Overshadowed during the Los Angeles Dodgers' amazing run of 2013—they won 62 of their final 90 regular-season games—was the fact that Matt Kemp was back to performing at an elite level during the handful of games he was healthy enough to start throughout that stretch.
Nagged by an ankle injury that would require surgery after the season, Kemp amassed only 71 at-bats during 19 starts (he also had one pinch-hit at-bat), which is why it's difficult to remember him being much of a factor.
But he contributed in a big way, batting .324 with four homers, five doubles and 16 runs batted in as the Dodgers won 14 of those 19 games. They won six of the eight games in which Kemp had at least two hits.
Kemp's overall numbers in 2013 (.723 OPS, 6 HR, 9 SB in 73 games), however, might hint that he's a player who's on the decline. His inability to stay on the field made it difficult to climb out of the hole he created with a slow start, and his solid production during the short stints when he did return went unnoticed.
But it's premature to think that Kemp's best days were behind him during his age-28 season.
We won't know for sure until he's had a couple months to get back into the groove after beginning the season on the disabled list recovering from the aforementioned ankle surgery, as well as shoulder surgery. But, Kemp has shown flashes of the ability that made him the runner-up for the NL MVP award in 2011 after posting a .986 OPS with 39 homers, 126 runs batted in and 40 stolen bases.
The 29-year-old started slow once again, posting a .727 OPS with 21 strikeouts in his first 60 at-bats, but he is heating up. With 13 hits in his last 40 at-bats, including five doubles and a homer, Kemp is starting to make an impact in the middle of the Dodgers lineup again.
Teammates Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez have each had similar shoulder surgeries to the one Kemp had prior to the 2013 season and both took a while to regain strength and return to form.
Ramirez's decline in performance in 2012 following his offseason surgery was a major reason the Dodgers were able to acquire him at such a low cost. When finally healthy, he was one of the best hitters in the game once more.
Gonzalez is three years removed from the surgery and just now getting to the point where he's driving the ball out to all fields once again, which is where Kemp is now and where manager Don Mattingly felt he was headed with the way he looked in the spring.
"We saw it early in the spring. His BP was just different," said Mattingly, per ESPN, after Kemp hit two homers in a game early in the season. "There was a lot of carry on the ball, kind of that high finish on the swing that we've seen from him.
While he's unlikely to ever approach 40 stolen bases again—he has just three in five attempts in 2014—he still runs well and covers a lot of ground in center field.
From 2008-2011, Kemp averaged 159 games per season. By the fourth season of that span, he had become one of the top players in the game. Two injury-plagued seasons later, he's finally becoming a fixture in the Dodgers lineup once more with 24 starts in 29 games since making his 2014 debut on April 4.
If Kemp is back at full strength, it could be only a matter of getting regular playing time once again before he can return to his MLB superstar form.
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