The case against Matt Kemp

Ever since Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp was called up to the major leagues in 2006, I’ve enjoyed a love/hate relationship with this player. I became one of the first in fantasy leagues to pick him up. A few weeks later, during that 2006 season, I became one of the first to drop him.

Two years later in 2008, Kemp started to show more consistency at the plate and earned regular at-bats. I traded for him and he was unbelievably productive for my team. In the midst of a championship run, however, I decided to cash him in by trading his keeper value for a bevy of superstars who helped me win a title.

At the time, I had Alex Rios on my team and noted the amazing similarity in the statistical profile of Kemp and Rios. Last year, Kemp had 18 HR, 35 SB, 93 R, 76 RBI, and a .290 BA. Meanwhile, Rios had 15 HR, 32 SB, 91 R, 79 RBI, and a .291 BA. The two were virtual clones.

This season, Kemp has taken a monumental leap forward whereas Rios has totally lost the good will of the fantasy community.

The Dodgers outfielder is approaching a 25-35 season with a batting average over .300. He’s been tremendously valuable, and fantasy pundits from Ron Shandler to RayGu have started to hype him as a viable top-five player overall going into the 2010 season.

Not so fast, I say.

I believe there are several reasons to still be slightly cautious about Kemp going forward. Obviously, Kemp is still young (he’s turning 25 next week so happy birthday, Matt) and has the ability to improve—a factor that no doubt counts in his favor. Yet, I see Kemp as being the type of player who carries far more risk than many people acknowledge.

Strikeouts/Batting Average: This season to date, Kemp has struck out 126 times and walked 48 times in 593 plate appearances. His strikeout rate (23.4%) is very high and his walk rate (8.2%) is below average. With a .305 BA, it’s evident that he’s getting quite lucky on balls in play (.362). Throughout his career, Kemp has maintained a high BABIP and according to the xBABIP calculator, he’s due a .337 xBABIP. Still, that’s 25 points of good luck in the average department. How would Kemp look if he only sported an average in the .270/.280 range?

Troubles versus right-handed pitchers: Kemp has some of the most noticeable handedness splits in all of baseball. One of the major factors behind his success this season has been utter domination of left-handed pitchers. He’s hitting .381/.451/.669 versus lefties compared to just .283/.335/.452 against righties. A closer look at the splits reveals a very good batting eye versus left-handers (16 strikeouts to 15 walks) and a horrible batting eye versus right-handers (110 strikeouts to 33 walks). His splits suggest room for some regression downward against righties, unfortunately. Opposing managers would also be wise to either avoid pitching left-handers against him or, when they do, walk him intentionally. After all, Kemp rarely steals when a left-handed pitcher is on the mound.

Power: Kemp hit 18 HR last year. Currently, he’s got 23 and counting. Many scouts projected he’d have 40 HR upside and the growth trends are encouraging. Still, his Isolated Power percentage is only .195—the territory of Hunter Pence, Mike Cameron, and Marlon Byrd. Furthermore, as long as he remains a member of the LA Dodgers, he’ll have to battle the power valley that is Dodger Stadium, particularly unkind to right-handed sluggers.

Speed: As mentioned above, Kemp is on a path toward surpassing 35 SB this season, an extraordinary achievement for a player who is 6-foot-3 and approximately 225 pounds. Players measuring those dimensions aren’t typically speed demons and when they do surpass 30 SB, as Alex Rodriguez did in 1998, it tends to be followed by a few years of more moderate steals production. In 2006, Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein wrote this about the then-prospect outfielder: “At 230 pounds, Kemp’s plus speed could dissipate quickly.” Reportedly, Kemp showed up to spring training this year in excellent condition, and his success rate on the base-paths this year (81%) show no cause for concern, yet we’ve likely seen the best from Kemp in the steals department.

Positional scarcity: People will disagree about the level of depth next year at outfielder, but in my mind, it’s pretty deep. For instance, take PECOTA’s No. 1 most comparable player to Matt Kemp—Hunter Pence. He won’t go in the top seven rounds, in all probability. With batting average regression and less speed, Kemp could easily fall back into Hunter Pence/Alex Rios/Corey Hart territory. These players will carry about as much upside but a lot less risk thanks to depressed valuations. Kemp, on the other hand, has become a fantasy darling and that could be reason to stay away.

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13 years ago

I traded for Kemp in a keeper league, I can keep 2, already have reyes and pujols, but i debated keeping kemp over reyes.  I leaned more toward reyes, and this article helped me decide to keep reyes.  Thanks!

Jay Wallace
13 years ago

I could not disagree more.  Matt Kemp is one of the best young players in the game and his ability to drive the ball, steal bases and play outstanding defense in the field make him one of the best keepers around. 

Unfortunately for Kemp the Dodgers have placed Kemp deep in the batting order, often around 6th, 7th or 8th, although he’s been moved up in the line-up as of late.

