Learning To Love Matt Kemp Again

Crack!

Bat hitting ball shatters the afternoon stillness.

A line drive cuts through the Arizona sky at Camelback Ranch. The left fielder looks up and can only watch as the ball settles into a crowd of fans beyond the fence.

He’s been known by many nicknames and handles. He was one of “the kids.” A young gun with infinite potential and five tools who came up along side the likes of Andre Ethier, James Loney, Russell Martin. Jonathan Broxton. Chad Billingsley. And quickly followed by a kid from Texas who is now the legend we know as Clayton Kershaw. We’ve known him as Bison and called his approach to the game “Beast Mode.” As the 2011 season wore down and again as the 2012 season began and he started the year out on a tear, we showered him with chants of “M-V-P!” from even the furthest corners of the Reserve level at Dodger Stadium.

And was it really so long ago that he stole the show on the night of Bryce Harper‘s debut at Dodger Stadium? A night that began with the buzz surrounding a young phenom who could hit 500 foot homers and run like the wind ended with Matt Kemp shattering the night and the decibel meter at Dodger Stadium with a walk-off shot just to the right of center field, pumping his fist and hollering around the bases, high-fiving his mom in front of 56,000 loving and adoring fans and Harper quickly getting a front-seat view to what it looks like to be a fan favorite.

Follow this link to see Matt Kemp’s walk-off against the Nationals on mlb.com: https://www.mlb.com/video/share/kemps-walk-off-homer/c-21007057?tid=6479266

Or if you prefer amateur video, you can watch it here (home run occurs about 50 seconds in):

The date was April 28, 2012. Matthew Ryan Kemp was the center of the Dodgers universe and you would be hard-pressed to make an argument against him as the best player in baseball. He was just a few months removed from signing an 8 year, $160 million contract and at that moment he looked like he was worth every last penny of it.

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Matt Kemp was larger than life on the cover of Dodgers Magazine after his team-record-setting April of 2012.

Falling From Grace

Just as fast as Kemp’s star rose during the 2011 and first month of the 2012 season, it became tarnished.  First it was a hamstring injury that sidelined him nearly two months and ended a streak of 399 consecutive games played.  He played through the last month of the season with a shoulder injury that required off-season surgery.  He spent most of 2013 on the Disabled List, first with another hamstring injury and then with an ankle injury that kept him out of most of the stretch run while the Dodgers mounted a 42-8 stretch on the way to a first place finish.  Despite his efforts to get back on the field, Kemp wound up missing the playoffs entirely.  Then in 2014, while Kemp stayed off the disabled list, he started the season out slowly.  The injuries put weight on Kemp’s frame and took away his speed, reducing his ability to play defense.  Kemp lost his center field job, struggled with playing left field and was vocal about his unhappiness.  He faced criticism.  Some believed he was becoming a clubhouse cancer.  There was rampant speculation that he had issues with Yasiel Puig, who had become a rising star in the organization and had passed Kemp in popularity among many fans.

Kemp didn’t seem to let the increasing criticism from fans and the media affect his performance in the second half of 2014.  He shook off the cold start and began to resemble the “Beast Mode” of old.  Settled in as the every day right fielder after having difficulties playing left, Kemp responded by posting monster numbers.  In the final 64 games of the season, Kemp hit .309 with 17 homers and 54 runs batted in, getting on base at a .365 clip, slugging a whopping .606 and registering a .921 OPS.  Kemp played a large role in the Dodgers’ National League West title, and hit a clutch homer in the 8th inning of Game 2 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals that ultimately gave the Dodgers the win.

Despite what appeared to be a resurgence, it seemed like Kemp had come full-cycle.  After showing tremendous potential his first few years in the league, Kemp faced criticism for underachieving during the 2010 season.  There was criticism of his focus.  Many believed Kemp had fallen prey to the Hollywood lifestyle.  A relationship with pop star Rihanna only served to make the criticism louder.  So when Kemp broke up with Rihanna prior to the 2011 season and responded with monster numbers, there was a feeling that he had grown up, that he was ready to become the game’s next big super star.  At minimum, he looked like a perennial All Star.  Repeat the sort of performance he was giving often enough, and a few even thought he might find a way to get to Cooperstown.

Alas.  It was not to be.

The Trade

Only 3 years after signing a monster contract and being on top of the baseball world, Matt Kemp fell out of favor in Los Angeles.  The trashing of Kemp came from all corners.  His speed was gone.  His outfield defense was atrocious.  He was diagnosed with arthritis in his hips and there was some speculation that he would never be the same ballplayer again.  And on December 18th, 2014, after a good amount of back-and-forth and speculation about his medical status, Matt Kemp went to the San Diego Padres along with significant offsets to his salary.  Backup catcher Tim Federowicz went with him.  Coming back in the trade was power-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal who was also known for being one of the best pitch-framers in the game, and pitching prospects Joe Wieland and Zack Eflin.  While neither Wieland nor Eflin panned out in a Dodger uniform, Grandal quickly established himself as a power-hitting catcher and a trusted battery mate for the Dodger pitching staff.

