Most Dodgers fans didn’t expect him to be on the opening day roster. Today, he’s L.A.’s best hitter. In the middle of December, the Dodgers made a shocking trade, acquiring Matt Kemp from the Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers sent Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Charlie Cullberson to Atlanta in the deal.
The trade helped the Dodgers get under the luxury tax, something they had desperately been trying to do for years. After the trade, many fans assumed Kemp would be cut within the following days. If not, then definitely by spring training.
After the trade, most fans voiced their opinions. Fans called it a “salary dump”, which it was. Dodgers fans were worried they would keep Kemp. Truly amazing after the level of success he achieved in Los Angeles earlier in his career.
Kemp defied all odds, making the spring training roster. He defied even more odds, by earning a spot on the opening day roster. One month into the season, he’s defied the biggest odds of them all, as he has been the best player on the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Before we talk about Kemp’s season, we need to take a trip down memory lane, and remember how we got here. In December of 2014, the Dodgers sent Kemp to the Padres. In the deal, L.A. acquired current catcher Yasmani Grandal. Not only did the Dodgers part ways with their former superstar, they were going to be paying him $32 million — to NOT play for them. L.A. agreed to pay $32 million of his remaining $107 he was owed through 2019.
In 2011, Kemp was runner-up in the MVP voting. To many, he should have won the award, losing to Ryan Braun, who was later accused of taking performance enhancing drugs. In the following years, Kemp’s play declined. His numbers decreased across the board, and his defense appeared to get more sluggish. In 2012 and 2013, he appeared in only 179 games. After having a WAR of 8.0 in 2011, he had a combined 4.7 WAR in the three following seasons. In 2014, his defensive WAR was a -3.0, the second-worst of his career. With declining play, and a hefty amount on his contract, the Dodgers agreed to part ways.
In his first season with San Diego, Kemp’s bat didn’t appear to miss a beat. He hit 23 home runs and had 100 RBI. His slash-line did, though. His OPS (.755) was the lowest since his rookie season. I’m not going to count 2013 (.723) because he only appeared in 73 games. His wins above replacement was the lowest in five seasons, and the second-lowest in his career. His oRAR (Offensive Runs Above Replacement) was the lowest it had been since he was a 22-year old.
More than halfway into the 2016 season, Kemp was dealt to the Atlanta Braves. Though his numbers looked good (23 HR, 69 RBI), his average and on-base percentage was lower than the previous year. His WAR was just above zero (0.2), and even worse, his oRAR (Offensive Runs Above Replacement) was the lowest since his rookie season. To simply put things, it wasn’t going well for Kemp. The Braves traded for the outfielder, in hopes he would return to his 2011 M.V.P form.
Kemp did see a rise in his offensive numbers, hitting .280 and having an OPS of .855 while in the second-half of the season. He finished the season with 35 home runs, the second most of his career, following his 39 from 2011.
Injuries derailed Kemp’s 2017 campaign, only appearing in 115 games. His offensive numbers took a hit, but so did his defense. His WAR was -1.3, the worst of his career. With his numbers declining, and age & weight increasing, it appeared as if Kemp’s time as an everyday ballplayer were slowly coming to an end.
Three years after being traded away, Kemp was once again a Dodger. In February, he arrived at Camelback Ranch in Arizona, to prepare for spring training.
Like I never left. I’m just as surprised as you. My agent called me, said I’d been traded. I asked where? He started laughing. He said Dodgers. I said, ‘Not lying?’ He said, ‘For real.’ I love being back. This is where I grew up. It was fun watching them play and get to a World Series. That’s what I want to do. I’ve still got a lot of baseball in me. I can help this team win. Feel strong, ready to go. I’m older, but I’ve got a lot to offer, a lot of knowledge. Nobody really knows what their role is, but I’m here to win. I know I can be in this lineup, can help us win, prove to everybody I can still play defense. We all got something to prove every year. It’s a fresh start. Why not do it back where I started?
Matt Kemp came in nearly 40 pounds lighter than the previous season. Dave Roberts was impressed to see Kemp’s transformation.
