Almost 11 months ago I did a blog post that generated as much hate mail as anything I’ve written at this address. Vile stuff. Unprintable. I posted eight comments, but another 20-plus I did not. Not because I didn’t like the criticism (I read them all), but because I didn’t feel like redacting the vulgarities.
Matt Kemp Is the Biggest Dodger Dolt, was the headline, and it was a comparatively mild (in my opinion) critique of the Dodgers’ center fielder, suggesting that he made more dumb mistakes than anyone on the team. Both on the bases and in the field.
That prompted outrage from the Matt Kemp Hugger Battalion, most of them the sort of sabermetric geeks who never let what they can see with their own eyes distract them from the dry, out-of-context statistics.
So, after tracking Matt Kemp’s modest performance this season, so far, from locales ranging from Paris to Italy to Abu Dhabi … I have to ask:
“How do you like Matt Kemp now?”
Back in April, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti already was wondering about Kemp’s play, in the wake of Kemp getting a two-year contract worth more than $11 million. Mind, this was during a period when Kemp was killing the ball.
On KABC radio, Ned said:
“The baserunning’s below average, the defense is below average. And, you know, why is it? ‘Cause he got a new deal? Can’t tell ya. But you know what? It’s below average. If this was the last day of the season and people were voting for the Gold Glove, his name’s not on the ballot. It’s a shame he’d go from where was a year ago to revert back to, ‘when the ball’s up in the air, we’re not sure where it’s going. Or if it’s going to get caught.’ And that’s not right.”
We move ahead to June, when Joe Torre benched Kemp for three games after Kemp did not respond, oh, positively, to criticism by Dodgers coach Bob Schaefer about not backing up second base in a game in New York. And note this line from Dylan Hernandez’s story in the Los Angeles Times: “The point Schaefer tried to make has been made repeatedly by Dodgers coaches who think (catcher Russell) Martin wouldn’t have seven errors if Kemp followed their instructions.”
Now we jump to early this month, when Larry Bowa (who, like Schaefer, has been in baseball longer than Kemp has been alive), told T.J. Simers: “The majority of our guys are tremendous people, but there’s a few, definitely a minority, but I would say the coaches want to win more than they do. We’ve got some people giving away at-bats …”
Bowa added: “I wish I had Matt Kemp’s tools because I would be in Cooperstown. He has so much athleticism. I don’t know if he knows what it’s like to go full bore for nine innings. He’s so talented, I don’t think his mind lets him ask, ‘Is there more here?’
“I have one question I’d like to ask him: ‘Are you dead tired when the game is over?’ My dad told me early on I should be exhausted after every game if I’ve done my batting practice, taken ground balls, backed up every play and gone all out. I wonder if he’s felt like that?”
Then we have Bill Plaschke reporting on Dave Stewart, Kemp’s agent, demanding to know why the club is picking on his poor, defenseless client and suggesting a trade might be the answer.
So, let’s review: We have the general manager and two highly respected, long-serving coaches all questioning/wondering about Matt Kemp’s approach to the game. And we have his agent suggesting Kemp may be willing to leave town rather than, say, work on improving himself.
We also have a guy who is dating a celebrity (the singer Rihanna), not that that sort of thing can be distracting, and who (my sources tell me) has a picture of Shannon Brown of the Lakers over his locker, reflecting his interest in the local NBA club. I suppose he could have up a photo of, oh, a ballplayer who played the game the way it ought to be played, but as my former colleague suggested, the photo lets us known “where he’d rather be.”
That is, court-side at Staples.
So, let’s look at his offense, which is where his love-is-blind supporters prefer to focus their attention: OBP of .315 (below the MLB average), 64 runs, 67 RBI (nothing wrong with that, but nothing great, either), 21 doubles, four triples, 19 homers. Again, nothing wrong with that, and good in the context of the Dodgers, but not “emerging superstar” stats, and retreats from his past two seasons. Maybe it’s because of that torrent of criticism?
Oh, and then there is the 14 caught-stealings vs the 16 times he has made it safely, which all Bill James-ian analysts must concede is an unacceptable/run-losing rate of swiping bags.
Back to my been-in-the-clubhouse source:
“The knock on Kemp is that he’s too easy-going … he doesn’t push himself … he makes the same kind of mistakes — like swinging at low, outside breaking balls for strike three the entire season (while on pace for a career-high 170 whiffs). … When Jeff Kent got [ticked] at the lackadaisical attitude of the younger guys on the team a few years ago, Kemp was probably exhibit No. 1. … Not a bad guy, just not much passion for winning, getting better, etc.
“I’ve also said he’s the worst fielding Gold Glover I’ve ever seen. He misjudges balls, and he’s had several plays where he sprints in the gap or to the wall, gets to a ball, reaches up and has it clank out of his glove — for a double or triple that true Gold Glovers like Torii Hunter, Jim Edmonds, etc., would hold onto. As I said, great athlete, not necessarily a great, instinctive baseball player. [One recent night] he slowed down scoring from second base on a single to center with two outs — just slow enough to have his run waved off because James Loney got thrown out by 10 feet trying to go from first to third.”
Summing up, my insider said: “The guy has zero baseball instincts.”
Matt Kemp probably is still the Dodgers’ best player. If not him, who is? Andre Ethier? Loney? Rafael Furcal? Kemp is worth keeping. Even if he can drive nearly to distraction anyone who played the game hard.
But I also believe it is fair — more than fair — to wonder whether this guy’s head is into the game, and whether he couldn’t be even better than he is by bringing a Derek Jeter-like intensity to the yard every day.
And I am at least a little bit proud that I raised these questions a year ago, when every stat geek was madly in love with the guy and wouldn’t countenance the slightest criticism.
Anyway, yeah, gotta wonder: How do you like him now?