Kemp, meanwhile, might as well have gone to Siberia, although initially it looked like he was going to be just one star on a high-powered super team.  Power-hitting outfielder Justin Upton, catcher Derek Norris, ace starting pitcher James Shields, closer Craig Kimbrel and Center Fielder/First Baseman Wil Myers were among the splashy acquisitions made by Padres General Manager A.J. Preller as he looked to add payroll and quickly vault the Friars into contention.

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Matt Kemp with the San Diego Padres on photo day. Image retrieved from zimbio.com

As it turned out, Preller’s moves only served to deplete his farm system and make the Padres no better than they had been in 2013 with a much lower-paid roster of young, home-grown talent.  The 2013 edition of the Padres went 76-86 while the 2014 team with its bloated payroll and talented roster suffered a slough of injuries and went 77-85 for an improvement of exactly one win.  For his part, Kemp struggled to show his 2014 second half form.  He came out of the gate hitting .250 in the first half.  His slugging percentage stood at a paltry .386.  He only hit 8 homers.  The talk about his arthritic hips wouldn’t cease and Kemp’s swing often did not look fluid.  Although Kemp put up respectable second half numbers (.286/.528/15 homers) the Padres had fallen out of the playoff hunt and their vaunted roster started to be broken up piece by piece.  After starting the 2015 season off in San Diego and hitting .262 with 23 homers in 100 games, the Padres decided to part ways with Kemp and abandon any semblance of a “win now” philosophy.

Atlanta

On July 30th, 2016, Matt Kemp went to a team that he grew up rooting for: the Atlanta Braves.  In exchange, the Padres received Hector Olivera, who they would ultimately release, in what amounted to a “bad contract swap.”  Matt Kemp was no longer regarded for his skill but rather for the burden of his contract.  Still, Kemp expressed enthusiasm for the move – and alienated quite a few Dodger fans – when he was quoted as saying that Atlanta is “a real baseball town.”  The insinuation: Los Angeles wasn’t a baseball town.

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Matt Kemp comes home after hitting a walkoff home run for the Braves against the San Francisco Giants. Photo credit: Kevin Cox, Getty Images

Kemp seemed to rejuvinate in Atlanta.  His batting average after the trade rose to .280.  He hit 12 homers over the season’s final two months.  And while the Braves were not in contention, they appeared poised to build their lineup around Kemp and first baseman Freddie Freeman.  And it worked.  For a while.  But ultimately, despite starting 2017 hot (how hot?  We’ll get to that in the next section,) the Braves missed the playoffs, Kemp became injured again and many people began to criticize his body weight, and the Braves again looked for an opportunity to “swap bad contracts” and send Matt Kemp packing.

It Turns Out: You Can Come Back Home Again.  But For How Long?

Once Kemp was re-acquired in January in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy and Charlie Culberson, the thinking was that the Dodgers would either quickly flip Kemp or release him and eat what remained of his salary.  There was very little assumption that he would make the Opening Day roster.  Most people didn’t think he would so much as put on a Dodger uniform for spring training.  Yet upon being acquired, and knowing full well that his time in Los Angeles might be short-lived, Kemp got to work.  He dropped over 40 pounds over the off-season.  He got in touch with team leaders Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen and said “hey, as long as I’m here, I am going to prepare for the season as if I am going to be a Los Angeles Dodger.”  And his spring training stat line lent support to the idea that Matt Kemp might once again patrol the outfield at Dodger Stadium.

Though Kemp might be best used in some sort of platoon to keep his legs and his body fresh, people seem quick to forget that he started the 2017 season on a blistering All Star pace for Atlanta.  While his season stats wound up being middle-of-the-pack after his body wore down and injuries sidelined him and as the Braves fell out of the playoff race, a look at the first half of 2017 paints a different picture: Kemp hit .293 in the first half and only .243 in the second half after wearing down.  He had 12 homers and 40 RBIs.  And he got on base at a .340 clip.  More to the point: Kemp hit .321 in April and a whopping .357 in May with 10 home runs in 181 at-bats before the grind of every day play began to wear on him in June.  Still, in an August where he was more rested in limited action, Kemp still hit a respectable .297 over 40 plate appearances.

So, how do we love Matt Kemp again?

How Love Comes Easy…and Not So Easy

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Matt Kemp swinging the bat in a spring training game against the Chicago Cubs. Image source: Orange County Register

From the start, Matt Kemp seemed to have an uphill battle to stay in Los Angeles.  From the start, he was told that he might not fit into the team’s plans.  That there may be another trade, or that the team would potentially release him.  He was given no assurances by the front office.

