MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Center Field

This is the one you’ve been waiting for, friends. No moaning about overpaid veterans or underperforming rookies, no noting that the position as a whole finished in the bottom 10% of baseball for OPS… this is just pure, uncut greatness. Enjoy.

Matt Kemp (MV-F’ing-P)
.324/.399/.586 .986 39hr 40sb 10.0 WAR

Since Matt Kemp is the only center fielder we’re going to be talking about today – he did play 1380 of the team’s 1432 defensive innings, after all – this is going to be a long one, and I’m going to start by tooting my own horn a little bit, since I was one of the seemingly few who was all but guaranteeing that Kemp would have a big year, even as far back as last season.

“We Should Probably Leave Matt Kemp Alone”, October 3, 2010:

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’s career wasn’t dead after one bad year either, now was it?” award next year.

“Six Reasons for Optimism in 2011″, February 14, 2011:

So why am I high on Kemp? It’s because all of the signs are pointing in the right direction. Remember, even though I’m not going to defend his 2010 production, you’d think by the way people talked about him that he hit like Garret Anderson. This is still a guy who set a career high in homers and had an OPS above league-average. If that’s his “disaster” year, that’s still a guy who’s pretty special. Besides, any and all excuses are now gone. Think that his troubles last year were due to work ethic issues? He’s taken responsibility. Think that he spent too much time with Rhianna? I don’t agree, but they’re split up now. Think that he didn’t get along with Joe Torre? He’s got a good relationship with Don Mattingly. Think that his issues with the rest of the coaching staff last year were reflected on the field? As you’ll see in a second, that staff has largely turned over. Instead of cranky Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa, he has baserunning guru Davey Lopes.

Again, not defending Kemp’s reaction, but it’s hard to ignore that after his scorching April last year, he headed downhill at just about the time Ned Colletti oddly called him out in April. Then, as it became clear that Torre & crew wouldn’t be back in 2011, he ended the year by homering in five games in a row. That’s got to be a pretty nice taste in your mouth as you head into the offseason.

Kemp’s in his age-26 year this season, and in addition to playing for a contract, he’s got to know that many view this as a make-or-break season for him after his turbulent 2010. I think we all know that regardless of the moves the club has made this offseason, 2011 largely depends on Kemp’s resurgence. I won’t pretend I’m not at all biased here, but I’m squarely in his corner as far as expecting a breakout 2011.

“Matt Kemp Is Going to Destroy Worlds”, March 24, 2011:

I do want to take this opportunity to reiterate something optimistic that I’ve been saying all winter: Matt Kemp is going to have a monster year.

I realize it’s spring, and that everyone has a nice, rosy outlook this time of the year. That’s fine, and it’ll take more than some spring dingers and saying the right things to prove Kemp right. But the signs are all there for a massive year – no one’s questioned his talent, but now he’s motivated to prove himself, with distractions gone and the right instruction in place.

Matt Kemp is still just 26. The two-year contract he signed after 2009 is up this year. He’s got a lot to prove – and mark my words, he’s going to do it.

After getting on base four times in the season opener, it took Kemp all of one additional game on April 1 to show us that this was going to be a season worth watching:

But the story – beyond the continually inept San Francisco defense – continues to be Matt Kemp, who doubled in the first run of the game in the 3rd, made a sliding catch in the 8th, and basically manufactured the second Dodger run in the 6th inning all by himself. With the Dodgers up 1-0, he led off with a single. Marcus Thames followed by grounding out to Pablo Sandoval at third base; when Sandoval threw Thames out at first, Kemp shocked the stadium by rounding second and heading straight to third, putting himself in position to score on James Loney‘s sacrifice fly.

In previous years, it was the kind of play that would kick off a shitstorm of comments about foolish decisions on Kemp’s part. This year? When he made it safely to third, I tweeted that whatever Davey Lopes was being paid, it needed to be tripled, and I’m pretty sure that nothing I’ve ever said in that medium has ever generated such an overwhelmingly positive response. Kemp has now been on base six of his eight times up this year, and while we should be cautious not to overreact after just two games, he’s looked better than we could have ever imagined. Hey, anyone miss Joe Torre and Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa? Yeah, me neither.

Kemp hit .368/.443/.613 in April with six homers – only his third best month by OPS, by the way – and while I’ll try to keep this article under a billion words by not noting every single post in which he was mentioned, I can’t help but share with you this item from April 17, a post titled after one of Vin Scully’s best calls of the season – “They Pitched To the One Guy Who Could Beat Them, And He Does“:

MATT F’ING KEMP, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.

