Matt Kemp vs. Ryan Braun: Who Will Have the Better Overall Career?
The Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers are going to hook up for a three-game series at Dodger Stadium this weekend. Two of baseball's best players will be sharing the field: Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun and Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp.
When the series ends, Braun and Kemp will go their separate ways. Then Braun will go on to have a better career than Kemp.
I know this because I have seen the future. In the future, Braun is regarded as one of the great players in baseball history, and he is worshiped by both humans and their alien insect overlords.
Not that one really needs to see the future to determine that Braun is going to have better overall career than Kemp in the long run. That's a conclusion that becomes evident when weighing various numbers and circumstances.
If you'll follow me this way, we'll have a just-for-kicks discussion.
Their Careers So Far
There's one thing helping Braun's cause quite a bit in this discussion, and that's that his career has a humongous head start. To this point, there's no question he's been the better player.
The traditional stats don't need any introduction, and they show that the only notable edge Kemp has on Braun is in stolen bases. Elsewhere, Braun has hit 56 more homers than Kemp and holds big advantages in average, OBP, slugging and OPS.
These advantages speak volumes about the kind of hitter Braun is, but it's the sabermetric stats that highlight just how good of a player he is.
You can see that Braun holds advantages across the board, but maybe you're not aware what those stats are and could use an explanation.
That can be arranged:
- ISO: This stands for Isolated Power, which FanGraphs defines to be a "measure of a hitter's raw power." It's essentially a slugging percentage that does't count singles, so it shows that Braun has been better at hitting for extra bases than Kemp.
- wOBA: This is Weighted On-Base Average, another favorite of FanGraphs that measures a hitter's overall value. It's like OPS, except more complex and more accurate. In this case, it agrees with what OPS has to say: that Braun has been a better hitter than Kemp.
- wRC+: This is Weighted Runs Created Plus, and it's another FanGraphs favorite. It measures a player's offensive value in terms of runs as compared to the league average, which is 100. Braun's career wRC+ is much higher above average than Kemp's.
- wRAA: This is Weighted Runs Above Average, which is sort of like wRC+ in that it measures a player's offensive contributions in terms of runs as compared to an average player. Once again, a huge edge for Braun.
- BsR: This is Base Running Runs Above Average, which is just what it sounds like. It's FanGraphs' baserunning component for WAR, and here it shows that Braun has been the more productive baserunner.
- oWAR and dWAR: Here we have Offensive WAR and Defensive WAR, two other stats that are just what they sound like. They're calculated by Baseball-Reference.com. Braun has the edge in both categories, though neither he nor Kemp rates as a particularly good fielder.
- rWAR and fWAR: Baseball-Reference.com WAR and FanGraphs WAR, of course. There's a helpful side-by-side comparison of the two at Baseball-Reference.com if you'd like one. Or you could just note the huge edge Braun has in both categories and leave it at that.
If you skipped over all those bullet points, allow me to present the gist: No matter which way you look at things, Braun is a more accomplished player than Kemp. By a long shot.
That shouldn't be a shocking revelation, as Braun has been a consistently excellent player ever since he debuted in 2007. His worst year saw him post an .866 OPS and hit 25 homers. I repeat: his WORST year.
Kemp has only had one truly great season, posting a .986 OPS and hitting 39 homers with 40 steals in 2011. Had the Dodgers been a better team, he would have won the National League MVP over Braun in a landslide. He was more than Braun's equal that year.
But every other year, Kemp hasn't been Braun's equal. Few have been.
So that's where things stand now, but what sorts of things are going to shape these guys' futures?
We can start by looking at the company they're going to keep.
Who's Going to Be Surrounded by More Talent?
One thing that might help Kemp enjoy a better career than Braun is the likelihood that he's going to be hitting in better lineups year-in and year-out.
The Dodgers obviously don't look like much of an offensive powerhouse now, as they entered Thursday's action ranked second-to-last in MLB in runs scored. Nonetheless, there's no denying the talent is there.
Around Kemp are guys like Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier: big-name guys with big-time contracts. Hanley Ramirez, another big-name guy with a big-time contract, will be back soon.
Ramirez is due for free agency after the 2014 season, but Crawford, Gonzalez and Ethier aren't going anywhere soon. Per Cot's Baseball Contracts, all three of them are locked up through at least 2017.
More talent is going to be on the way. It won't be long before Yasiel Puig forces his way into the Dodgers' everyday lineup, and the Dodgers obviously have the resources to buy any hitter they want.
This winter, that could be Robinson Cano. He's going to be a free agent, and it's not hard to imagine the Dodgers waving goodbye to Mark Ellis and then handing Cano a blank check just because they can.
Braun is in a different boat in Milwaukee.
Brewers owner Mark Attanasio isn't cheap, and it bodes well for the team that he's going to have some national TV money to throw around pretty soon. All the same, the Brewers have to deal with some significant financial constraints.
