With only a few weeks until opening day, Matt Kemp is not only still a Dodger, but making a strong case to be the starting left-fielder. He’s smashing the ball this spring, and looks to be in the best shape he’s been in years.
If the Dodgers do keep Kemp and decide to utilize him in left field, the question remains: exactly how valuable is he, and what kind of production can they expect from him in 2018?
Since being traded from the Dodgers after the 2014 season, Kemp’s value is interesting to gauge. There’s no question about his defensive decline, and his gold gloves days out in center field are far behind him. Offensively, however, there’s a real enigma behind his numbers.
Since 2015, his first year removed from Los Angeles, Kemp’s numbers might seem adequate on the surface. He hit .265 with 23 homeruns in 2015, .268 with 35 homeruns in 2016, and .276 with 19 homeruns last season.
Not too shabby, right? Who wouldn’t want a player who could provide 35 long balls on the year? But although the power numbers still seemed to be there, batting average and homeruns don’t tell the whole story.
Advanced statistics shows that Kemp was actually just about average during the past few seasons. His .781 OPS last year would put him outside the top 100 players in baseball, sandwiched between Tim Beckham and Shin-Soo Choo.
From 2015-2017, here are Kemp’s OPS and wRC+ (with 100 being league average):
2015: .755 OPS, 109 wRC+
2016: .803 OPS, 109 wRC+
2017: .781 OPS, 100 wRC+
Compare that to Kemp’s 2011 season, when he finished second in MVP voting. His OPS was .986 and wRC+ was 168 (2nd in the league in both categories.)
Examining all that, one might be inclined to think Kemp truly is an average hitter now. But looking even deeper into his production, you’ll find those figures aren’t really an indication of a decline in his hitting ability. Instead, it’s the lack of patience at the plate that has mostly contributed to the drop.
Despite a fairly decent batting average, Kemp’s OBP in the last three seasons has been .318, .304, and .312. Those are not very good numbers.
To put it simply, Kemp needs to walk more. He has to be more patient during his at-bats, and avoid balls out of the strike zone.
Kemp BB% over the last three years decreased to 6.0% in 2015, 5.4% in 2016, and 5.8% in 2017, the lowest three marks of his career. By comparison, his BB% was 10.7% in 2011 and was never previously lower than 7.0% in any full season with the Dodgers.
One of the main reasons Kemp is walking less is the fact that he’s chasing more bad balls. He swung at pitches out of the strike zone 35.8% of the time in 2015, 40.7% of the time in 2016, and 37.9% last year.
Once again, those were the three highest marks for his career.
If Kemp walked anywhere closer to his career average before the 2015 season, his advanced stats wouldn’t be so poor. Even in 2012, a year where his power numbers dipped significantly, Kemp still had an OPS over .900 and a wRC+ of 145. That’s mostly because his BB% was 8.9%, which greatly boosted his OBP.
The good news for Kemp and Dodgers fans, is that he’s still hitting the ball well. His hard contact rate over the last three seasons (35.9%, 34.7%, & 35.5%) were surprisingly all higher than his 2011 hard contact rate of 32.9%.
Plate discipline seems to be Kemp’s biggest offensive hindrance, but luckily, that can be improved on. It’s not like a player who loses some power and the ability to drive the ball. Or someone who just doesn’t have the same bat speed as they once had due to injury or aging. Having a good eye and being more patient at the plate are surely skills that can be fine-tuned a lot easier than something like a physical decline.
Hopefully, for Kemp, the Dodgers hitting instructors and coaches can help in that aspect. If so, his 2018 production could be vastly improved. And Los Angeles could see a whole new Matt Kemp.
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