As Ken Gurnick reports, the Dodgers and Matt Kemp don’t seem all that close on the concept of an extension. In the article, Kemp’s agent Dave Stewart (yeah, that one), told Gurnick that Kemp has an early record similar to those of Carlos Beltran and Andruw Jones. The Jones comp works, but it’s not perfect; Andruw hit a major wall in his age-24 season (94 OPS+), while Kemp exploded with a 129. Jones’ age-23 season, though, is a legit reference. His slash stats that season: .303/.366/.541. Kemp’s, at 24: .297/.354/.490. The difference isn’t as stark as it seems–those seasons each resulted in a 125 OPS+. 23-year-old Andruw Jones and 24-year-old Matt Kemp were darn near the same player.
Stewart’s clearly been doing his research (or listening to the right people), as the Beltran comparison is right on as well. His age-24 campaign: .306/.352/.514, good for a 122 OPS+. And I’ll throw in another that Stewart didn’t note (but really ought to, as his first long-term contract would likely serve as the touchstone for a Kemp extension): Nick Markakis. At 24, he posted a .306/.406/.491 line for the Orioles (136 OPS+). UZR /150 suggests Markakis was better in right field (11.2) than Kemp was in center (3.1). Overall, Fangraphs has age-24 Markakis as 1.3 wins better than age-24 Kemp, 6.3 to 5.0. Age-24 Markakis was one of the best young outfielders the game has seen in recent years.
So what’s it mean for Kemp going forward? Well, Andruw Jones followed his pedestrian age-24 year with six seasons ranging from ‘very good’ to ‘outstanding.’ Then, as you know, he bottomed out, and hasn’t been the same player since. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we get an age correction on him at some point. I don’t like him as a comparable for Kemp, and it’s not just the strange “early” decline. He had old player batting skills, even as a youngster. His walk rate bounced all over the place, but he always hit for power (just one pre-”30″ season with an ISO of less than .200). His BABIP never exceeded .313, which is odd for a “fast” player. Kemp’s career BABIP: .366. Clearly, they’re just different sorts of hitters.
Same problem with Markakis. His age-24 walk rate spiked to 14.3 percent, nearly doubling Kemp’s 7.9 percent at the same age. Something was up with Markakis that year–check out his walk rates by season: 8.1, 8.7, 14.3, 8.0. We like to look at plate discipline as a stable indicator of a player’s talent, but what in the world is going on here? I’m uncomfortable calling Markakis Kemp’s best comparable because of how fluky his age-24 season seems. His ISO’s never been higher than .185, and that magical 2008 season is just out of line with everything else we see from him. His 2009 numbers mesh perfectly with his ’06 and ’07 lines, and I’m inclined to think that he’ll be better than he was last season. Still, though, he might never hit better than he did in ’08. I don’t like him as a Kemp comp, because Kemp’s trends are stabler.
Which brings us to Beltran. Going into his age-24 season, Beltran had logged about 1200 major league plate appearances. 1199, to be exact. Kemp? 1134. Walk rates at 24: 7.8 percent to 7.9 percent. ISO: .207 to .193. Obviously, singling out individual statistics is always a flawed approach, but my point is that they were very similar at 24. I believe that Beltran’s trends are more in line with Kemp’s performance and skillset than Jones’ and Markakis’. Improving plate discipline, developing power, potent running game. No comparison is perfect, and we shouldn’t look at Beltran’s career arc and assume that’s how things will go for Kemp. But it’s a start. Beginning with his age-24 season, Beltran was a complete monster. He had a fluky down year in 2005, but it’s a blip. Dude’s a Hall of Famer if he can stay on the field. We could see this coming way back in his early Royals days.
The two have something else in common, as well: both were superstars by 24, though neither was recognized appropriately. Beltran played for one of the worst franchises in sports, and Kemp got caught in an extraordinarily stupid story line: the kids versus the vets in the Dodgers’ locker room. He’s still regarded as a raw-yet-tantalizing talent, but the numbers say he’s moved beyond that. He’s a star. Now, not soon. Kemp has been a better young player than Beltran–their age-24 seasons were remarkably similar, but Kemp’s prior performance vastly exceeds Beltran’s. We’re talking about a transcendent talent, one you’ll want to say you saw play when he was just a colt.