In lost season for Dodgers, Kemp's superb play shines through
Los Angeles is mired in fourth place and has been beset by off-field scandals
Matt Kemp is in the top 10 in the league in virtually every offensive category
Last year, Kemp was criticized by his organization for not always playing hard
The narrative for the once-proud Los Angeles Dodgers franchise has been hijacked this season by a series of ugly headlines: a bankruptcy proceeding that is part of the ongoing mess surrounding owner Frank McCourt; the beating of a Giants fan on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium; a drop in average home attendance by more than 7,000 fans per game; and a 42-54 record that has left them in fourth place in the NL West and headed toward their worst mark in almost 20 years.
There has been one consistent bright spot for the downtrodden Dodgers, however, and it has been a significant one: The play of their 6'4", 26-year-old centerfielder, Matt Kemp, who last week started his first All-Star Game thanks to a late and well-deserved surge of support in the fan voting. Through July 18, Kemp ranks second in the National League in home runs (24) and slugging percentage (.588), third in RBIs (72) and stolen bases (27) and in the top 10 in hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage and walks while playing in each of L.A.'s first 96 games. At his current pace, Kemp would finish with 41 home runs and 46 stolen bases, which would make him just the fifth 40-40 player in baseball history.
SHEEHAN: Numbers reflect Kemp's maturation
"He's unbelievable," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said recently of Kemp, the day after Kemp had hit a ball so hard -- 449 feet to dead center -- that he made Minnesota's Target Field, for an instant, seem like a hitters' park. "You see him go get balls, you see him run the bases, that's an athlete, and there's no doubt about it. There's some good athletes out there, but right now, I don't think there's anybody that you'd rather have. He's stealing bags, hitting for power hitting for average, doing the whole thing. Right now, there's nobody better."
In a half season of work, Kemp has pulled off what has proven to be impossible for so many young baseball players -- and athletes, generally -- who possess his obvious and all-encompassing physical gifts: He has entirely shifted the story about him from what he could and should be doing, to what he is doing. Kemp's athletic ability is, quite simply, world class. "Strap some pads on him, he could be a Pro Bowl wide receiver or something," says Dodgers veteran Casey Blake. Says their rookie shortstop, Dee Gordon: "It's kind of like watching LeBron on the baseball field. That's the kind of athlete he is."
Last season, however, Kemp was faced with a problem with which LeBron James has become awfully familiar: very good was nowhere near good enough. "It was one of those years that was not working out the way it should have worked out," Kemp says, even though "not working out" included a career-high 28 home runs, 89 RBI's and 19 steals, all of which ranked him first or second on the Dodgers. But his OPS dropped from a sterling .842 to a middling .760, his strikeouts jumped from 139 to 170, and he was gunned down on 45 percent of his stolen base attempts, after having been caught only 19 percent of the time the year before.
There are two schools of thought as to what happened to Kemp last year. One is expressed by Brad Ausmus, the veteran catcher who retired as a Dodger this past winter: It was simply a matter of growing pains. "There was such a bright spotlight shined on him after 2009 that I think anything less than 2009 would have been a disappointment," Ausmus says. "Sometimes it's just the nature of the game, you have a year that's not as good as the player you are. Matt Kemp didn't perform up to expectations that might have been slightly un-meetable anyway."
The other school is perhaps the more prevalent one: that his effort was lacking (something he was accused of, at various points, by GM Ned Colletti and then coaches Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa), and that he had committed the cardinal sin of allowing his off-the-field life, one that included a nearly year-long relationship with the pop star Rihanna, to distract him from his play. "He showed up every day, and he's going to play every day, but in playing the game last year you didn't see the type of monster you see on the base paths this year," says Blake, one of Kemp's best friends on the Dodgers. "Taking that extra base, running the bases hard, running out every fly ball, playing defense hard, making good throws."
"You have to be incredibly focused to hit -- this is not an easy skill," says Dodgers hitting coach Jeff Pentland. "When you've got distractions in your mind and you're not completely clean of those things, to not be able to put 100 percent concentration on what he's doing in the batter's box, it's just incredibly difficult. Nobody passes that test."
A relationship with a woman who has had the great honor of appearing on the Maxim Hot 100 list for five years running might be a distraction to anyone, but Kemp, as could be expected, bridles at the suggestion that Rihanna Yoko'd him. "It's easy to say, 'His off the field stuff was affecting him on the field'," he says. "It's the only excuse they had."
Whatever the case, nobody has had any cause to make excuses for Kemp this year. "People see things differently as the years go on in their lives, and as they get older and as they experience different things, I think they find the spot where they can be comfortable -- and in his case, to be comfortable and successful," says a pleased Colletti. Says Casey Blake, "You see a more complete baseball player this year, a guy that has something to prove."
Kemp, in fact, is now better than a more complete baseball player. He is nothing short of the most complete player in the game, and, in a sport whose participants fill reporters' notebooks with clichés about how perfection is impossible to achieve, he is likely as close to it as anyone else. There are still, he eagerly admits, a number of ways in which he can improve, the first being his play in the outfield: He currently ranks second to last among centerfielders in the advanced fielding metric Ultimate Zone Rating, according to the website fangraphs.com. "I still got a lot of work to do," Kemp says. "I still think I can get better defensively, be more consistent, get better jumps, better reads. And as a hitter, you can always get better."
"I just want him to get the most out of his ability," says Mattingly. "That's my job, same as with every guy in here. To get this guy to play as hard as he can play, get the absolute most out of his ability. I want him to max out. Where his ceiling is, who knows? As long as he's reaching for it."
Whether Kemp ever stopped reaching for it last season matters little. Even as the Dodgers, in many ways, crumble around him, he is reaching for it now.
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