Back in 2011, there was no baseball player you would rather be than Matt Kemp. The then-26-year-old was living in Los Angeles, playing for one of the most storied franchises in the league. He had just finished second in the NL MVP voting, and he was dating Rihanna, a world renowned superstar. Life doesn’t get much better than that. A few injuries and two trades later, Kemp’s career turned upside down.
Kemp failed to reach the heights of that 2011 season again during his first stint with the Dodgers so they shipped him, and his $21.75 million salary, to the San Diego Padres. After a lackluster 2015, the Padres dumped him on the rebuilding Atlanta Braves, where Kemp played the worst baseball of his career (-0.5 WAR in 2017, according to FanGraphs). This offseason, Kemp got to return to where his career started when the Braves sent him back to the Dodgers in a swap of cumbersome contracts. For LA, that deal has proved to be a steal.
With more than a third of the season gone, Kemp leads the NL in batting (.345 average) and has added impressive .372 on-base and .554 slugging (seven home runs, 14 doubles) percentages. FanGraphs credits him with a 1.4 WAR already, which would be his best mark for an entire season since 2014. If he continues on this pace, Kemp could post his best numbers since that magical 2011 campaign (8.3 WAR).
How has Kemp pulled this off?
He is crushing everything. Of balls put in play, Kemp has hit 47.4 percent of them hard, the sixth-highest mark in baseball and the best of his career by quite some distance. Related to that, he is hitting the fewest ground balls of his career (36.1 percent of balls put in play) and the most line drives (26.3 percent).
Matt Kemp is raking like it’s 2011!
Of course, with a breakout like this, there are factors that indicate this performance may not be here to stay. His high hard contact rate has resulted in an astronomical .405 batting average on balls in play, the highest in the league and .065 above his career average. That is bound to fall back to earth and, with it, the rest of Kemp’s production.
Kemp needs to keep getting those hits to maintain his value. His plate discipline, while better than it was during his time in Atlanta, still leaves a bit to be desired. He has swung at 51.4 percent of all pitches, but he’s only making contact 71.5 percent of the time, his worst mark since 2014.
As a result, the outfielder is taking a walk in just 5.0 percent of at-bats, the lowest of his career and well below the 8.0 percent league average. If the hits dry up and Kemp continues to be a free swinger, then his value could fall through the floor.
The regression of Kemp is bound to happen, but his hot start has provided him with a safety net. If he could finish the season as a two- or three-win player, then the Dodgers will have gotten a much better hitter than they could have reasonably expected when the trade originally went down.
The 33-year-old has one more year remaining on his contract, and this Dodgers team is built to win now. If Kemp continues to produce, he may finally get that NL pennant, or even a World Series ring, that avoided him during his first stay in southern California years ago.