——

Now down a run in the bottom of the 9th, Andre Ethier started it off with a double off of lefty Trever Miller, which by itself is an extraordinary event that shouldn’t be forgotten, though it probably will. With Ethier on second and Tony LaRussa coming out to wave in Ryan Franklin, I said this:

No pressure, Kemp, but you either hit a walkoff homer here or the Dodgers lose. Just sayin’.

I was joking, but only kind of. Following Kemp were Loney and Uribe, who combined to go 1-6 with three whiffs, further pushing them up next to the McCourts on the public enemy lists of Dodger fans. After them, it was Rod Barajas, whose .188 is by far the best of the three.

So you can pitch to those three guys, none of whom are acting like major league hitters right now, or you can pitch to Kemp, who’s only hitting like Mickey Mantle times Roy Hobbs multiplied by Ted Williams with a splash of Darryl Strawberry in the softball episode of “The Simpsons” that gives this blog its name. I get that you don’t generally want to intentionally put the winning run on base, but I also don’t see how you can let Franklin – who, with today’s loss, has now tied the record for most blown saves in a team’s first 16 games – pitch to the hottest player in baseball, as opposed to three of the worst hitters in baseball.

Franklin’s final pitch ended up in the stands, and the Dodgers avoid the sweep as the legend of Matt Kemp continues to grow.

As usual, Vin Scully put it best:

“They pitched to the one guy who could beat them, and he does.”

And how. Matt Kemp, I think I love you.

Of course, as Kemp and Andre Ethier excelled in the early part of the season, the rest of the team stagnated around them. That wasn’t Kemp’s problem, though, and by early June we were already thinking about what kind of team records he might be in position to attack:

After yesterday‘s two homer, six RBI outburst, Matt Kemp is currently on pace for an absolutely ridiculous season. No, really; he’d end the year with a .318/.395/.576 line, 41 homers, 38 steals (8 times caught), and a 151/74 K/BB ratio. While it’s still early and there’s hardly any sort of guarantee that he reaches those totals, we’re beyond the silly season of two homers on Opening Day setting a pace of 324 for the year, and we have enough data to know that what we’re seeing from him is for real. (It’s at this point that I’ll happily remind that I spent most of last fall and winter predicting a huge breakout year from him, though I’ll admit this is even beyond what I’d hoped for.)

If Kemp continues this tear, these team records are within his reach:

* Best offensive season by a Dodger center fielder.
* Most homers in a season, non-crazy-offensive-environment-of-early-2000s division.
* Top five most valuable season in team history.
* RBI by a Los Angeles Dodger, non-Tommy Davis-unreal-fluke-year-division.

See that projected line in the quote above? He nailed it almost exactly. As June went on, I found myself unable to stop writing about Kemp, who had his best month at an absurd .375/.472/.795 (1.268) and nine homers, despite dealing with a minor leg injury.

“Even Matt Kemp Can’t Save This Mess”, June 9, 2011:

With the Dodgers up 4-0 five innings into the game, I started thinking about what I might want to write about tonight. Initially, this post was going to be titled “Matt Kemp Is A Shiny Golden God”, as he’d homered and tripled to drive in three of the four runs. (He’d later add a double, too.)

“The Legend of Matt Kemp Grows”, June 10, 2011:

About an hour before the first pitch, Matt Kemp was scratched with a sore left hamstring. For 8 1/3 innings, we watched along with him as the Dodger offense, robbed of their main threat, snoozed through another game. After Andre Ethier struck out to start the ninth, the Dodgers had made 25 outs and managed just three hits, two by Dee Gordon. Not that this impending loss was on the offense alone, of course; Chad Billingsley gave up thirteen hits, including seven singles and five runs in the sixth inning alone, and the Dodger defense was generously charged with only two errors.

With none on and one out in the ninth, down six runs, Don Mattingly sent Kemp to the plate. I’ll admit that at the time, I scoffed at the idea of risking Kemp’s health in a lost game, seemingly for the sake of maintaining his MLB-best consecutive games streak. If Kemp is lost for any period of time, a season that’s already in serious trouble – the Dodgers did enter the day in last place, after all – would be all but finished.

