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The lasting impact of WAR on Matt Kemp's legacy

What would change if Kemp had played in the `80s?

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MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The last seven years have seen a distinct decline in the public opinion of Matt Kemp, Baseball Player. He has made the journey from borderline MVP (2011) to injured (2012-2013) to trade bait (2014-2015) to albatross (2016-2017) to salary dump (Sunday).

Kemp is considered by many to be one of the least desirable players in all of baseball, thanks to a couple of factors. First, there’s his hefty contract. Kemp signed an eight-year, $160 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012, which has two years and $43 million remaining. The second factor is that his game has seemingly fallen off a cliff, with Kemp coming in as the ninth-least valuable hitter in all of baseball during the 2017 season, per rWAR.

And that’s where I find Kemp’s story gets so interesting. During the 2017 season, Kemp played 115 games. He scored 47 runs, hit 19 homers, drove in 64 runs, and had a batting average of .276. I chose all those rather rudimentary metrics on purpose.

If Kemp had been playing a century ago, his 2017 season wouldn’t look great, but you’d be hard-pressed to find baseball pundits of the time calling him one of the ten worst position players in baseball.

Kemp’s 2016 season is maybe even more telling. He scored 89 runs, drove in 108 more, and left the yard 35 times. His .268 batting average was rather pedestrian, but his ranking among the top four in the league in HR and RBI would have earned him a bit of fringe-MVP buzz even just a few decades back (though being traded from one non-contender to another would have likely killed any real chance he had to win the award).

Instead, Kemp wasn’t an All-Star, a Silver Slugger, or even a relevant baseball player. Rather than being a bottom ten player like he was in 2017, it was almost even worse. With 0.0 WAR for the entire season, he was just nothing in the eyes of many modern baseball fans. The hypothetical, replacement-level, 26th man on the roster would have had the exact same impact on the 2016 season that Kemp had — which was none, according to rWAR.

Now, I bring this up not as an attack on the concept of wins above replacement, although I do believe there is still a bit of work to be done on the defensive side of the formula. I mention it instead to simply wonder how different our perception of Matt Kemp would be if he had made his debut on September 11, 1976 instead of May 28, 2006.

Why September 11, 1976? Well, that’s the day Andre Dawson made his debut.

While perusing player comparisons for Matt Kemp, Dawson is a name that often appears in the top five age comps. Here’s a look at the two through their first 12 seasons, each:

Matt Kemp and Andre Dawson — first 12 seasons

Player Years R HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Player Years R HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Andre Dawson 1976-1987 918 274 975 0.281 0.326 0.485
Matt Kemp 2006-2017 866 259 920 0.285 0.338 0.488

That’s pretty dang close. And that’s using the most surface statistics. Here’s a wild one: both players have matching 123 OPS+ figures for their first 12 years. And it’s not as if this was just a “by year 12” comparison. Here’s the side-by-side for the two in their respective Year 9 through Year 12 seasons:

Matt Kemp and Andre Dawson Seasons 9 through 12

Player Years R HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Player Years R HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Andre Dawson 1984-1987 293 109 392 0.269 0.316 0.479
Matt Kemp 2014-2017 293 102 361 0.273 0.319 0.479

Now of course there are some strong differences. Dawson was fresh off an MVP season in his 12th year in the league, and he had a bit more bold on his resume by 1987. Kemp is a two-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove winner, and two-time Silver Slugger. Dawson was a four-time All-Star, seven-time Gold Glove winner, and four-time Silver Slugger by his 12th season. However, part of that is due to perception, which, again, is the point trying to be made here. Here’s Andre Dawson’s 1983 season compared to Matt Kemp’s 2016 season:

Different perception of two similar seasons (on the surface)

Player Years R HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Player Years R HR RBI BA OBP SLG
Andre Dawson 1983 104 32 113 0.299 0.338 0.539
Matt Kemp 2016 89 35 108 0.268 0.304 0.499

By surface numbers, there is not a whole lot of difference. The batting average edge for Dawson is significant, and he won one of his six consecutive Gold Gloves that year, but wouldn’t Kemp’s 89/35/108 R/HR/RBI at least put him in the conversation as one of the top position players in baseball if it had occurred in 1983?

Now, Dawson continued to play decent baseball for another nine seasons after 1987, giving him 21 seasons in the bigs and plenty of accolades from those two-plus decades. Still, if we switch back to advanced metrics, he collected only 12.3 WAR after Year 12; his legacy was pretty much defined by 1987. We saw above just how similar the surface numbers on these two were for their careers. If Kemp was playing in the 1980s, would he be thought of as a slightly-worse defensive version of Dawson? (Would the defensive powers that be in the 1980s even really notice the difference? Remember when Rafael Palmeiro won his Gold Glove in 1999?)

I love WAR. I use it all the time to compare players, probably even to the extent that I should slow down at points. Still, it’s quite important when thinking of players in a historical sense to realize that the aura surrounding these players can be impacted so heavily by factors outside of their control.

This is far from a new phenomenon. Ty Cobb used to be furious that the home run explosion of the 1920s moved Babe Ruth ahead of Cobb in the public opinion. When Cobb played, he was judged by batting titles. In the 1980s, Kemp might have been judged for his 89 runs, 35 home runs, and 108 RBI instead of his 0.0 WAR. But that’s not the way it works.

We live in the era of “player value,” and WAR is the king. For now. That’s why Kemp will continue to be an albatross, a player who will likely see his long-term, career potential playing time cut because of the modern determinations on player value.

Who knows. Maybe one day, in 50 years, the baseball community will have totally new player valuations, and it will turn out that Matt Kemp was secretly valuable the past few seasons. This may seem wild, but that’s the beauty of baseball history. It is ever-winding, ever-improving, and it will never go away. Baseball players have had their legacies written and rewritten innumerable times. Matt Kemp just has to hope his final legacy hasn’t been written just yet.

Jim Turvey is the author of Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, a baseball history-stats fusion that is available now on Amazon. He is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and DRays Bay.