2018’s Starpowered Season
Here we sit on the 3rd of July, just two weeks before Major League Baseball’s All-Star game. The league is littered with as many stars as many of us have ever seen. Elite players like Mike Trout and Max Scherzer continue to amaze and inexplicably get better and better. Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor make a better case each and every day to the best left-side-infield combo of this generation. Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are absolutely assaulting baseballs in Boston. Luis Severino may have emerged as the best pitcher in the American League, a league which features Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, and Corey Kluber.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg with Aaron Judge, Freddie Freeman, Jacob deGrom, Andrelton Simmons, Jose Altuve, Scooter Gennett, Manny Machado, Trevor Bauer, Aaron Nola, James Paxton, Patrick Corbin, Javier Baez, Brandon Crawford, and countless others all having spectacular seasons in 2018. The player that is one of the more interesting stories of the 2018 season, however, was someone not expected to make anyone’s opening day roster.
Not everyone expected the breakouts of Jose Ramirez, Eddie Rosario, or Trevor Bauer, but they were all expected to be important parts of their team. This was a player that nearly everyone thought would not be an important part of any MLB team in 2018. This same player that was traded for the third time in three years, some expected to be traded before opening day or even DFAed. He also has gone on to hit .323/.359/.565 with a 150 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR in 281 PA this season. This player is Matt Kemp, and he has looked like the star he used to be.
Kemp’s 2018 Season
As everyone has known for years, Matt Kemp’s bread and butter has been his bat. From 2015-2017, Kemp hit slightly above average at .269/.310/.470 and a 107 wRC+. This would have been fine if he was an above average fielder. However, likely being the worst fielder in the MLB, Kemp’s value was minimal having combined for just 1.4 fWAR over those three seasons. He was also a very inconsistent hitter in that time, having produced nine months of 130 or high wRC+, while also having five dreadful months of 70 or lower wRC+.
For the 2018 season, Kemp has managed to avoid any overly long bad stretches en route to his excellent .323/.359/.565 150 wRC+ line. In April he hit .319/.359/.542 with a 145 wRC+ in 78 PA. In May he upped his game hitting .361/.379/.557 with a 154 wRC+ in 103 PA. Kemp even started off the first half of June on fire hitting .326/.396/.696 and a 188 wRC+ in 53 PA. What followed was 38 PA of pure torture hitting .083/.132/.167 with a -19 wRC+ in 38 PA, bringing his overall month to .220/.286/.463 with a 100 wRC+ in 91 PA. Overall his month of June was not bad, but could have been much more with how molten-lava-hot he started.
For July it’s only been two games, but Kemp has been a triple short of the cycle in the first game and followed that with a 5-5 effort the next night, rebounding quite nicely from his late June-swoon.
While Kemp is nowhere near Trout or Betts atop the wRC+ leaderboards on Fangraphs, he sits comfortably in 12th with that shining 150 wRC+. This puts him around names like Manny Machado (151), Nelson Cruz (153), Freddie Freeman (150), Jose Altuve (148), and above many other established names.
Of course, this is not the first time Kemp has been one of the top hitters in the league heading into the summer. In fact, on June 1st of last year, Kemp was in the same exact 12th spot on the wRC+ leaderboard when I wrote an article advocating for some American League teams to trade for him. From 6/2 through the rest of the season, Kemp was one of the bottom hitters in all of the MLB hitting .232/.277/.371 with a 64 wRC+, good for 24th worst of 345 hitters with at least 140 PA. Which is to say, as good as things are looking, the bottom can always drop out.
However, that was at the start of June in 2017, rather than the start of July in 2018. Factors for Kemp were different in the middle of last season:
- Kemp fought injuries during the middle of the 2017 season and put on a lot of weight
- The Braves were an up and coming team, but not yet ready to contend. There was less to fight for with Kemp on the young Braves than Kemp on a team that won last year’s NL Pennant
- Kemp had not seen that no team in baseball outside of the Dodgers were even willing to trade for him, and without good effort, his career could have been over
No one can know whether Kemp will continue to hit at this level, but he’s got more motivation now than in years.
One of the most well-known things about Matt Kemp over the last few years is how terrible of a defender he is in the outfield. At one point, Kemp played a solid centerfield, even winning Gold Gloves in both 2009 and 2011. Of course, this was likely more for recognition for his bat than truly being a great defender.
Thanks to a glutton of injuries in 2012 and 2013, Kemp’s defense took a massive hit. From 2014-2017, no outfielder in Major League Baseball had a worse UZR. Kemp’s -46.4 was even so awful that Andrew McCutchen’s second-worst effort was miles ahead at -27.0. Although Kemp still ranked just 58 out of 61 qualified outfielders from 2008-2013, if you take out the outlier of his lost 2010 season of a startling -25.8 UZR, that brings him to a much more respectable -9.8 UZR and 46th overall, a bit below average. Kemp was never consistent enough to truly be a good fielding outfielder, but it was not until injury after injury that he became what he’s been known for recently.
Looking at 2018, something seems to have changed. Kemp is no longer at the bottom of the pile, currently sitting at -1.1 UZR scoring 44th out of 65 qualified outfielders. There are many factors that could be causing this, such as better positioning by Dodgers coaches, a better motivation to succeed, losing 40 pounds before the season, or perhaps just finally being overall healthy. Whatever it is, for the first time in years Kemp’s overall value is not being dragged down by his fielding, giving him an fWAR around 2.0, something he has not eclipsed since his last season with the Dodgers in 2014.
Matt Kemp 2018 All-Star
Although it may be hard to believe, Matt Kemp has not been an all-star since the 2012 season. Even harder to believe is that Kemp’s only other All-Star Game appearance was his prior season in 2011 where he finished second in MVP voting. Even considering his defense, with his overall career numbers (.287/.339/.491 274 HR 975 RBI 183 SB), it’s easy to think he could have snuck in another time here or there. That looks to be changing this season, however.
As of the last All-Star voting update, Kemp currently sits second in voting at 2,046,534 votes, around 400,000 behind first place Nick Markakis, 220,000 ahead of Bryce Harper, and nearly 700,000 above Charlie Blackmon. At this point, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that Kemp will not only make the team, but that he will start the game in left field. Deservingly so, Dave Roberts choosing the lineup or not.
Before the start of the season, the idea of Matt Kemp making the All-Star team was non-existent, let alone starting the game. The idea of him even starting the season with the Dodgers was laughable to most people. Kemp was never going to regain the hitting ability that once made him a star. He was never going to stay healthy even if he did. Most certainly he was never going to be anything less than a punchline with his glove in the outfield.
Despite all of that, here we are. It is the beginning of July, over halfway through the 2018 MLB season, and Matt Kemp is playing like an MVP candidate and will be an All-Star. Of all of the brilliant stories in the 2018 season, very few of them may be better than the story of Matt Kemp’s redemption and return to star status.