Matt Kemp is on fire.
In the month of July he is leading the Majors with a .485 average (16-for-33) and a.583 OBP. The young center fielder has started to find his stride on the best team in the Majors.
Much has been made of manager Joe Torre’s choice to bat talented Matt Kemp in either the seventh or eighth spots in the order. On many other teams Kemp would surely be the third or fourth hitter. Maybe he would hit leadoff for some squads.
I’m here to tell you: things will work out just fine for young Matt.
Consider that when Willie Mays was 24-years old, the same age as Kemp is in 2009, he batted eighth in the New York Giants order. All he did that season was hit .319 with 51 home runs, 13 triples, 18 doubles, 127 RBI, and 24 stolen bases.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling Matt Kemp the next Willie Mays.
Kemp does have a unique skill set that enables him to do spectacular things on the field.
At 6’2”, 225 lbs., the one-time basketball recruit by the University of Oklahoma also used to play on an AAU-select hoops team with the Atlanta Hawks Sheldon Williams.
He has also quietly mounted two of the best seasons for a player age 24 or younger in the history of the game.
In 2007, Kemp played in 98 games and hit .342 with 10 home runs, 12 doubles, and 10 stolen bases.
That season he was also one of just five players age 22 or younger to play in at least 50% of his team’s games and hit .340 or better with at least 10 doubles, 10 home runs, and 10 stolen bases.
Of those four, A-Rod was the youngest to accomplish those numbers (age 20). And you can also see that Kemp, A-Rod, and Ponson are the only players to rack up those numbers in the expansion era (1961-present).
After that historical season in ’07, Kemp regressed as far as his average goes (.290) but maintained consistency in the rest of his game as he stole 35 bases, laced 38 doubles, and hit 18 home runs.
This season his average has bounced back up to .324 and he is on pace to hit 20 home runs, 11 triples, and 22 doubles while swiping 36 bases.
Additionally, he has played a near-Gold Glove centerfield in just his second full season at the Majors League level.
The main thing to remember with Kemp is that he is still developing his instincts on the diamond. Sometimes we can forget that he is continuing to learn the game in front of us. He is relatively new to centerfield, having started around 200 games out there, and needs a couple of years to polish what could be a Gold Glove caliber defense.
One of the main weaknesses in Kemp’s defensive game is that he struggles with balls his in front of him. This is one of the reasons he plays such a shallow centerfield because it allows him to avoid letting bloop hits fall in front of him.
He has proven that he has the speed to play a more shallow position, as evidenced by a play he made on Friday night when Kemp put an end to the Brewers 10th inning rally.
Jason Kendall cracked a long drive to centerfield off of closer Jonathan Broxton. Kemp was playing a shallow centerfield, as he always does, and had a long ways to go to run down the fly by Kendall.
Kemp made a good move by turning his entire body and running down the ball. A lot of times, players will run with their body half turned and it doesn’t allow them to gain ground on the ball. Kemp is athletic enough that he can fully turn and sprint under the ball.
An average outfielder usually has trouble locating the ball if he turns his back to the plate. Kemp, however, just had to take a peak over his shoulder and he corralled the ball with his back completely turned to home plate.
The catch stymied the Brewers attempt to overcome what started as a six-run Dodgers lead entering the inning.
And how did Los Angeles gain the four-run cushion that ensured them a win?
Kemp blasted a grand slam in the top of the 10th. It was his third grand slam of the season and it came on a low-curveball.
Kemp was able to keep his hands behind the ball and stay balanced long enough to muscle the ball high above the left center field wall into the second deck of bleachers. The old Matt Kemp most likely would have swing and missed at that pitch but recently Kemp has been on a tear because of his newfound patience.
Since Jun. 13 Kemp has been absolutely on fire. In 24 games over that stretch he is hitting .374 with four home runs, three triples, 17 RBI, and six stolen bases. Maybe the most impressive statistic is that his OBP is .437 over that time.
Normally a strikeout danger, Kemp has developed better eye at the plate. He has struck out just 16 times in those 24 games while accumulating 11 walks. That patience has translated into more hits to the opposite field because Kemp now stays behind the ball.
So back to the issue of Kemp hitting lower in the order. I maintain that he is better suited at this point in his career to hit in the seventh or eighth spots. This has a two-fold effect.
First, Kemp can help the team by providing a strong bat to turn over the order.
Secondly, it keeps unnecessary pressure off of the young star. Veterans Manny Ramirez and Casey Blake are fully capable of holding down the middle of the order and they don’t need to bump Kemp up just because he is hitting so well.
Check out his splits for different positions in the order.
It is clear from those splits that Kemp is more comfortable lower in the order.
Now I’m not saying that he should be stuck in the lower third of the order for the entirety of his career. I certainly believe that as Kemp develops more confidence at the plate and becomes the centerpiece of this offense in the coming years, he will become one of the premier three-hitters in the league.
The power potential, ability to drive the ball to all fields, and the speed he brings on the base paths could make Kemp an even more feared hitter as his career progresses and he becomes more of a complete player.
When the time is right Kemp will be able to properly handle the burden of carrying a team on his own. But that time isn’t now and Kemp is better off in the seventh or eighth position.
Apparently, the fans of Major League Baseball haven’t keyed into Matt’s success. He finished fourth in the All-Star game Final Vote competition on MLB.com.
But All-Star or not, fans in Dodgertown know that Kemp is an important part of the Dodgers first-half success and he could be the cornerstone of a young Dodgers core that will be exciting to watch for years to come.