Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Matt Kemp and His High Potential

Congratulations to Matt Kemp, who won the National League Player of the Week honors. From the press release:

Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers has been named Bank of America Presents the National League Player of the Week for the period ending May 4th. [...]

Kemp led the National League with 11 RBI and six stolen bases and tied for the league-lead with 11 hits. The 23-year-old right fielder hit .407 (11-27) with four doubles, seven runs scored, a slugging percentage of .556 and an on-base percentage of .433. On May 2nd at Colorado, Kemp hit two 2-RBI doubles leading the Dodgers to an 11-6 victory and their seventh consecutive win. He recorded four multi-hit games and three multi-RBI games and hit safely in all six games played. This marks the first time that Matt has won weekly honors, and it is the first time that a Dodger has captured this recognition since Andre Ethier won in July 2006.

It's been almost two years since any Dodger won Player of the Week honors, and Kemp's is well deserved. And it got me thinking about Kemp, who by virtue of being a young kid (he's 23) in a crowded and expensive outfield, has had his entire career with the Dodgers encircled by a cloud of speculation that he would be traded somewhere, anywhere.

I've felt like this wasn't a fair sentiment to be directed at Kemp alone, given his signs of his prodigious offensive and defensive potential that we've seen to date. But to be fair, while we at SoSG rallied a campaign around James Loney, we haven't yet struck up the band to play for Matt Kemp. And it almost seems like, in reading blog posts and comments, there are those who are predisposed to dislike him, despite his amazing potential.

It's almost like there's a counterargument to undermine each of his strengths. Kemp has a career batting average of .314 and a slugging average of .495--but he seems to strike out a lot, too. He's got a rocket for an arm out there in right field--but he seems to misplay a lot of fly balls. Kemp has seven stolen bases this year and has been caught only once--but isn't he known more for his baserunning blunders, like running through stop signs at third and getting hit by balls in play (just yesterday!). Sure, Kemp has great potential--but should the Dodgers trade him now before he fails to realize any of it?

Striking to me is that this sort of debate doesn't seem to revolve around any of the other youngsters on the team. Russell Martin may have earned himself a deserved pass, but Loney, Andre Ethier, and even Blake DeWitt seem to get more positive vibes from fans.

So might it just boil down to the fact that Kemp doesn't appear to be that approachable? His countenance, particularly last year, seems to reflect a surly disposition, sometimes almost aloof in his expression. And when he is called out on a close play, or is visibly unhappy about anything, he seems to be really, really angry. Menacing. As if he's about to explode.

It's easy for Dodger fans who have followed the team in recent years to try and strike an analogy with a former player. Maybe he's like Milton Bradley, one might think, recalling Bradley's impressive skills which were ultimately overshadowed by explosive tempers on the field and bottle-throwing incidents with heckling fans. Or maybe he's like Gary Sheffield, whose bat speed and discipline provided many a clutch hit, but the early images of his gospel church-going ways were soon overcome by rancorous public debates with management.

Or maybe it's just too easy for people to take people that we don't know, and try and categorize them with personas that we do know. And so, it can be easy to drop Matt Kemp in the "angry black man" category, because it's convenient for one's stereotyped little mind to handle.

Sure, Jeff Kent isn't exactly known for braking for whales, but he's described as a "competitor." Kevin Brown, the Dodgers' expensive pitching bust from the late 1990s, was never friendly with the media, but even as he grew to old age in the third year of his contract and started breaking down physically, he was known as a "gamer."

So why don't we give Matt Kemp the same benefit of the doubt?

Sure, Loney smiles more often, and Ethier may not frown quite as much. And sure, there are lots of examples where this attribute matters, or at least contributes, to our opinion--witness the love for Ken Griffey Jr. and the vitriol for Barry Bonds.

Kemp has never thrown a bottle at a fan, and he hasn't called out management like the Sheff. He may have appeared surly, but he has not exhibited the esprit de corps-eroding poison of a malcontent; in fact, I distinctly remember one close game in which the Dodger with the walk-off hit (I think it was Martin, but I can't recall) was greeted by Kemp bounding over the dugout rail and running out to greet his teammate with a wide smile. True, Kemp may have moved a trash can--an unpardonable sin, I know--during the whole vets-versus-kids debate of late last year. But he hasn't erupted in flames or thrown fireworks at anyone in the parking lot. If anything, this year, both happy and sad, he seems to be the kind of player who wears his heart on his sleeve.

And he's 23, for pete's sake. Maybe we should cut him some slack, or at least not fault him for not always having a sunny disposition.

Look, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and it's not like there aren't on-the-field instances that could merit valid criticism or concern. But I hope people can look at accolades like the NL Player of the Week award, or the on-field exploits like his first career grand slam last week, and at least have a balanced opinion that not only reflects a lot of upside potential, but also isn't shackled by stereotyped perspectives that (to date) aren't supported by the requisite corrosive actions.

Let's all give a cheer for Matt Kemp.


Delino DeShields, Sr said...

Sometimes the hardest thing for a player to pull off is winning over the public. Imagine how Bonds would have been embraced (even over the past year) if he, I don't know, didn't find a 100 new ways to be a d--k. Big Mac broke the home run record, and immediately hugs his son and everyone in the park. Bonds does the same, and doesn't even notice his teenage son right next to him at the plate.

Orel said...

But that's only because Dusty Baker's son was blocking his view.

Orel said...

From Diamond:

"One thing that stood out to me was Matt Kemp's opposite-field home run with Juan Pierre on first base. Kemp mentioned after the game that he was looking to go the other way given Pierre's speed and likelihood that he would get pitched outside so the catcher might have a better chance to throw out Pierre if he tried to steal second. Smart play by Kemp."

Steve Sax said...

I thought Diamond's quote was going to read like this:

"One thing that stood out to me was Matt Kemp's opposite-field home run with Juan Pierre on first base. Because usually Juan Pierre flies out and therefore would not be on first base."

Erin said...

I think when Kemp jumped over the railing in celebration, it was after Loney's bases loaded, walk-off hit against the Rockies on April 27.

Palatine said...

He hasn't received the admiration you speak of because he hasn't done anything consistently. He has yet to be a regular for any significant length of time. Let's see how he performs then.

You may say that neither has Ethier or DeWitt or Loney, yet none of them were lauded so highly before playing a single Big League game. Baseball fans all across the country have been disappointed by "five-tool" prospects too many times. As for Martin, he received comparable accolades, but he lived up to them while being a regular.

I think your worries about Kemp being liked enough are premature.