DENVER—The question was what Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp felt he could do in 2012 to improve on 2011.
“I said, ‘I guess I’m going to have to get 50-50,’ ” he recalled.
Then he laughed.
“Guess I better be careful what I say,” he added, “but I do feel I am capable of that. I expect the most out of myself.”
Who is to argue with him? In the opening month of the season, Kemp made it clear that he’s ready to battle for National League MVP honors again, after finishing second for the honor a year ago to Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun—though it should be noted for the record that Kemp was Baseball America’s Major League Player of the Year.
Kemp hit .427 with 11 home runs and 25 RBIs in April, just the fourth player in NL history to hit .400 with 10 home runs and 20 RBIs in the month. Two of the previous three, Barry Bonds in 2004 and Larry Walker in 1997, went on to win the MVP. The other, Tony Perez with the Reds in 1970, is in the Hall of Fame.
Above all, Kemp is having fun.
Pretty funny that Kemp used to have the label of a problem child. Motivation was questioned. Attitude was a concern.
“Maybe now people know me better,” he said.
And maybe now the people are different.
Former coaches Larry Bowa and Jim Schaeffer didn’t care much for the outfielder, and didn’t hide their feelings.
When Don Mattingly moved from hitting coach to manager, replacing Joe Torre a year ago, he also revamped the coaching staff. One of the coaches he brought in is Davey Lopes, whose only exposure to Kemp had been from an opposing dugout. Lopes liked what he saw.
“He had all the physical tools,” Lopes said. “You would watch and feel that one day, if he maximizes his ability, he will turn into a great player. When I came I wanted to develop a rapport with him, to earn his confidence and trust.”
Lopes didn’t have any history with Kemp and wasn’t interested in learning it.
“People get bad raps,” he said. “People maybe misunderstand an individual. That’s part of the skills you need as a coach, dealing with different personalities. Maybe some of us are not as good at that as we should be.”
Lopes had an advantage in gaining Kemp’s trust. Kemp’s agent, longtime major league pitcher Dave Stewart, was a teammate of Lopes, and the two had the same agent, Tony Attanasio, during their playing careers.
“We talked in the offseason, and we talked about what needed to be done, not what happened,” Lopes said. “I told him I thought he was a little heavy, and he came in 10, 15 pounds lighter. I told him it was a new beginning. I’m not saying what was said in the past was wrong, just saying I wasn’t here and I wasn’t worried about it.
“Players are like society. They have changed over time. As a coach you can’t think about how things used to be. You have to adapt to how things are now. The kids don’t relate to how things were 25 years ago. They have no clue. It’s like people talk about using a four-man rotation, but that isn’t happening. As a coach you have to adjust. Times change. People change . . . Things change.”
Learning From Experience
And right now, things are pretty good for Kemp. He has been able to learn from the past and enjoy the present.
“I expect to have a good year every year, and if I don’t, I’m disappointed, like (2010),” he said. “But I look as that year as a learning experience. The game is very humbling, and I was humbled.
“This game is based on failure, so you have to be mentally strong. In basketball or football you get used to success. In baseball, 3-of-10 is success.”
Kemp had plenty of success last year, earning his first all-star selection and second Gold Glove, and flirting with a triple crown. He led the NL in home runs (39) and RBIs (126) and finished third in average (.324).
That creates high expectations for this year, and Kemp added to it with his offhand mention of 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases. Lopes expects the most out of Kemp, too, though he sees that in broader terms that just statistical production.
“We are fortunate to have an athlete like him on this team, and it’s the same with that young pitcher,” Lopes said, nodding toward 2011 NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. “They love to play. They are great competitors. They have all the intangibles to be leaders.
“They aren’t afraid of any situation. People expect a lot of them, but they have God-given ability, and they know there is a challenge to make the most out of that ability.”
And for Kemp, he now knows he has a believer in Lopes.