As measured by Baseball-Reference’s adjusted OPS metric—which compares a player’s OPS with the league average and then adjusts for home ballpark—Matt Kemp had the most productive offensive season by any center fielder in the last 30 years. Like Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997, Kemp led his league in homers, RBIs and runs scored.
The top 10 below was culled from the pool of all center fielders to qualify for the batting title for the years 1981 through 2011 (minimum: 75 percent of games in center). Bold indicates a league-leading total.
|1.||Matt Kemp, Dodgers||’11||602||115||195||33||4||39||126||74||159||40||11||.324||.399||.586||.986||171|
|2.||Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners||’93||582||113||180||38||3||45||109||96||91||17||9||.309||.408||.617||1.025||171|
|3.||Jim Edmonds, Cardinals||’04||498||102||150||38||3||42||111||101||150||8||3||.301||.418||.643||1.061||170|
|4.||Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners||’94||433||94||140||24||4||40||90||56||73||11||3||.323||.402||.674||1.076||170|
|5.||Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners||’97||608||125||185||34||3||56||147||76||121||15||4||.304||.382||.646||1.028||165|
|6.||Jim Edmonds, Cardinals||’03||447||89||123||32||2||39||89||77||127||1||3||.275||.385||.617||1.002||160|
|7.||Bernie Williams, Yankees||’98||499||101||169||30||5||26||97||74||81||15||9||.339||.422||.575||.997||160|
|8.||Ray Lankford, Cardinals||’97||465||94||137||36||3||31||98||95||125||21||11||.295||.411||.585||.996||159|
|9.||Jim Edmonds, Cardinals||’02||476||96||148||31||2||28||83||86||134||4||3||.311||.420||.561||.981||158|
|10.||Rickey Henderson, Yankees||’85||547||146||172||28||5||24||72||99||65||80||10||.314||.419||.516||.934||157|
LOS ANGELES—Matt Kemp was a flirt in 2011.
The Dodgers center fielder flirted with winning the triple crown, and he flirted with becoming the fifth player in baseball history to join the 40-40 club, falling one home run short.
But Kemp also produced in a big way. He batted .324/.399/.586 and led the National League with 39 home runs, 126 RBIs, 115 runs scored and 353 total bases. He made his first all-star team. He stole 40 bases in 51 attempts.
The 27-year-old Kemp performed so well, in fact, that he won the Baseball America Major League Player of the Year award.
Kemp’s raw talent and athleticism have led many to believe that he was capable of such a season, but what may have surprised some was how swiftly it came, particularly on the heels of his 2010 campaign.
Kemp hit a career-worst .249 for Los Angeles last year with 28 homers and 19 steals. Some thought he was distracted by a much-publicized relationship with pop star Rihanna that seemed to get him more air time on TMZ than ESPN.
“Last year there was a lot more attention, but now it’s something I’ve gotten used to,” Kemp said. “All that was going on was new to me. Now, the attention is what it is—it’s part of the lifestyle. That’s what it comes with when you’re playing in a city like L.A. Living under the microscope, people are going to assume things and come up with their own opinions. That’s what L.A. is.”
The relationship with Rihanna reportedly ended last December, and Kemp came to spring training with a new and improved attitude. It also didn’t hurt that the Dodgers brought in Davey Lopes as first-base coach and hired the mild-mannered Don Mattingly as the team’s manager to replace Joe Torre.
Lopes came over from the Phillies and had an impact on all the Dodgers players, but no one more than Kemp, whose agent Dave Stewart is a former teammate and friend.
“I heard a lot of (negative) statements about him, but what I saw in spring training was totally the opposite,” Lopes said. “He did a lot of growing up. I think he recognized he made some mistakes last year and he was going to do everything within his power to correct things. It was not so much that the numbers were bad, but the numbers didn’t match up to the abilities Matt has.
“He admitted some things, that he wasn’t as focused as he should have been last year. When you’re a young player in L.A., that’s not uncommon. It could happen to any young man—a baseball star, being in Hollywood. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes you get thrown off guard. But the thing he did was he recognized that.
“I told him, ‘Remember one thing—you’re a baseball player first. Everything comes as a result or residual of baseball.’ “
Be Like Rickey
Lopes said he wasn’t comfortable being credited with helping Kemp turn things around, but Kemp said Lopes set him straight.
“He was the kind of person that if something wasn’t right, he’d check me and let me know I needed to do it this way,” Kemp said. “He was a great friend. He taught me so much.”
Mattingly gave Lopes credit for helping Kemp focus, but emphasized that ultimately it was Kemp who was responsible for getting himself together on and off the field.
“(Lopes) was good for Matt, but honestly, I think Matt was the difference,” Mattingly said. “Last year was tough for him and that made him more determined this year. Matt seemed like he was having fun this year. He’s one of those guys—Matt needs to play with a smile on his face.
“Some guys are serious when they play, but Matt’s a lot like Rickey (Henderson). I played with Rickey and Rickey had fun. There’s a joy in his game. To me, that’s when Matt’s at his best.”
