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.