Many things can be said about what Matt Kemp should have been. He should have been a star. He should have been one of the game’s elite hitters. He should have been the face of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Instead, after an MVP-caliber season in which he nearly became the newest member of the 40-40 club if not for one missed stolen base, Kemp followed it up with a subpar season by his impressive standards which ended with him being questioned by Ned Colletti and crashing into the wall at Coors Field.
After that, Kemp wasn’t the same. He spent most of 2013 on the disabled list, his power sapped. When he managed to return, he spent 6 days in the lineup before nearly breaking a bone in his ankle — which could have been career-ending. Kemp, the superstar face of the Dodgers, had become both one of the richest players in the game and a cautionary tale of what injuries could do to someone.
But here’s the deal with Kemp. If you look at his stats, his hitting isn’t awful. Currently, Kemp has a .293/.340/.486 slash line, a .347 wOBA, and a 112 wRC+. By those numbers, he’s an above-average hitter, and a valuable asset in the lineup.
Matt Kemp offensive stats
Furthermore, Kemp has reduced his notably high strikeout rate — though not by much — and is 75th out of 166 qualified batters in ISO, which granted isn’t much, but is higher than his career numbers.
The thing that kills Kemp’s contribution by fWAR or bWAR is his glove. Yes, I know; even if we discount his glove he’s still at a mere 0.5 offensive fWAR/0.4 offensive bWAR. But we can’t discount the fact that his defense is atrocious.
Matt Kemp defensive stats
|Total||- - -||OF||12241.2||2169||-117||-128||-14.2|
By UZR/150, Kemp has been worth -14.9 runs — good for third-last (ahead only of Hunter Renfroe and Khris Davis). DRS measures him at -11 and ranks him likewise: 60th out of 62 qualified outfielders. Baseball Savant does not have defensive images for the 2017 season yet, but we do have defensive images for Kemp’s 2016 (Kemp was an even bigger defensive liability in 2016).
According to Baseball Savant’s classification, Kemp has allowed 109 base hits, 33 of these coming on easy-to-catch flyballs. He has also been unable to make a 5-star or (for lack of a better term) highlight-reel catch. Conversely, over three-quarters of his outs have come on balls with less than 40 percent chance of falling on a base hit, that should be easy to catch
So here’s the issue: why not trade Kemp to an American League team, where he could become a more valuable asset? That way, a team could use him as a DH and avoid runs on his very risky glove. The positional adjustment for DHs used in UZR and DRS is -17.5 runs, compared to -7.5 for corner outfielders. But every DH is worth the same on defense (i.e., nothing), while a corner outfielder as bad as Kemp is often worth -20 runs or more. A move to the AL is a potential win-win situation in which Kemp keeps playing and providing limited (but positive) value, despite not actually manning the field.
The downside, however, is that Kemp wants to take the field. In fact, the initial trade that sent him to San Diego was done to make room for Joc Pederson after Kemp refused to play anywhere other than center field.* If you stick him in at DH, there’s no guarantee that Kemp won’t be unhappy, and his hitting production might suffer.
* Though his position on the subject has changed given the lineups in San Diego and Atlanta.
Yet, if he is willing to do anything possible to try to regain his MVP-form, why not give it a shot? Kemp is signed through 2019, so a trade to the right AL team — and the right ballpark — might be just what Kemp needs to revitalize his career.
Toronto, Baltimore, and Texas have hitter friendly parks that could provide Kemp with the platform he needs, and could possibly use a potential power hitter. We’ll just have to see if they have the right package that forces the Braves to deal him, and if Kemp acquiesces to leave his glove behind.
Martin Alonso writes for Beyond the Box Score and BP Bronx and is contantly geeking out over baseball and Star Wars. You can find him on Twitter at @martnar.