Tuesday, June 28, 2011

If Only Matt Kemp Didn't Play Center

One of the most unfortunate facts about the Dodgers is that their ownership situation and what happened to a Giants' fan in the parking lot have completely overshadowed anything that's gone on in the games themselves. Clayton Kershaw's season has gone largely unnoticed. Andre Ethier is having another very good season. Despite all the distractions, one guy keeps getting noticed because of the huge numbers he is putting up. That, of course, is Matt Kemp.

Last season, we all know that Matt Kemp was a malcontent. It's hard to forget how bad his season was and how often Kemp's agent was making accusations and damaging statements about the people that Kemp was playing for. With Joe Torre gone and some of Torre's coaching staff also gone, Kemp has retaken his status as one of the premier up-and-coming players in baseball. "Up-and-coming" seems like the wrong phrase. At the age of 26, it would seem that Matt Kemp has arrived.

Kemp is second only to the great Jose Bautista in OPS, slugging, wOBA, ISO, wRC+ and several other categories. Kemp, according to Fangraphs.com, is third in baseball in WAR behind only Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes. Consider that Kemp has hit 50 homers in the last two seasons or 25 a season for an average. Half way through this season, he already has 22. He's poised to blow the doors off that average. Add to his home run total his 16 doubles and two triples and it's a monster season.

Kemp has already been intentionally walked ten times (which leads the National League). That does account in part of his career high in walk percentage. His strikeout percentage is slightly down from previous seasons and his plate discipline is better as he is swinging at less strikes out of the strike zone. His line drive rate is the highest of his career while his ground ball rate is at its lowest. Of course, his fly ball to homer ratio is off the charts. To boil it all down, Matt Kemp is killing the ball. Add to all of those nice offensive numbers the fact that he's stolen 21 bases in 24 attempts and that just adds to the wow factor.

So why then the heading of this post? Kemp reminds this writer of a more powerful Bernie Williams, a key member of the Yankees' title runs of the late 1990s and early aughts. Williams was a terrific offensive player, but he lost a lot of respect among analysts because he wasn't a great centerfielder, which is where Williams would play his entire career. In much the same way, Kemp's defensive ability in center detracts from how good a player he is. As good a season as Jose Reyes has had, there's no way that Reyes should be ahead of Kemp in WAR. But Kemp's defensive metrics are always in the negative numbers and this year is no different. In fairness, Baseball-reference.com rates Kemp's defense more highly than Fangraphs. But the point is still valid.

According to scouting reports, Kemp gets a bad jump off the ball and has mediocre instincts. Some of his speed makes up for these lacks, but not enough. He's already made four errors in center and that really is way too many errors for an outfielder. The bottom line here is that Kemp's defense detracts and adds negative value to his off the charts offensive numbers. After several years in center now, you can't expect those fielding metrics to get better, can you?

If this writer ran the Dodgers, Tony Gwynn would be playing center every day, Kemp would move to left and young Jerry Sands would be playing first. James Loney just doesn't cut it there at first for the Dodgers and they should demote him, release him or trade him. Not only do you give the Dodgers a better defense this way, but you also clear those negative numbers off of Kemp's resume. As good as Kemp has been, it would be nice to not have to add at the end of all the superlatives, "Yes, but he's not a very good center fielder."

1 comment:

Jonathan C. Mitchell said...

Great read! The only thing I would do differently would be to put Kemp in RF and move Ethier to LF. Ethier, other than this year, has been horrible in RF and Kemp has the arm for it.