Kemp stepped to the plate, an otherwise meaningless at-bat in a long, trying season… and absolutely murdered a baseball. No, really; Kemp crushed this one beyond the left field bleachers. I’ve included a picture of Coors Field at the right here to illustrate just how massive of a blast it takes to do that, and he did it with a sore leg, coming off the bench cold, down six runs. When we look back upon Kemp’s 2011, quickly growing into a season for the ages, we’re going to remember a lot of moments. This is going to be near the top of the list.

A week later, I looked at how much it might cost to sign Kemp to a long-term deal. I settled on starting with 5/$80m, a number which I admit seems quite low now, but remember that at the time he’d had just two good months after his disappointing 2010, and 1.5 years of team control remaining. I think it’s clear that it’s $100m+ at this point.

Kemp’s July was his worst month of the year, at .274/.324/.453, though it wasn’t without its moments. He was voted as a starter into the All-Star Game, and he participated in the Home Run Derby. His midseason grade here was predictably giddy:

Matt Kemp (A+++) (.313/.398/.584 22hr 27sb 5.7 WAR)
I know you come here for informed baseball analysis and all (uh, I hope), and I could write 10,000 words on why Kemp is awesome. I will at some point, and 9,990 of those words will probably be about how I always said that he’d have a monstrous season this year, even as half the city was tearing him apart last year. There will be a time for that sort of insight, but for now, let’s leave it at this: 91 games into the season, Kemp has 5.7 WAR. That puts him on pace for about 9.9 WAR over the full season… a mark bettered by just two Dodgers in history. Yeah. His season is that good. Remember when everyone wanted to trade him, secure in the knowledge that he had neither the baseball IQ or work ethic to become a star? Yeah, me neither.

Kemp ended up with 10.0 rWAR on the dot, making his season the third most valuable in club history behind Jackie Robinson’s 1949 and Adrian Beltre‘s 2004. He continued his rampage against Arizona at the end of July, prompting me to post:

So much for that mini-slump Matt Kemp was supposedly stuck in during the early-to-mid part of July, right? Kemp entered tonight having reached base ten times over his previous five games, including three doubles, and then outdid himself in the 9-5 win over Arizona by driving in the first five runs on a single and a three-run homer – in addition to a nice diving catch in the top of the 7th. How ridiculous is Kemp right now? After the catch, Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Heyman actually tweeted that as far as he’s concerned, the best player in baseball right now is either Kemp or Toronto’s Jose Bautista, who’s sporting a line of something like .682/.951/2.933.  High praise indeed, even if it’s probably not accurate, almost enough to not make you want to cry when reading Ramona Shelburne’s account of how Ned Colletti’s hands are tied by the McCourt mess in signing Kemp to the long-term deal he so clearly deserves.

Not only did Kemp not slow down, he got better as the NL MVP quickly turned into a two-man race between himself and Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. On August 22nd, Don Mattingly moved Kemp up from cleanup to third for the first time all year. The move coincided with the start of the team’s longest winning streak, and as good as Kemp was hitting cleanup (.322/.394/.569), he was even better at #3 (.331/.418/.647). His heroics continued in late August, as he picked up his 100th RBI on his 31st dinger of the year, and on into September, which was behind only June as far as monthly OPS. Though we rooted for Kemp to win the Triple Crown, the batting crown just wasn’t to be, not that that’s in any way a black mark on Kemp; he finished the year with six homers in his last eleven games, including a particularly mammoth shot on September 26th, and clubbing his 39th on his next-to-last plate-appearance of the season. (Thanks, never made-up Washington rain out.)

While Kemp fell just short of the Triple Crown and is probably going to finish a close second to Braun for the MVP, his season was all we’d hoped it could be and more. Let me put it this way – I was totally positive that Kemp would have a big year, but even I didn’t see this coming. A big step forward, sure.  A season that ranked among the all-time greats from the long history of this franchise, showing improvement in every single facet of the game, from offense to baserunning to defense? A bit beyond my expectations. For a season destroyed by off-field embarrassment and on-field misery, Kemp’s amazing performance was often the only thing that made this team watchable for the first four months, at least on the days Clayton Kershaw wasn’t pitching.

Well done, Matt. Well done. (You too, Davey.) Now let’s get you paid.

******

Next! What’s more painful, Ethier’s knee or his mouth? Juan Rivera, savior-ish! Trent Oeltjen, space-filler! It’s right field!

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