It’s easy to forget that Matt Kemp is just 24 years old. He’s been in the majors since 2006, and when he didn’t immediately set the world on fire in his first full season last year, people went out of their way to criticize him as someone who was never going to develop into a star. Kemp developed as the more patient and contextually-aware analysts thought he would this year, and it resulted in his becoming one of the most important players on the Dodgers-not just for their future, but for their present as well. That’s good news for Los Angeles, who find themselves in the National League Championship Series against the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Matthew Ryan Kemp was drafted out of high school by the Dodgers in the sixth round of the 2003 amateur entry draft. He was known more as a basketball prospect, but was also considered a four-tool player for baseball; when he didn’t get a scholarship to a Division I college, baseball opened up as a clear path for him. He was 6’4″ at the time and over 200 pounds; when you got a look at the kind of power potential a kid that big had, it’s no wonder scouting director Logan White wanted this basketball player in the Dodger organization.
The 181st pick signed soon after and made his debut in the Gulf Coast League, where he hit .270/.298/.346 over 159 at-bats. He was very raw at this stage-look no further than the total lack of plate discipline for evidence of that-but you could say that about most (if not all) 18-year-olds in their professional debut. What was noticeable was his raw power-it didn’t show up in the numbers yet, but the ball jumped off of his bat. There was a lot to love here; it just had to develop over time into something the Dodgers could use.
The Dodgers popped Kemp up into Low-A in the Sally League for the 2004 season, and he looked like a very different player despite the increase in difficulty: Kemp hit .288/.330/.499 with 17 homers, showing off some of that power potential. He still had a lot of obvious issues-he whiffed 100 times in just 423 at-bats, had just 24 walks on the season, and was a poor 8-for-15 on stolen-base attempts. Considering his speed, it was clear he needed to work on getting better jumps and being a smarter baserunner when it came to base thievery. Baseball America ranked him the 28th-best prospect in the organization heading into the 2005 season; that may seem low in retrospect, given his successful career, but in a lot of other, less deep organizations he probably would have had a better ranking as well. This was a time when the Dodgers had an impressive top 10-Chad Billingsley, Edwin Jackson, James Loney, Andy LaRoche, Russell Martin, and Jonathan Broxton were all there, and plenty of other eventual major leaguers dotted the top 30 (Blake DeWitt, Dioner Navarro, Yhency Brazoban, and Willy Aybar).
Kemp showed some defensive ability in the Sally League as well, though he was still raw in those aspects. His arm was solid, but he needed to learn how to use his speed more effectively out there with better routes and better jumps. Baseball Prospectus 2005 pointed out the most important thing for Kemp going forward: “Kemp’s ability to improve his plate discipline will ultimately decide his fate.” Those 100 strikeouts would jump higher and higher if he progressed through the minors without working on his discipline, and the walks weren’t going to come any other way-never mind that a lot of a player’s raw power stays as just that if they can’t get a pitch to hit because of their lack of patience.
The Dodgers put Kemp in High-A Vero Beach for the 2005 season, with promising results. He hit .306/.349/.569 with 27 homers and 23 steals in 29 attempts. Some previous issues persisted-he nearly whiffed 100 times again, and his walk rate didn’t improve substantially. Breaking balls still gave him trouble at the plate, and as Baseball Prospectus 2006 pointed out, there may have been some park-factor shenanigans in his line:
Kemp rates as one of the best power prospects in the system, but it’s fair to wonder how much of that is simply a park illusion. His home/road splits in 2005 were extreme: .361/.405/.749 with 22 homers at home, but only .246/.287/.372 with five home runs on the road. (The Vero Beach team hit 88 homers and slugged .485 at home this year, 36 HR and .384 on the road.)
Baseball America liked what Kemp showed that year, and moved him up to the eighth-best prospect in their organizational rankings. They talked about his strong, quick hands, his raw power (more of which was showing up in games as time went on) and his ever-improving defensive skills-his arm was now rated as plus, and he used his above-average speed along with good instincts to track down balls out there.
Kemp would make the three-stop tour of the upper levels and the big leagues in 2006, hitting .327/.399/.528 at Double-A Jacksonville, .368/.428/.560 at Triple-A Las Vegas, and a .253/.289/.448 line in the majors. Obviously the on-base percentage is problematic, but you have to love the nearly .200 ISO put up by a 21-year old in his professional debut. He bounced around among the three levels all year, as his first stop in the majors was in late May-he hit three homers in his first three games at Dodger Stadium and went deep seven times in his first 18 major league games. Breaking balls proved to be his undoing though, and he was sent to Triple-A to refine his approach at the plate. It’s tough to glean anything from his Las Vegas numbers given how inflated they were, but Kemp’s approach just wasn’t major league-ready as of yet.
