For those wondering how Matt Kemp would react after losing out to Ryan Braun for the 2011 NL MVP, we have some pretty strong early returns from the polls. Through Thursday (So 19 games, not counting Friday’s match-up against the Nationals- I know, small sample size but bear with me as I jump to some conclusions) he has 10 home runs, 19 runs scored, 23 RBI, and a whopping 1.455 OPS. When you extrapolate the 80 plate appearances it comes out to 588 at-bats, 85 home runs, 162 runs scored, and 196 RBI. Which means that while it’s still a very young season, he’s on pace to break multiple records, the home run record set by Barry Bonds in 2001 (73), the RBI record set by Hack Wilson in 1930 (191), and the OPS record set by Barry Bonds in 2004 (1.4217). Kemp also has a ridiculous 301 OPS+ so far this year. Barry Bonds holds the record for the top 3 OPS+ numbers for a single-season, but even he topped out at 268. Unsurprisingly Kemp leads the Majors with both home runs and RBI, while also leading the National League in runs scored. Even if he were to slow down (let’s be honest, no one thinks he’s going to hit 85 home runs), he’s out to an early lead as favorite for the NL MVP this year.
Obviously it’s only about 1/10th of the way through the season, but Kemp has been playing like a man possessed so far this year. There has been one part of his game that has fallen off significantly, stolen bases, which had been one of his best offensive skills in past seasons. When someone is hitting the ball like Kemp any complaint is simply nitpicking, even if Kemp only has 1 steal on the year. If Kemp wants to reach his pre-season prediction of becoming the first member of the 50-50 Club he’s going to have to start stealing some bases, but given his physical skills there’s always the chance that Kemp can start grabbing steals in bunches.
A lot of people thought that the nearly 40/40 performance that Kemp put on during the 2011 season was close to, if not, the ceiling for the gifted outfielder. If his start to 2012 is any indication, we may be seeing Kemp take the step to the next level.
It’s possible that this start to the year has just been a hot streak to kick off the season, or Kemp tapping into another level of production (he is entering his prime and will play almost all of 2012 at 27 years old). There’s some evidence for both sides of the argument. As far as reasons against him maintaining his production, he does have a ridiculously high BAbip at .477 right now, but I don’t think anyone is expecting Kemp to hit .449 all season (or even hit .400 for that matter). If it comes down to a level that is more in line with his career ratio, he’d still probably be hitting around .350. When it comes to evidence towards Kemp moving to a whole new level, so far in 2012 he has cut his SO% (he has reduced it for 3 years in a row now) and he’s raised his BB% also (improved it every year since 2010, just like his SO%).
There are many other points for both sides, the biggest against him keeping up the home run rate is his HR/FB ratio is sky high at 41.7% when his career rate sits around 11%. The other biggest evidence towards Kemp really taking another step in his career, other than the biggest (his three straight years of improving his SO% and BB%) is that Kemp has actually seen his LD% lowered from his career numbers. Even when (not if) Kemp’s home run rates come down he’ll likely see his line drive rate increase, which would lead to plenty of doubles and other offensive success.
The chances of Kemp continuing his current pace for power are slim, he likely won’t hit more than 60 home runs this year. No matter if this is Kemp moving to a new level as a player or just an exceptionally hot start by one of the best players in baseball one thing is sure, his hot start to 2012 has brought KeMVP back with a vengeance.