Could Escape from Boos, Struggles Repair Matt Kemp's Mental Health?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 31, 2013

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp isn't going to set foot on the diamond for a while, and maybe that will end up being a good thing in the long run.

Because really, is there a guy in Major League Baseball who needs a break more than Kemp?

Officially, Kemp is going to be on the shelf for a while because of a mild hamstring strain. The Dodgers put him on the disabled list on Thursday, the very place where he spent a good chunk of 2012 dealing with injuries to his left hamstring. 

This time, it's Kemp's right hamstring that's bothering him, and the bright side is that he's not hurting as bad now as he was in 2012.

"It's not as bad as last year," Kemp told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday. "But when you feel it grab, you have to take it easy and make sure you're careful with it because it can get worse."

It was a big deal when the Dodgers lost Kemp to the DL with his hamstring issues last season. When he first went on the DL in mid-May, he was sitting on a 1.173 OPS and was unquestionably reason No. 1 why the Dodgers were off to a surprising 23-11 start. When he had to go back on the DL later in the month, it was after he had only been back for two games.

It's a different story this year. Kemp is still a star by reputation, but he wasn't himself after returning from his second DL stint after the All-Star break last year. He's looked absolutely nothing like himself this season following offseason shoulder surgery, which has coincided with an alarming decrease in his power production. Kemp is slugging .335, which puts him below the likes of Ichiro Suzuki and Denard Span (see FanGraphs).

Overall, Kemp has technically done the Dodgers more harm than good as far as WAR is concerned. Both and FanGraphs have Kemp's WAR below zero. 

Translation: Kemp has been worse than a replacement-level player this season. If you're not into the whole sabermetrics thing, that means that, yes, he really has been that awful.

Hence the boos from Dodgers fans. Los Angeles Times resident instigator T.J. Simers got him to admit that the boos are not falling on deaf ears.

"I'm taking a beating from the fans," said Kemp. "It's disappointing to get booed by our own fans, even shocking."

And then came a thinly veiled plea for mercy: "I would never boo one of my favorite players or someone on my team. As a true fan I would stick with him in the bad times as well as the good."

But give Kemp credit for not making excuses. He told Simers he didn't want to blame his shoulder for his struggles, choosing instead to chalk things up to his habit of swinging at bad pitches.

He's been doing that a lot, and the word that forms in one's mouth (apart from "Booooo!") every time Kemp chases a pitch is "pressing." He looks like he has a classic case of trying-too-hard-itis.

And it shows up in the numbers.

Let's consider some of Kemp's plate discipline data, courtesy of Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs. We're about to look at the rates he has been swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, the rate at which he's been making contact on pitches outside the strike zone and the rate at which he's been swinging and missing.


Span O-Swing% O-Contact% SwStr%
 2011  32.9  65.7  12.8
 2012, First Half  28.2  59.3  12.5
 2012, Second Half  35.1  63.2  12.4
 2013, April  29.0  51.7  14.0
 2013, May  35.0  38.9  17.3

What you see here is that Kemp picked up a habit of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone after he came back from his second DL stint last July, but was generally able to live with it because he was at least making contact when he chased.

In April, Kemp was more like himself from a plate discipline perspective, but he wasn't getting to pitches outside the zone nearly as well as he was in 2011 and 2012. That helps explain the elevated swinging-strike rate.

In May, everything's gone haywire. Kemp is chasing way more than usual and missing pretty much everything in the process.  

If you were ever at all curious what "pressing" looks like from a statistical standpoint, there you go. 

It's not just Kemp's hitting that's been bad. His fielding has been downright atrocious. The only other center fielder with as many errors as Kemp's four is Angel Pagan, and Kemp also ranks dead last among center fielders in UZR (see FanGraphs). His struggles this season are all-encompassing.

Only Kemp knows how big of a part his surgically repaired shoulder is playing in his struggles, but that's besides the point. Kemp's biggest problem has become his mental approach to the game, and that's something he needs to get squared away just as much as his hamstring and shoulder.

I'll be darned if I know exactly how he's going to do that, but him being removed from the pressure of the field and the direction of all the boos can only help. It's possible his struggles could have gotten worse, but his hamstring intervened and now he has the chance to take a deep breath, clear his head and rediscover his old approach.

The jury's out on when, if ever, Kemp is again going to be the superstar-caliber player he was in 2011. That's going to require him to be 100 percent healthy again, and that's something he hasn't been in more than a year now. The Dodgers may have to be content with a less-than-100 percent Kemp who's at least somewhat productive.

You know, sort of like the Kemp they had in the second half of last season. He wasn't himself, but at least he gave the Dodgers a .792 OPS. 

If Kemp's time off gets him back to that level, he'll still have a ways to go to reach superstar status. But given how that production compares to his numbers this year, it might at least be good enough to keep the boo birds at bay.

Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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