Don’t forget that Kemp was regarded more as a basketball player coming up through high school and his transition to baseball full-time happened later than most.

In the final analysis, Kemp is not Pujols or Hanley Ramirez, but after those two his name has to come up in the conversation and that says a lot.

13 years ago

Kemp has the highest career BABIP among players with at least 1000 ABs. That is not luck; that is skill. Some guys just have a knack for hitting the ball hard.

The first round is all about playing it safe, and now we know that Kemp is a very reliable player. There are not too many bankable 20/20 players in the game today, and Kemp has a ton of upside beyond that.

I couldn’t take Kemp over Pujols, Hanley, Utley, and A-Rod. After that, though, Kemp is most certainly in the discussion.

13 years ago

“Players measuring those dimensions aren’t typically speed demons and when they do surpass 30 SB, as Alex Rodriguez did in 1998, it tends to be followed by a few years of more moderate steals production.”

Is there really any evidence of this other than Alex Rodriguez? Any player stealing over 30 bases might “tend to be followed by a few years of more moderate steals production” simply because that’s a lot of steals.

Did you actually compare players of different sizes having stolen 30’ish bases and then see how they followed up in subsequent years?

13 years ago

Eriq-nice job making the case against Kemp…all noteworthy. Couple things that lead me to my conclusion is 1. watching him everyday, he has become a much better hitter at the plate, and 2. most of his stats this year were accumulated batting in the lower part of the Dodgers batting order. I don’t see that continuing in 2010.

Should he bat either 2nd or in the middle of the Dodgers lineup, he will steal just as much in my opinion.

I think we will see more power from Kemp should he bat in the middle of the Dodgers order as well.

13 years ago

Phil-why keep Reyes when we don’t know if he will run like used to when he returns? Reyes value in keeper leagues lies with his SBs, and we don’t know how healthy he will be next year, and if he is healthy, how much he will run.

13 years ago

couple other points for Kemp:
-he is K/AB% is lower than last year
-his BB/AB% is higher than last year
-he is hitting more fly balls and line drives this year
-his HR/FB ratio is higher this year than last
-Hanley Ramirez BABIP is .401-will that continue?

These stats tell me he has improved at the plate, and we should see more power from him in the future.

Alireza A.
13 years ago

Kemp has the same BABIP as last year.  The difference is that he has cut his K rate and upped his BB rate.  His swing has also evolved, to the point that it now resembles a left-handed swing from the right side.  This allows him to make mid-swing adjustments better than he ever did before. 

As for the speed thing, the comparison to A-Rod is ridiculous.  Kemp is among the fastest players in baseball.  He is also has a more athletic build than a guy like A-Rod.  He also now sits around 225, which is a very healthy weight for his frame.

13 years ago

Given injuries and/or poor performances by many other star players (Reyes, Sizemore, Wright, Soriano, Beltran, Mr. Met, Rollins), I think it’s hard to justify keeping Kemp out of a Top 10.

13 years ago

raygu(and others) – OF’s are more plentiful, however i think steals will be available at SS in the form of Andrus and Everth Cabrera, so I will wait to see how reyes does next spring b/f deciding.  What do others think?  2 keeper, 5 x 5 OPS instead of AVG league, 10 team – do i keep reyes or kemp?  thanks for the help all

13 years ago

Phil-you have less risk with Kemp than Reyes, plus you get a possible 30 HR season from Kemp.

13 years ago

Phil—When do you have to make that keeper decision? Any chance you can watch how Jose Reyes performs in spring training next year?…

I acknowledged in the article that Kemp has traditionally had a very high BABIP. Certainly, we can expect it to continue. But can we expect him to maintain a .360 BABIP?…

I wonder if Kemp was hit low in the order this year partly due to struggles against right-handed pitching. But just keep in mind that if there is a weakness in Kemp’s game, managers are going to figure out how to exploit it or work around his strengths. Why, for instance, would any left-handed pitcher NOT walk Kemp at this point?…

Kemp has marginally improved his K and BB rates and he’ll need to continue that improvement. Otherwise, he’s going to be prone to slumps and disappointing stretches. But he’s still young, no doubt. He’s capable…

Overall, this article was just a roundup of some of the risk factors. I tend to be overly risk-adverse and overly attentive to positional scarcity. Others may be more attracted to upside. Just wanted to bring attention to some yellow lights in Kemp’s player profile because I felt they had been kind of glossed over in the overall enthusiasm on his breakout season this year.

Damasio Rodrigues
13 years ago

Matt Kemp is one of the best young players in the game and his ability to drive the ball, steal bases and play outstanding defense in the field make him a lock to be a superstar in the next 10 years but that doesn’t mean he’s such a great fantasy pick next year.

he can either evolve and become a true monster or most likely regress a little bit as everyone in the league will be cautious against him and managers will show him only RHP or IBB.