Kemp and lefthander Clayton Kershaw made many Dodgers fans smile in a season that otherwise was dominated by frowns. The unstable ownership situation and the beating of a Giants fan in the Dodgers Stadium parking lot on Opening Day cast the franchise in a negative light all season.
But Kemp rose above it all, playing consistently well all year and not missing a game, extending his consecutive games-played streak to 365 by season’s end. The Dodgers rebounded from a miserable first half to go 45-28 in their final 73 games and finish the season with 82 wins.
Kemp got off to a fast start, hitting .362 in April before cooling off a little in May, but his average never dipped below .306. Kemp’s best month was June, when he hit .375 with nine homers and 23 RBIs, but opposing pitchers continued to pitch to him, even though Kemp didn’t have a lot of protection in the lineup.
“He still struck out 150 times (159 to be precise), which puts him in the category where (opposing pitchers) still think they can get him out,” Mattingly said. “They think, ‘Well, if I make pitches I can get him out.’ That kind of works to his advantage in a sense, because if they make a mistake, they pay.
“As the year went on we saw more and more guys say, ‘You know what, it can’t be him that gets me. It’s going to have to be somebody else.’ “
Star In The Making
It was “somebody else” that Dodgers scouts saw when they went to watch Midwest City (Okla.) High play baseball games in the spring of 2003. It wasn’t Kemp, at least not initially.
“Our area scout took me to see a lefthanded pitcher who was eventually drafted by the Twins,” said Logan White, director of scouting and assistant general manager for the Dodgers. “Matt played right field, and he still had a little baby fat. I think he went 0-for-3 that first day and 1-for-3 the next, but you could see that he could throw, he could run and had that raw power.”
The Dodgers scouts were the only ones who stuck around to watch Kemp that second game. That’s when White took the opportunity to speak with Kemp, who was a highly sought-after basketball player, receiving a few scholarship offers.
But their conversation convinced White that the 6-foot-3 Kemp would choose baseball over basketball.
“He’s a pretty smart guy,” White said. “He loves basketball and could have been a good college player. But did he think he could be an NBA star or even an NBA player at all? Probably not. He definitely felt he could be a major league baseball player, and a good one.”
“I concentrated on basketball more than anything in sports,” Kemp said. “It was something I wanted to do. But my senior year I started to like baseball a little more, especially when I saw scouts coming around, and the opportunities I could get being drafted.”
The Dodgers waited to draft Kemp until the sixth round because they were convinced that other organizations were not watching him closely, even though White admitted it was a “dangerous” draft strategy to wait that long.
White, though, never had any doubts about Kemp.
“When I saw him in the (low Class A) South Atlantic League, I knew he was going to be a superstar,” White said of the summer of 2004. “You could see him making adjustments. I’m not surprised at what Matt’s done.”
Wait And See
Kemp earned $7.1 million in 2011, the final year of a two-year, $10.95 million deal. He has one more year of arbitration eligibility, then he will be eligible for free agency following the 2012 season.
The Dodgers and Stewart, Kemp’s agent, have not scheduled any talks as of yet for a long-term deal.
“We’re going to wait to see what’s presented to us,” Stewart said. “My thought now is to prepare for a one-year arbitration deal. The good thing is, we know Matt is going to be playing somewhere in 2013. But as far as Matt is concerned, he’s said the same thing to me as he’s said to (owner Frank) McCourt and (general manager) Ned (Colletti)—he wants to stay in L.A. We’re just waiting.”
A one-year arbitration deal likely would break the record of $15.5 million set by the Brewers’ Prince Fielder this season.
Colletti intimated the Dodgers’ unstable ownership situation will not be a hindrance in signing Kemp to a long-term deal.
“It’s important to sign Matt,” Colletti said. “It’s always important to keep your core together, and his contribution to the club and the organization has grown as his experience and play have grown.
“We have open dialogue with Dave. He and I have known each other awhile now and we stay in touch. We intend to do business as usual, so if the proper overall deal presents itself, we would do it for Matt or anyone else.”
Kemp said the sooner the two sides can get together and start talking, the better.
“If something is going to happen, you definitely want to take care of it before the season starts,” Kemp said. “No, I don’t want any distractions are far as contracts. It’s something you don’t want to carry on into the season.
“I think everybody knows that I want to play in L.A. It’s the city I want to be in. I love the fans and I love L.A. I don’t plan on going anywhere.”
For Kemp, it seems now his biggest challenge is living up to the standard he set for himself this year. Mattingly said it won’t be easy.
“He and I had a conversation and I told him, ‘Matt, no matter what you do, people are always going to think there’s more there,’ ” Mattingly said.
“That’s the tough part. He can come out next year and be just as focused, do everything exactly the same, give the same effort, play every day and not have the same numbers. That’s just the way the game is. But this year, he was the best player in the game.”
Joe Haakenson is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles/Orange County.