2012 Dodgers in Review #23: CF Matt Kemp

November 13, 2012 at 9:47 am | Posted in 2012 in Review, Matt Kemp | Leave a comment

.303/.367/.538 449pa 23hr 3.5 fWAR C-

2012 in brief: Was best player in baseball for first month before repeated injuries to hamstring and run-ins with outfield fences turned season into a disappointment.

2013 status: Will make $22m in first year of 8/$160m extension.

******

Here’s how highly we think of Matt Kemp: the man hit .303/.367/.538 and I still went back-and-forth on whether to give him a C- or a D+. Actually, that’s getting ahead of ourselves; before we get into where things went bad, let’s remember how great they were at the start of the season, when Kemp blew through April with 12 homers and a line of .417/.490/.893. It’s easy to forget now after everything that happened, but at the time, Kemp was so hot that when he didn’t crush a ball at the speed of light, it was almost a disappointment. (We were, as you can imagine, slightly spoiled.)

It was wonderful. It was amazing. It was unlike anything we’d seen before. For example, on April 14, my game recap of a 6-1 win over San Diego was merely three animated GIFs of Kemp (twice) and Andre Ethier hitting homers. By the 20th, barely two weeks into the season, it was already difficult to find new ways to say “Kemp is awesome”:

Honestly, it’s only April 20, and I feel like I’m already running out of things to say about Kemp. Oh, an opposite-field homer in his first at-bat, his 8th dinger of the year? Oh, getting on base in each of his four at-bats, with three hits and a walk? Oh, a line that’s still sitting at .481/.525/1.000? I’d like to share with you his position on the National League leaderboards – it’s Triple Crown city, in case you didn’t know – but it hardly seems fair, because that would imply that Kemp is actually playing in the same league as the rest of the mere mortals out there.

The next day, he did it again:

Matt Kemp is out-of-this-world, indescribably good. Ho hum, another homer, his ninth of the season. He’s not going to match Sammy Sosa‘s record of 20 homers in one month, set back in June 1998, if only because the Dodgers didn’t start their season until April 5. But the record for April homers, currently shared by Albert Pujols (2006) and Alex Rodriguez (2007), remains in reach at 14.

And then again a week later, in Bryce Harper‘s debut:

Jamey Wright set the Nats down without trouble in the top of the tenth, and that brought Matt Kemp to the plate. Kemp crushed a Gorzelanny pitch into center for the walkoff win, and what else can you really say about Kemp? (Other than, “why in the hell would the Nationals even pitch to him there?”) Harper’s debut brought the spotlight to this game, but Kemp reminded everyone that for all of the potential about what Harper might yet be in the future, the present belongs to Beast Mode.

…and once more on April 30:

I’m not sure if I can find a better way to describe Matt Kemp‘s absurd April than simply by saying this: in 2011, he had a fantastic season, one of the best offensive years in the long history of the Dodgers, a campaign which should have netted him the NL MVP even prior to any controversies around Ryan Braun. And yet despite everything he achieved last year, at no point did he even come close to having a month like the one he just completed to start off 2012.

Kemp didn’t quite reach the Pujols/Rodriguez April homer record, but his 12 did set a Dodger mark. Unfortunately, that April 30 homer would be the last we’d see for quite a while. Kemp didn’t go deep in May… or in June… or in July until the 12th inning of a game against the Phillies on July 18, ending a drought of more than two-and-a-half months.

We all know why, of course. Kemp slipped on a wet field in Chicago trying to get to a ball in center on May 5, and didn’t start the next day (though he did pinch-hit). Despite concern here and elsewhere about his condition, he started the next six games, contributing little, and finally was forced out of a game against Colorado on May 13:

The fun started in the bottom of the third when Matt Kemp, who had already driven in the first Dodger run on a groundout in the first, bounced out to Troy Tulowitzki but was noticeably limping while trying to beat the throw. He was removed from the game, throwing his glove at the dugout wall out of frustration, clearly still bothered by the sore left hamstring which he first injured last weekend in Chicago. Honestly, I wish he’d have received a day off before this.

Later that evening, we learned Elian Herrera was on his way to the Dodgers, though we didn’t yet know why. Two days later, after results of his MRI were back, Kemp was placed on the disabled list, where he clearly belonged. After serving the minimum stint on the disabled list, Kemp returned on May 29 and… well, look. You know as well as I do that he made just two starts before re-injuring himself and leaving in the second inning of the May 30 game. It’s been very popular since then to claim that he came back too soon, that the training staff should have made him wait. But is it really that clear? He played in several minor league rehab games, and he made it through his first game back without any problems. I’m not arguing conclusively either way here, just that it seems to me that due diligence was done in deciding when to bring him back. If anything, I think he was allowed to return too soon when he hurt it in the first place, but I can’t find anything on this blog that shows we thought he was coming off the DL too soon when he did.

This time, Kemp’s return wasn’t quick, costing him all of June and half of July before coming back to start the second half of the season. As I don’t need to remind you, that was the darkest time of the year. With Kemp out, Ethier slowed, and everyone else in various stages of health, Don Mattingly was regularly forced to trot out lineups with things like “Juan RiveraScott Van SlykeAdam Kennedy, #3-4-5!” Say what you will about Mattingly’s choices and the struggle of the revamped roster to produce after Ned Colletti’s shopping spree, I firmly believe that the single biggest reason the Dodgers came up short this year is that their best player missed about a third of the season. You think having a healthy Kemp in center rather than Tony Gwynn might have made a difference?

By the time Kemp returned, the Dodger lead in the NL West had shrunk from 5.5 games to a mere half-game. Kemp, however, picked up where he left off, hitting .324/.370/.488 over 41 games between July 13 and August 27, including a 17-game stretch to start August where he had hits in 16 games and hit .423/.468/.662 over that span. His absence seemed like a hiccup; with Hanley Ramirez & Adrian Gonzalez in town and Luis Cruz establishing himself, suddenly the Dodger lineup seemed primed to explode.

Now, if you’re saying that a “41 game period that ended on August 27” seems awfully arbitrary, you wouldn’t be wrong. But I’m also assuming that you know exactly why I chose that date, because August 28 is, well, when this happened:

Kemp sat out two games with what was initially termed as a sore knee & jaw, but he was clearly not the same, hitting a meager .214/.267/.420 over 120 plate appearances for the rest of the season. If there’s blame to be placed on the medical staff or manager it’s here, because while Kemp’s willingness to play through pain is commendable, putting him out there when absolutely anyone could see that he was injured wasn’t helping the team. (I will, however, accept the counter-point that it’s not like giving more playing time to Rivera would have really made for a larger contribution.)

Two days after the season ended, Kemp had surgery to repair a torn labrum and frayed rotator cuff in his left shoulder, a procedure that will prevent him from swinging a bat for about three months but shouldn’t cause him to miss the start of 2013. Will it limit his power, however? That remains to be seen, though we all remember what happened to Shawn Green. (Yes, that was something of a unique case, but still.)

Thus ends a season which could have been great, but just didn’t work out that way. Argue about the grade if you must; when healthy, in April and August, Kemp was even better than we could have hoped for. Yet for two-thirds of the season, he was either off the field due to injury or clearly limited by it. For a team which missed tying for the second wild card by a single game, nothing else in 2012 had quite as large of an impact.

******

Next up! Andre Ethier gets himself paid!

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