Critics of Kemp seemed to believe that he would never actually put on a Dodger uniform.  There were no press conference.  Kemp did not appear at the team’s FanFest in January to avoid awkward conversations and the all-too-real possibility that he might not be with the Dodgers when they headed for camp a few weeks later.

But while critics said their peace, Kemp stayed mum.  He was working out with teammates.  He was at Dodger stadium doing drills and working out.

Matt Kemp heard the critics.  He just chose to ignore them.  He was not convinced that he was leaving.  And neither was I.  In a conversation that I had with a friend shortly after the trade, I explained “this is how Matt Kemp stays in L.A. and becomes a big part of the 2018 plans.”  I broke down the realities of Kemp’s body, how he would need to be willing to buy into the team’s “next man up” and team-first philosophy, and that he would likely have to sit once or twice a week in order to keep his body fresh.  But I pointed at Kemp’s hot start in 2017 and said “Matt Kemp is still that player.  Handle him properly, he’s still capable of being an all star.  Position him correctly in the outfield using the metrics that the Dodger analysts have at their disposal and minimize his defensive liabilities.  He might get traded.  But he might, just maybe, be the piece that the Dodgers were missing in 2017 that can get them over the top in 2018.”  My friend was not convinced, but he was a little less sure that the Kemp trade was as much of a disaster as a lot of people were saying.

Then the team headed for Arizona to start spring training.  And there was Matt Kemp.  Arriving early.  Smiling.  Joking around with his teammates.  Wearing a Dodger uniform and working, for the first time in a long time, to earn a roster spot.  It was a battle he was determined to win.

The press came at him nearly right away, and Kemp was honest with them.  He owned his comment about Atlanta being a baseball town.  He also explained his reasoning: when he first got to Los Angeles, it was a Laker town.  He asserted that as the Dodgers won more games and did so consistently, it became a baseball town.  He let people know that he wanted to be in Los Angeles and that he was ready to put in the work necessary to play every day and win ballgames.  He talked about how fun it was watching the team’s 2017 World Series run and that he wanted to be part of the team finally winning it all in 2018.

“This is where I came up.  This is where I grew up.  I’ve always wanted to win a World Series here.”

-Matt Kemp on returning to the Dodgers

The 2018 edition of Kemp was loose.  He could still smooth-talk his way through an interview in the unique Hollywood style that Dodger fans had come to know over the years, but something seemed different.  Where he had been reluctant to play left field in 2014, Kemp embraced the opportunity to take on the position in 2018.  Where he had seen his weight increase significantly in 2017, he came into camp trim and focused.  And then came his first spring game.  He singled in his first at-bat.

Then this happened.

Since Kemp left in 2014, critics spoke with harsh words for Kemp, a chorus that seemed to get louder and louder as long as Kemp was gone.  “Malcontent.”  “Primadonna.”  “Unfocused.”  “Overweight.”  “Granny Hips.”  “Overpaid.”

With one swing of the bat, the voices quieted.  Just a little.  And something strange happened.

Dodger fans cheered for Matt Kemp.

The dialogue about Matt Kemp started to change.  “A couple of weeks into spring training, Matt Kemp is hitting .400 with a couple of home runs.”  “Matt Kemp actually looks pretty good in the outfield.”  “Matt Kemp is a positive influence in the club house.”

One by one, the critics toned down.  And watched Matt Kemp play baseball.  And one by one, the critics became advocates.  “Matt Kemp just might be the starting left fielder.”  “Matt Kemp has secured his roster spot.”  When Justin Turner went down with a wrist injury that is expected to keep him out for the first month of the regular season, some even dared to suggest that Matt Kemp might just hold down Turner’s number three spot in the batting order for at least some of the games until he returned.  Suddenly the question wasn’t who Matt Kemp was competing for a roster spot with, but who would take the roster spot that represented the player that would back him up.

By the time the Dodgers broke camp and headed to Los Angeles for the Freeway Series and to prepare for Opening Day, the question was not whether Matt Kemp would stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers, it was when he would hit his first Dodger Stadium home run.

Though Kemp’s average broke downward to .263 by the end of the spring, he slugged an impressive .563, and his fifth and final home run of the spring came in his final spring at bat.  With a packed house at Dodger Stadium looking on, Kemp led off the bottom of the 4th inning.  The pitch was a fastball, with the TV radar gun showing 91 miles an hour.  The pitch came in a little flat and about thigh-high.  And whatever remaining doubt that Matt Kemp was back left the yard, along with the baseball.  His swing was fluid.  The ball flew in a way that a ball can only fly when it comes off the bat of Matt Kemp.  And it landed mere feet from the spot where a similarly-hit home run landed late in the evening of April 28, 2012.

On Thursday, when the Dodgers take the field to play the San Francisco Giants, Matthew Ryan Kemp will be in a Dodger uniform wearing his familiar number 27.  He will be the starting left fielder.  And for some it may come easier than others.  But it is perfectly okay to love Matt Kemp again.

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