Three Things About Matt Kemp Which Are Not True

Think of Matt Kemp and you might have a few different ways to sum up his work to date. Athletic. Oft-injured. Unrefined. These aren’t bad words to use, even if they sometimes seem to be used too often with certain populations. Kemp strikes out a lot, doesn’t walk a lot, doesn’t have a good glove, but hits the ball hard and can run fast. And he’s hurt a lot. The question — after a bounce-back year in his age-29 season — is if these things are always true.

Because Kemp showed up in the top fifteen outfielders this past season, and it would be hard to project him to do anything close to the same again if all those things were true.

1) Matt Kemp Hits the Ball Hard
Only nine batters had a better average fly ball plus homer distance last year, when Kemp averaged 300.65 feet. Even in his down year, he hit the ball 284.77 feet, just about a foot shorter than Justin Upton in 2013. Over the last eight years, Kemp has averaged 299.8 feet on homers and flies. That’s really good — his career average would have been tied for 14th last year with Upton. He’s been fairly steady:

kempdistance

That said, dude’s 30 in 2015, and our research seems to suggest that batted ball distance just goes downhill. He led all of baseball with a 313.26 foot average in 2012, and that probably isn’t coming back. He’s had an isolated slugging percentage over .200 in four out of eight years, and did so last year, but the law of aging curves says he won’t in 2015.

2) Matt Kemp Is Unrefined.
There are plenty of ways to ‘prove’ this point. After all, his career strikeout rate is 23.7% and his career walk rate is 8.1%, and both of those numbers are worse than average.

But if you poke those numbers a bit, maybe the label doesn’t fit as well. For example, he’s reached on 31.3% of the pitches he’s seen outside the zone according to PITCHf/x. Doesn’t that seem like a lot? Doesn’t it seem like he has a hard time with the zone sometimes? The major league average reach rate last year was 30.1%. He’s not as much of a hacker as it may at first seem.

And really, there is evidence of a refined approach at the plate. For one, he lives in the middle of the field with his batted balls:

chart (38)chart (39)

As a right-handed hitter with a spray chart that shows line drives to all sectors, he’s not easy to defend. He hits the ball out to all fields with power. His career batting average on balls in play is .351. These things are related.

Yes, it’s an outlier stat. Only Joey Votto and Joe Mauer have as many plate appearances with a as nice a BABIP as Kemp’s. But, as Votto himself once said, spraying to all fields with power is the approach that nets the BABIP (“I chose not to make outs.“). If you use just his hard-hit data from Inside Edge, you get a .322 BABIP for Kemp last year, but that may undervalue his spray-hitting right-handed refined approach.

3) Matt Kemp is Injury-Prone.
He hasn’t had 600 plate appearances in three straight years now! In the last three years, he has injury notes for his left ankle, right ankle, left shoulder, right thigh, and left thigh, including microfracture surgery on an ankle and labrum surgery on a shoulder. This seems irrefutable, especially considering his age.

But maybe we shouldn’t overreact. Nothing predicts future injury like past injury, but it might be true that this link is stronger when it comes to pitchers. Rob Arthur took a look and devised a regression-based equation for predicting days missed for hitters. Using his formula, Kemp might be projected to miss about 15 days in 2015. I think the Dodgers — or his future team — would gladly take a full season minus two weeks from the slugger. Just don’t call him mercurial.

So of course there is some truth to the fact that Kemp is strong, unrefined, and injury-prone. He does hit the ball hard, he does strike out a bit too much, and he has missed time. But all three things take a strong dose of mitigation. Batted ball distance doesn’t age well, but he owns a great up-the-middle spray chart and recent health could make us more upbeat about his future. If your league full of sharps assumes that Kemp will once again crap out, he’ll probably make a smart play once the top 25 players are off the board.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Purple Drank
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Purple Drank

Kemp’s flyball distance really is expected to decline in 15,500. Probably because he’ll be around 13,500 years old or so.