Don’t let the Dodgers’ early 2018 struggles fool you; LA has a strong team. Early on this season, they had to deal with a myriad of injuries to good players and stars alike. The Dodgers started the season without Justin Turner, Clayton Kershaw has been on and off the disabled list, and in the spring, they lost Corey Seager for the year after being diagnosed with a torn UCL. Not exactly a bright beginning for a team that was expected to runaway with the division and make noise in the playoffs.
Despite all the adversity, Los Angeles is only two games back of Arizona in the loss column, and remain the favorites to win the National League West by quite a bit. LA has benefited greatly from two unsuspecting players who were barely on anyone’s radar coming into the year: Max Muncy and Matt Kemp, who lead the Dodgers in positional players fWAR nearly halfway through the year (who would’ve guessed!).
Michael Bauman at The Ringer did an excellent write-up of Muncy earlier this week, so I won’t repeat too much of what he’s said, but it’s worth mentioning just how important he has been to the middling Dodgers, and how surprising his performance really is, considering LA gave up nothing to acquire him.
Muncy is a 27-year-old corner infielder who played all of 2017 in the minor leagues. After two partial seasons with Oakland, including a 2016 season where he bounced between Triple-A and the Bay Area, the Athletics had seen enough, and decided to part ways. Last year, Los Angeles picked him up on a minor league contract for virtually nothing, and after a successful stint in Oklahoma City, ended up being called up to the bigs once again.
Since Muncy’s call-up in April, he has been nothing short of terrific. Over 184 plate appearances he has posted a wRC+ of 162, including 13 home runs and a near-.400 OBP. His defense has been adequate but his real value has been his power.
Nearly 46 percent of Muncy’s contact is rated as ‘hard-hit,’ something he never experienced previously. Additionally, he is hitting more fly balls than ever before as well, with nearly 47 percent of his balls in play going in the air. Well, this combination is pretty easy to see the results, as a quarter of Muncy’s fly balls leave the yard for homers. He’s changed his mechanics at the dish, changed his approach to hit more fly balls, and the Dodgers have been rewarded handsomely.
Then there’s veteran journey Matt Kemp. Kemp had a successful first-run with the Dodgers, posting the best numbers of his career, including a career best 2011, in which he was one of the best players in baseball. That season Kemp posted an 8.3 fWAR, hitting 39 home runs and totaling a 168 wRC+.
Kemp followed up 2011 with a strong, but not outworldly 2012, in which he posted 3.8 wins, and his career had been a downward spiral since. His injuries led to horrendous outfield play which did not make up for his offensive numbers, which also took a dive, specifically his isolated power (.262 at its peak, in 2011, and .125 only two years later).
This season, Kemp already has accumulated more WAR than any season since 2014, his power is back, and although he’s not a strong defender (what near-34-year-old is?) he’s been serviceable enough.
To date, Kemp has benefited from a high BABIP, .376, but it’s not as if he’s usually sitting around .300, since he has a career mark of .340. He is barreling a 13.2 percent of balls, which is a higher percentage than he’s posted since Statcast started keeping track of such numbers in 2015. Kemp is also generating a higher exit velocity this year of 91.1 miles per hour, compared to the league average 87.3 MPH.
And what would a conversation of a resurgence be without talking about launch angle! Kemp has improved on this front as well, posting a 15.3 degree launch angle compared to his own average since 2015 of 12.2 degrees.
This all brings us to the major question at hand for Kemp: how sustainable is this performance? The projection systems expect a regression on the BABIP, but overall, we pretty much know what Kemp is at this point of his career.
He won’t walk much (somewhere around 6 percent of his plate appearances) and he’ll strike out in nearly a quarter of his PAs. However, if he can keep the hard-hit rate up, play solid defense, and stay healthy (probably the biggest key), he can continue to be an asset as the Dodgers continue to chase, and likely overtake the Diamondbacks.
Few expected much from Muncy and Kemp coming into this year, but it’s been surprisingly successful on both fronts, which has kept the Dodgers competitive.