Kemp would start the 2007 season with the Dodgers, but he didn’t get to play as often as his numbers indicated he should. He would also end up with another 161 at-bats in the minors, which helped to cut into his major league contributions. The Dodgers signed Juan Pierre that offseason-blocking Kemp from center-which stuck him in right, a position that was already occupied. For the year, Kemp hit .342/.373/.521 for the Dodgers with 10 homers and 10 steals. He cut his strikeout rate from 32 percent to 21 percent, though the lack of improvement in his walk rate was upsetting. He also didn’t deserve to hit .342. A .417 BABIP isn’t something to depend on almost any player repeating, though Kemp has the skill set that does allow for a well-above average BABIP on a consistent basic-just not that high. Even if you factor out a large portion of the batting average (putting his BABIP around his career average), you would have something like a .280/.315/.460 year from a 22-year old. The OBP is ugly, but with some work you could have yourself a serious hitter with successes like that at his age.
Baseball Prospectus 2008 told the story of Kemp’s misuse and how it reflected on the Dodgers’ management:
No player better represents the disconnect between the tremendous assets the Dodgers control and their willingness to utilize them than Kemp, whom PECOTA showed as having significantly more upside than any under-25 center fielder besides Grady Sizemore and Chris Young a year ago. The Dodgers could be forgiven for wanting Kemp to start the year in Triple-A after he hit just .202/.233/.275 following his seven-homers-in-15-games debut in 2006…They then let him languish in Las Vegas for six extra weeks after rehabbing an early-season shoulder injury…After he returned, Kemp posted the second-best MLVr on the team, but still couldn’t shake the part-time role. Kemp’s game lacks polish, but he drew disproportionate criticism as the team collapsed in the second half. The flashpoint of a Jeff Kent outburst, he’s become potential trade fodder in Ned Colletti’s cringeworthy quest to acquire veteran moxie at the expense of blue-chip talent…
Kemp got the starting gig in 2008, but when he didn’t hit like Albert Pujols (or hit .340 again), some people were upset. In all honesty though, how many teams are going to turn down a .290/.340/.459 line from a 23-year-old with his baserunning ability and defensive skills? Kemp is a complete player that does a lot of things very well, and he was still in possession of a high ceiling, and his 2008 season was his most complete yet. He jumped his walk rate from the low five percent range to a more tolerable 7.1 percent, and did so with just a slight increase in his strikeouts. His pitches per plate appearance also rose somewhat, from 3.5 to 3.7, and as he started to hit breaking stuff more effectively (or lay off of it), the league reacted by throwing him fewer of them-he saw just 7.8 percent curves in 2008 after two years of 12 percent, while opponents began to use fastballs against him more often. Kemp had been a capable fastball hitter even when he was raw and in the minors; a little bit of plate patience can go a long way, both for walks and better pitches to hit, and Kemp’s improvement is a great example of this.
Not everything was perfect of course-he destroyed southpaws (.369/.417/.571) but struggled a bit more against right-handers (.260/.309/.416). Considering he hit right-handers well in 2007 though, it was possible that this performance was just a blip. Despite the occasional rumor that Kemp would be dealt still lingering, he survived the offseason as a Dodger and as their starting center fielder. The 2009 campaign was his best season yet: he combined the power he showed early on in the majors with the contact and patience he had developed over time to give him a .297/.352/.490 line with 26 homers (a career high) as well as his most successful year on the base paths (34 steals in 42 attempts). According to FRAA and UZR, he also had his best defensive season, giving him +16 and +3.7 runs above average, depending on your source. PECOTA was on the ball with him too, as his weighted-mean was .293/.351/.480. That has to make Dodgers’ fans happy about his future, as his seven-year forecast shows similar productivity for the next six seasons. And to think the Dodgers wanted to trade him for a few years running.
Kemp is the present and the future for this Dodgers team. Sure, having someone like Manny Ramirez around helps, but Kemp will still be a star when Ramirez is long gone from the Dodgers and the majors. The hope is that his power continues to build-his HR/FB has risen slightly the past few years, and he’s hitting more flyballs than ever nowadays. He’s a legitimate 30/30 candidate, is capable of playing quality defense, and now-finally-is able to get on base even if he isn’t picking up hits.
My one worry is that his unintentional walk rate dipped considerably in the second half-he picked up just 18 walks after the All-Star break after drawing 34 in the first-but he was able to rebound against right-handers (.279/.329/.453) and his power improved in the second half to help compensate for some of the lost OBP. Chances are good this isn’t a long-term issue for Kemp, especially given all the gains he’s made in that department over the past two seasons-he’s now up to 3.9 P/PA and has even seen fewer first-pitch strikes-but it’s something to watch for. Assuming that is just a small sample hitch, Kemp’s one of the best young players in the game, and one of the most exciting pieces of the game’s future left in this year’s playoffs-don’t miss him in action while he’s in the national spotlight.