Is it possible for a player to be one of the consensus top five players in his league and still be underrated?
If that player is Matt Kemp, then the answer is an unequivocal Yes.
You see, Kemp was in the middle of a bad season; he was getting caught stealing way to much (15 times in 34 attempts), his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage were all on the decline, and he was not scoring, driving in or creating as many runs as he had in the most recent previous seasons.
And, for the most part, I will stand behind those assertions.
The mistake I made, though, was assuming that these aspects of Kemp's season reflected who he was as a player rather than simply reflecting a bad season. And on that note, I was wildly incorrect.
Because in 2011, Matt Kemp is back, with a vengeance.
So far in 2011, through 111 games, Kemp is setting full-season career highs in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, which necessarily means OPS and OPS+ as well. After hitting 25 doubles in each of the last two seasons, Kemp already has 23 doubles this year. He has already topped last season's total of 19 stolen bases by stealing 28, and he has only been caught four times.
Kemp also has 26 home runs. Let's put that in perspective: last season, he had 28 dongs in 162 games, and the year before he had 26 dongs in 159 games. This year's pace, so far, is well ahead his career best pace, and him on course to top 40 for the first time in his career; not bad for a guy who has never hit 30.
Kemp also leads the NL in total bases, with 235, and (for those who care), he is going to run away with the league lead in WAR, which measures a player's overall value.
He is, truly, having an amazing season, and at only 26, there is no reason not to believe that Kemp's prime may just be getting going.
So . . . .
How can Matt Kemp be underrated even as he establishes himself as one of the dominant players in the National League?
The answer is a simple, two word answer: Dodger Stadium.
There are certain stadiums in Major League Baseball which suffer from a presumption of skepticism, stadiums which are so decidedly pitcher-friendly or hitter-friendly that we must look at a player's home/road splits to verify the validity of their performance.
For example, if a player enjoys a monster offensive season playing at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Coors Field or Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, chances are there is a home-field explanation.
By the same token, if a hitter has a down season at Petco Park, Safeco Field, Citi Field or Dodger Stadium, chances are he was swimming upstream and walking in mud for most of the season.
Knowing that Matt Kemp plays his home games at Dodger Stadium we must naturally suspect that his numbers are being suppressed, even despite the amazing year he is having.
So, let's take a look at Kemp's home/road splits so far this year (care of baseballreference.com):
The evidence, as they say, speaks for itself.
So far in 2011, Kemp is hitting 34 points higher on the road than he is at home. His on-base percentage is over .400 on the road, and his slugging percentage is over 600 on the road. His OPS is nearly 200 points higher on the road (1.070) than it is at home (.892), which is quite literally almost unheard of.
And, of course, Kemp has three more doubles and four more home runs away from Dodger Stadium, in seven fewer games and 16 fewer plate appearances.
Put quite simply, in 2011 Matt Kemp has been one of the best players in the National League despite playing his home games in Dodger Stadium.
In all likelihood, Matt Kemp is a far better player than his 2011 stats, as good as they are, make him out to be.
And oh by the way, Kemp's current contract is up after this season, but he has one more year of arbitration eligibility left before hitting free agency in 2013. This means that, with Kemp's true value being under-represented and with him being captive for another season, this would be an excellent time for the Dodgers to ink him to a comparatively cheap, comparatively short-term deal.
If Matt Kemp would re-sign, right now, for something in the three years, $30-40 million range, it would be an absolute steal.
And if some other team, perhaps one in a hitter-neutral or hitter-friendly park, could trade for him and get him to sign a similar deal, well, the windfall would be unbelievable.
You heard it hear first.