I was surprised to see what kind of shape he was in because I just had the visual last year of him in Atlanta. So, when I saw him show up the first day in spring training, I was overwhelmed, and very excited.
He knew that it was going to be a crowded outfield, but he was up for the challenge. To the surprise of Dodgers fans everywhere, Kemp showed flashes of his former 2011 M.V.P. self. He hit five home runs, tying the most he’s ever hit in spring training (2011). Hitting the ball as well, Kemp had 15 hits and a .879 OPS to show for it. Coming into the spring, most people were penciling in Kemp as a bench player, who might get a start here and there. At the end of spring, it appeared that the Dodgers had found themselves their every-day left fielder.
When we heard Kemp was in the best shape of his life, we didn’t think anything of it. Isn’t every player always in the best shape of their life? Well, Matt Kemp truly does appear to be in the best shape he’s ever been in, and it’s showing on the field. Currently, Kemp’s batting average sits at .344, which is tied for best in the national league. With five home-runs on the year, Kemp is tied for the lead on the team. His slash line sits at (.344/.379/.563), by far the best it’s been since the 2011 season. Speaking of the 2011 season.
During Matt Kemp's runner-up MVP 2011 season, he was batting .349 with a .978 OPS on May 6. He's batting .344 with a .950 OPS on May 6, 2018.
— Dodger Insider (@DodgerInsider) May 6, 2018
Kemp doesn’t appear to be slowing down, either. Over his last seven games, his slash line is an astonishing .440/.462/.640. Surely he won’t keep up those numbers for the entire season, but why not keep it close? Over the last 15 games, he’s hitting .348 with 16 hits. More importantly, his strikeout numbers are down as well. Through 32 games, Kemp only has 24 strikeouts. Surely, it could be lower, but compared to previous years, that is a drastic improvement.
Speaking about getting off to a quick start, he has added the most quickness of any player in the MLB. There’s this thing called ‘Sprint Speed’. It’s pretty much how many feet per second you run. In 2017, Kemp averaged 24.9 feet per second. This season, he’s averaging 26.6 feet per second. That 1.7 change is the best in all of baseball. Statcast was introduced in 2015, but it’s the fastest Matt Kemp has been since. It’s safe to say, he was right when he said he was in better shape than ever before.
How Good Has He Been?
On the year, Kemp is hitting .405 against left-handed pitching. In 2017, he hit only .250. It’s the best he’s hit lefties since his 2013 campaign. Kemp has come to the plate 22 times with runners in scoring position. 11 of those times, he’s driven guys in. With runners on, his OPS is 1.251. Not only do these numbers lead the Dodgers, they are among the best in the MLB. Kemp’s average exit velocity and average launch angle are also both greater than the league average.
Defensively, where Kemp has struggled drastically over the years, has seen improvements as well. In the outfield, he has yet to commit an error. In 2016 & 2017, he was dead last in defensive runs saved among left fielders with -29. This year, he sits at one.
Most Dodgers fans didn’t know how they would welcome Kemp back to L.A. They were still salty over the comments he made, claiming Los Angeles wasn’t a good baseball town. By the way, he has since cleared up confusion, saying those weren’t his intentions. He left as an injured player, and with a lot of money on his contract, a lot of money. But now, we can’t help but smile. Deep down, we all missed Matt. We missed chanting “KeMVP” every time he’d step up to the plate. We missed seeing him pointing his fingers to the sky every time he crossed home plate after sending one over the fences. He was taken away from us for three years. Now, he’s back, and he’s playing some of the best baseball of his career. He made improvements to help him become a better player, and they’re working.
Things aren’t going too well for the Dodgers right now, but it sure is an amazing sight to see Kemp in a No. 27 Dodgers uniform, playing like the former superstar we all once loved. As of now, he appears to be the steal of the offseason. Once again, it appears the front-office made a trade that at the time was controversial, but has quietly blossomed into yet another stellar move. Most Dodgers fans share frustration with how the season has played out so far. But if there’s one thing they can all agree on, it’s that they are happy Matt Kemp is once again a Dodger.
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