For one, they play in baseball's smallest market, according to Baseball-Almanac.com. Bob Wolfley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out in March that the Brewers also play in the 34th-largest TV market in the country. Not surprisingly, they have one of baseball's smallest local TV contracts.
So for the Brewers to add stars around Braun in their lineup, their best hope is to develop them. That's a process that takes time, and it's not very often that the process yields several superstar players very close to one another, as was the case with Braun and Prince Fielder.
Not having fellow superstars around him in the Brewers' lineup isn't necessarily a deal-breaker for Braun, however. He didn't miss having Fielder behind him in the lineup last year, as he exploded for a .987 OPS and a career high 41 homers. He showed that he can take care of himself.
As such, the lineup advantage Kemp is likely to have in the long run may not be much of an advantage.
In addition, it's only going to count for so much next to the huge advantage Braun gets to enjoy at his home ballpark.
Two Very Different Home Ballparks
Kemp plays his home games at Dodger Stadium. Braun plays his home games at Miller Park.
One of these things is not like the other.
There are few parks more friendly to pitchers than Dodger Stadium. Per ESPN.com's Park Factors, Dodger Stadium has ranked among the 10 worst run-scoring environments every year since 2008.
Miller Park is a different story. In a piece for BillJamesOnline.com, John Dewan pointed out last November that only three parks in baseball have yielded more homers than Miller Park since 2010. ESPN's Park Factors show that it was the best home-run-hitting environment in baseball last season.
Braun's and Kemp's career home splits (courtesy of FanGraphs) further drive home the point of just how different their two parks are:
Braun has enjoyed home cooking more than Kemp has, which is not surprising in the slightest, given the reputations of their two home ballparks.
This is important, as neither player is likely to be changing his address anytime soon. Braun is signed on to play regularly at Miller Park through 2020 at least, and Kemp is signed on to play regularly at Dodger Stadium through 2019.
Between now and then, Braun's home park should boost his career numbers more than Kemp's. All he has to do is stay on the field.
And about that...
Who's Going to Be More Durable?
There's no predicting how a player's health is going to hold up in the long run. Injuries are going to happen, and serious injuries can happen to anyone at any time.
There's no denying this, though: Braun's injury track record is much cleaner than Kemp's.
Braun, who turned 29 in November, played in 113 games after getting the call in late May of his rookie year, and has played in at least 150 games every year since. According to his injury database on Baseball Prospectus, he's only missed 35 games due to injury. He's also never been on the DL.
Granted, the elephant in the room has to be acknowledged. Based on Braun's 2011 testosterone controversy and his ties to Biogenesis, maybe his durability hasn't been natural. If it has been natural, however, then it's certainly been impressive.
Kemp looked superhuman this time last year, but that was also the last time he was 100-percent healthy. He went on the disabled list on two separate occasions with leg injuries, and he wasn't the same player when he was able to play.
Then there's the left shoulder surgery Kemp had to have after the season. It was a major one, as ESPNLosAngeles.com reported that both a torn labrum and rotator cuff damage needed to be repaired.
You don't need to be a doctor to see that Kemp still hasn't fully recovered. He hasn't been able to drive the ball like we know he can. He finally hit his first homer of the season on Wednesday, but it was a ball that just barely scraped over the right field wall at Citi Field.
Kemp will be himself eventually. He just needs time to build strength in his left shoulder. Once it's there, he should go back to being his usual self, in which case he'll get to work closing the chasm that exists between he and Braun in the key numbers we looked at.
But let's not forget another thing: Kemp plays a more physically demanding position than Braun. Center fielders have to cover more ground than corner outfielders, and covering that ground can take its toll.
Look no further than Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey, Jr., both of whom were out of gas by the time they hit their early 30's. Kemp didn't break into the league as early as either of them, but he does turn 29 in September.
The Dodgers could move Kemp to left or right field, but that's going to be easier said than done in the short term with Crawford in left and Ethier in right. When Puig is ready, he'll also need to play in a corner outfield spot.
The longer Kemp sticks around in center field, the harder it is to see him enjoying a long and fruitful career. And based on his track record, that's precisely the kind of career Braun is likely to have.
If the idea here was to compare athleticism, I'd be singing a different tune. Kemp is a superior athlete, both next to Braun and pretty much every other player in the league.
But this isn't a discussion about athletes. It's a discussion about ballplayers. Braun has clearly been the better ballplayer to this point in his and Kemp's careers, and there are reasons to believe that he'll continue to be a better ballplayer.
Who do you think is going to have a better career?
Braun has been as consistent as they come ever since he first broke into the league in '07, and he has the luxury of playing a position that's not too physically demanding at one of the best hitters' parks in the league.
Kemp has the potential to be a brilliant player again, once he gets his health squared away, but he has quite the gap in production to make up and some obstacles to overcome in order to put his career on the same level as Braun's.
I wish him luck with that. He'll need it.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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