It’s December 2017. The Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers pull off what is supposed to be a sweetheart deal for both teams. The Braves part ways with Matt Kemp, who is owed $43 million over two years, and in return they receive Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, and Charlie Culberson. The move places the Dodgers beneath the luxury tax threshold for the first time in five years, making them contenders for the 2019 super class of free agents. The Braves benefit from the fact that all the contracts they receive will expire in a year, putting them in a better financial position. Oh yeah, the move also opens up a spot for star prospect Ronald Acuña.
We all know how that turns out.
After being traded to the Padres in 2015, Matt Kemp, who form 2006-2014 put up a .349 OBP and .495 SLG in 4496 Plate Appearances (PA), compiled a .310 OBP and .470 SLG in 1787 PA with the Padres and Braves combined.
What happens next is a surprise to us all.
After being traded back to the Dodgers this past offseason, the $43 million outfielder started playing like, well, a $43 million dollar outfielder. In 181 PA this season, Kemp has amassed a .370 OBP and a .550 SLG, his best compilation of numbers since 2011 when he placed 2nd in the NL MVP voting.
How does a player on the wrong side of his prime become a younger version of himself again?
One explanation could be that Kemp is finally feeling healthy again. For most of 2017, Kemp battled a hamstring injury that kept him out of games and landed him on the DL for an extended period of time. One indicator of Kemp’s health is that his Sprint Speed (What the heck is Sprint Speed?) has improved. Last season, Kemp’s Sprint Speed (SS), measured in feet per second, was 24.9. This season? 26.3. A difference of 1.4 ft/sec.
Kemp is also hitting the ball harder. According to Statcast data, In 2017, Kemp’s average Exit Velocity was 88.4 MPH.
This season, Kemp’s averaging 91.1 MPH in Exit Velo, a difference of 2.7 MPH.
Look closer at the player charts (above) and you’ll also see that Kemp is making better contact on pitches in the upper right quadrant this year than he was in 2017. Hitting the ball harder results in fielders having to react to balls in play quicker. More room for error.
Another explanation for Kemp’s resurgence could be that he’s getting the ball in the air more. For his career, Kemp averages a Ground Ball to Fly Ball ratio (GB/FB) of 1.17. This season, he’s at 0.96. His average Launch Angle in the Statcast era is 12.2°. This season, he’s connecting with baseballs at an average of 15.4° Launch Angle.
Getting the ball in the air more has resulted in Kemp beating the shift, which in turn eliminates the shift as an option for the defense. According to Statcast data, in 456 PA in 2017, Kemp saw 55 shifts, or 12.1% of the time. This year? In 164 PA, teams have shifted on Kemp nine times or 5.5% of the time. Why?
Kemp is hitting baseball’s over the shift. That’s why.
Matt Kemp’s .454 wOBA against the shift ranks 50th in all of baseball. That’s right behind Mike Trout, who according to Mark Simon, our guest on the last episode of the Welcome to THE SHOW podcast, is considered one of the best hitters against the shift.
So, it looks like that sweetheart deal back in December was more than that. Not only did the Dodgers dump enough salary to make them contenders for the upcoming free agent market, they got themselves a heck of an outfielder in return. Looks as though for the time being left field at Dodgers Stadium will remain securely in Kemp’s possession.
(Picture of Kemp above: Sports Illustrated)