed like a ridiculous statement at a time in which the Dodgers were imploding in nearly every way. It’s like I said on April 30:

I think what got lost in Colletti’s comments is that he’s not exactly wrong. Kemp has looked horrendous in the outfield this season, and I can’t put my finger on exactly why that is. I do think part of it is that after years of his defense being underrated, coming into this year he was now overrated, since he never really deserved last year’s Gold Glove in the first place. The Gold Glove voting is such a fantastically flawed process (it often just goes to the best hitter at a position) that it’s barely even worth recognizing, yet most fans still take it to mean something.

Still, that doesn’t absolve Kemp. His play on defense has been lousy, and it needs to change. But being right doesn’t absolve Colletti either; the whole point of yesterday’s post was not that Kemp’s play isn’t a problem, but just that the general manager of a team – one who’s made more than his share of mistakes – shouldn’t be publicly calling out the best player on his team without mentioning the horrible pitching that Colletti himself assembled, or the dozens of other far more pressing issues.

Kemp didn’t quite keep up his scorching April, but he was still quite good in May, getting a hit in 23 of 28 games and ending the month with an .857 OPS. But it was all downhill from there; Kemp didn’t have a month with an OBP over .300 for the rest of the season. In early June, I wondered if he’d been playing too much, but the shit really hit the fan in late June when he got into a confrontation with bench coach Bob Schaefer and was benched. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that it wasn’t one game, it was three games – and Joe Torre said that it would have been longer if Kemp hadn’t come to him to talk, as though that makes any sense.

Kemp briefly perked up, hitting three homers in his first five July games – and earning Torre a lot of undue credit – but it was short-lived, as his July OPS was just .715. August was even worse, at .694, as the off-field issues continued when he was called out by Larry Bowa and had his agent, Dave Stewart, start to wonder aloud if Kemp ought to be traded. That’s about when people started wondering how to fix what had gone wrong.

ESPN’s Rob Neyer looked at Kemp’s relationship with the coaching staff:

I don’t have any idea, really. But you can understand the coaches’ frustration with Kemp just a little, can’t you? Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer have been around the game forever, and they haven’t seen many players with Matt Kemp‘s raw talents. And it must be killing them to think he’s wasting it.

Which doesn’t mean they’re helping. Maybe Kemp would benefit from an attitude adjustment, but maybe that process would be facilitated by a coaching adjustment.

Which brings to mind a question that nobody seems to have asked … What’s Joe Torre been up to? In the spring, the general manager ripped Kemp. In the summer, the coaches ripped Kemp. Is Torre waiting for the fall?

Of course, that’s probably too late for the Dodgers, who have already fallen too far. Maybe the solution here is to keep Kemp and find a new coaching staff. Because the old staff doesn’t seem to have accomplished much this summer.

If you know me at all, you know I couldn’t possibly have agreed more with that. Later in August, Chad @ MOKM took a great and thorough look at Kemp’s issues, and settled on his mechanics as the culprit, but Kemp’s September wasn’t much better, with just a .664 OPS.

But there were signs of hope. On September 28, he homered in Colorado. The next day, he left the yard at Coors Field again, and took responsibility for his poor season, saying that he owed the fans more. The team came home for a season-ending three game set with Arizona, and Kemp homered in the opener… and the second game.. and the third game. That’s five homers in five games to end the season, and it was about that time I started thinking that everyone should just let him be:

No one doubts the talent is there, and Ned Colletti claims he has no plans to move him. His clashes with the current coaching staff have been well-documented – though he seems to have a good relationship with Don Mattingly – and if there’s anyone who looks to benefit from the post-Torre era, it might just be Kemp, my early choice for the “No, Chad Billingsley wasn’t dead after one bad year either, now was he?” award next year.

So yeah, Kemp gets that D-, and he certainly earned it with his poor defense (by some measures, he was the worst outfielder in baseball), atrocious base-running (19 SB, but 15 CS), and whifftastic tendencies (shattering the club record for K’s). I’m not defending his performance in 2010, but I think there’s a lot to look forward to in 2011. He ended the year on a great hot streak, Torre, Bowa, & Schaefer are all gone, he’s got a lot to prove after a poor year, he’s playing for a new contract, and he’s still just 26.

Besides, as far as “disaster” seasons go, you can do a lot worse than a 107 OPS+ and a career-high 28 homers. I’ve talked a lot about players I don’t expect to see much improvement from in this review series – like Russell Martin, James Loney, Casey Blake – but as I said in the last quoted piece above, Kemp’s got everything it takes to make 2011 a big year. Now let’s just leave him alone and let it happen.

Trent Oeltjen (inc.)
.217/.357/.348 .705 0hr 0.1 WAR

I just wrote 1200 words on Matt Kemp. Do you really care about Trent Oeltjen and the 30 meaningless plate appearances he got in September? Fine, fine, let’s make this quick. He was released by Milwaukee’s AAA club in July, with me laughing at his choice to join the Dodgers:

For the sake of completeness, let’s note that the Dodgers released Timo Perez from AAA and signed former D-Back Trent Oeltjen, who had opted out of his minor-league deal with the Brewers last week. The Australian native has had minor league OPS’s over .800 in each of the last three years, and had been on a hot streak recently. But it’s not his bat that denied him a call-up:

Oeltjen had been on an offensive tear with the Sounds, raising his batting average to .301 with 24 doubles, two triples, eight homers, 38 RBI and a .851 OPS. But his defense wasn’t considered major-league ready, so the Brewers opted not to call him up and move out one of their players.

“Our reports were that he was coming on dramatically with the bat,” said assistant general manager Gord Ash. “We liked him, obviously. That’s why we signed him. But as a defensive outfielder, he wasn’t what we were looking for.”

So after opting out of his deal, a man who clearly should have signed with an AL team in order to keep the DH option open not only stayed in the NL, but he signed with perhaps the only other team who can top Milwaukee’s level of outfield stackitude. Time for a new agent, maybe?

Oeltjen raked in ABQ, as everyone does, with an environment-fueled .979 OPS. That earned him a call-up in September, where he didn’t do all that much in his limited chances, but he did get four starts in center field, so his defense couldn’t have been all that bad. Honestly, he’s got a pretty decent track record of minor league hitting, and he’ll be just 28 next year; I can think of worse players to stash away in AAA as depth.

******

Next! A tale of two Andre Ethiers! Xavier Paul tries to make his mark! And Reed Johnson‘s ridiculous facial hair! It’s right field!

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