My enduring memory of Matt Kemp is this game, May 29, 2006. I was in the stands, I had never heard of him before, and it was literally just his second game in the majors, and he absolutely destroyed us: batting fifth and playing left field, he went 2-for-3 with a walk, a stolen base, two singles, a sacrifice fly, two RBI, and three runs. We could not get that guy out. He then proceeded to become one of the better players in the league. From 2007 to 2011, he was a fantasy monster, averaging 24 homers and 28 stolen bases a year, with a .296/.353/.499 that was especially nice when you remembered that he played half his games in Chavez Ravine.
He was 26 years old, and it was all downhill from there.
In 2012, 2013, and 2014, Kemp made six separate visits to the disabled list, three of those credited to hamstring troubles. He started stealing fewer bases, hitting fewer triples, and taking the extra base less often. XBT%, or extra bases taken percentage, is a stat on baseball-reference that tracks the percentage of times a runner takes more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double, whenever possible. In other words, the opposite of station-to-station running. From 2006 to 2011, Kemp’s XBT% was 54%; from 2012 to 2016, it’s 44%.
Or, to put it another way, Fangraphs tracks a stat called UBR, “Ultimate Base Running,” a stat created by Mitchel Lichtman to approximate UZR for baserunning. From 2006 to 2011, Kemp had an 11.4 UBR. From 2012 to 2016, it is 0.2. The wheels have, quite literally, fallen off.
Never a terrific fielder and badly out of place in center field, where he won two inexplicable Gold Gloves in 2009 and 2011, the much slower Bison is basically a statue with a decent arm. His walk rate, still quite decent at 8.7% as recently as 2014, has fallen off a cliff in San Diego, to 6.0% last year and now just 3.9% in 2016. That, combined with the fact that his BABIP this year is nearly 60 points lower than his career mark of .341, accounts for why his OBP is a putrid .284, and why a player with 23 homers in 101 games is still barely better than replacement-level.
Of course, he’s probably pressing: he was literally signed to try to help the Padres make an improbable playoff run last year, and when that plan predictably went pear-shaped, it can’t have been easy on him. No one likes to be the goat of a strategy, particularly not someone who just a couple of years earlier was a legitimate Hollywood star.
He used to date Rihanna, but now he hardly ever looks good when he winds up pon de replay.
That said, as badly as his skills have eroded, he has one skill left: right-handed power. His career ISO is over .200. Since Chipper Jones retired, the only right-handed Braves hitters to have an ISO over .200 in a full season were Evan Gattis and Justin Upton in both 2013 and 2014. As a team, the 2016 Braves have 66 homers, 22 homers fewer than the 29th-place Marlins; Kemp has 23 homers in 101 games this year, more than a third of his new team’s total. He can’t really run, and he can’t really field, and he can’t really get on base, but he sure can poke it.
So, that’s good. Now, here’s what’s bad: Matt Kemp is signed through 2019. He is owed $21.5 million a year for the next three years, a total of $64.5 million. The Padres are sending the Braves $10.5 million, so Kemp’s contract for the next three years is $54 million, basically $18 million per year. The Braves are rationalizing the deal by saying that they still owed Hector Olivera $28.5 million, so they’re only paying Kemp $25.5 million more than they were on the hook to pay Olivera. Hence, the Braves are spinning this as a three-year contract for Matt Kemp worth $8.5 million per year.
Now… if Kemp can be a 1.5 win player, by recovering some of his walks and retaining all of his current power, that might be worth the money that they’re paying him this year. But the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons are worrisome, not just because any time that Kemp, Ender Inciarte, and Nick Markakis are healthy, they will block Mallex Smith from a spot in the lineup. And Kemp, a month from his 32nd birthday, isn’t getting any younger. It is almost a certainty that either or both of Kemp and Markakis will be jettisoned as salary dumps at some point in the next 18 months, and I only worry that the Braves will have to pay prospects to get someone to take them off their hands.
Still, it will be nice to have someone who can hit 30 homers. And it’s nice that he’s a Braves fan. But he’s an awfully expensive pinch-hitter.