Saturday, September 27, 2014

Kemp's Comeback

Finally healthy, Kemp has returned to his previous offensive levels (BlackSportsOnline)
With Yasiel Puig on the up-and-up, Clayton Kershaw headed for a Cy Young/MVP combo meal, and Adrian Gonzalez driving in runs like it's his job, Matt Kemp might not be the star of the Dodgers any more. But you know what? He's still a pretty darn good baseball player.

It was easy to lose sight of that the last two years, when Kemp was constantly hurt and his performance suffered. That was especially true last year, when he missed more than half the season and batted an empty .270/.328/.395. There was legitimate concern that he would never again resemble the two-time All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove recipient and one-time MVP runner-up. Though he was only 29 coming into the season, his best days appeared to be behind him.

This year Kemp has bounced back in a big way, staying healthy enough to play in all but a dozen games to date and re-asserting himself as one of the best-hitting outfielders in the National League. In that group he ranks sixth in wOBA and wRC+, fifth in home runs and fourth in RBI. Even after factoring in his iffy baserunning, he still rates as one of the Senior Circuit's 10 best offensive outfielders, better than Justin Upton and Ryan Braun, among others.

The bulk of that production has come in the second half. Kemp was horrible in the early going, hitting a paltry .238/.291/.398 through June 5th. He really looked done and was even benched. But then his bat got hot as the weather warmed, and since then he's looked like the Kemp of old. Starting on June 6th he's batted .307/.369/.549 with 23 doubles, 19 homers and 71 RBI in 97 games. Projected over the course of 162 games, those numbers work out to be roughly 30 homers, 40 doubles and 120 RBI. That early season rough patch is now a thing of the past, as most of Kemp's numbers are back up to his 2012 levels--a rebound deserving of the NL Comeback Player of the Year award.

Of course, any analysis of Kemp's performance must also include his defense, which has been abysmal in every sense of the word. A lot of the value he accrued at the plate has been lost to his brutal fielding, so much so that Baseball-Reference estimates him as being worth a mere one win above replacement level this year. FanGraphs is a bit more generous at 1.7, but it's pretty clear that Kemp has regressed as an outfielder. Remember how bad he was in 2010? He's been at least as bad this year, maybe worse. It goes without saying that he will not be winning his third career Gold Glove in 2014.

Kemp is also not the factor he once was on the bases. Since stealing 40 bases in 2011, he's failed to top nine since. Granted, Don Mattingly doesn't need to give him the green light as much now that he has Dee Gordon and Carl Crawford at his disposal, but it's clear that Kemp's hamstring woes have cost him a good chunk of his speed. Kemp's an old-30 and three years into an eight-year, $160 million contract that doesn't look like it's going to work out too well.

At least Kemp can still hit, and that resurgence at the plate was a big key to the Dodgers' winning the NL West again this year. He's second on the team in doubles, home runs, RBI, total bases, and tops in slugging for anyone who's played at least 100 games. He makes their lineup significantly more dangerous and has teamed with Gonzalez, Puig, and Hanley Ramirez to form a pretty intimidating heart of the order most nights. I think it's fair to say that without Kemp, the NL West would probably still be up for grabs.

The Dodgers can only hope that his monster second half doesn't end when October begins.

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