Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Folly of Youth, Part 2

Greatness comes with a price. For superheroes, the price is hiding your real identity. For artists, the price can be, say, your ear. And for athletes, the price is growing up in public.

A few days ago, my colleague Sax expressed frustration that the price of watching Dodger youngsters growing up was costing us games. Fox reporter Ken Rosenthal reflected this sentiment in today's national telecast, saying Dodger management is tiring of the inability of players like Matt Kemp, James Loney and Andre Ethier to make adjustments in their play.

But the Dodger kids have been doing just that. Ethier deserves the most leeway, as Andruw Jones had been preventing him from seeing regular playing time until recently. Although Loney leads the team in grounding into double plays, he has also shown the ability to adjust defensively, making corrections in his throws to second base. Russell Martin rebounded from an early-season offensive slump (although his throws to second are under scrutiny), and Blake DeWitt has shown the poise of a veteran.

No, all this talk about immaturity and adjustments and production is really about one player: Matt Kemp. Not coincidentally, Kemp is also the one youngster in the group with the highest potential. (Some say stratospheric—Dave Winfield has been evoked.) And both the anguish and joy of following such a volatile player have been on display in the past few days.

First came The Fight. Kemp overreacted. Kemp vs. Torrealba was decided in favor of the Rockies catcher, suspended for three games to Kemp's four (currently under appeal). Next came The Bat Break, Kemp's reaction to his undisciplined ninth-inning bases-loaded strikeout against a struggling Kerry Wood.

Today we saw The Turf Pound, with a prostrate Kemp repeatedly slamming the outfield grass in frustration after a near-miss on a diving catch—all while Jeff Kent retrieved the ball in play.

Individually, each event was enough to make you roll your eyes; collectively, they seemed like a prelude to a meltdown.

Then came The Three-Run Home Run, and with one swing of the bat Matt Kemp absolved his sins.

Or did he? There's still the issue of the suspension, which at best would be reduced to three games. With Jones still on the disabled list, there's no good time for Kemp to sit out three or four games, especially if today's home run means he's finding his power stroke.

But where does growing up come from, if not facing consequences? "He just dug in today, basically, and realized that being frustrated doesn't get you anywhere. What he came back from, that's certainly a growing-up situation," said Joe Torre about Kemp's performance today. And if the suspension does its job, Kemp will be more mindful of his professionalism on the field.

(At the very least, Kemp could learn from losing pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who vented his anger on docile Gatorade coolers in the relative privacy of the dugout. Not classy by any means, but certainly preferable to any on-field outbursts.)

Greatness comes with a price. For Matt Kemp, the price is one suspension, two pieces of a broken bat...and a three-run home run. For Dodger fans, the price is patience. For Dodger management, the price is also patience, in addition to Kemp's paltry $408,000 salary. And if they're seriously thinking of benching or trading Kemp, as Rosenthal suggests, Dodger management would be trading potentially great and cheap for immediately mediocre and expensive. And Dodger fans have had enough of that.

home run photo by Reed Saxon/AP
diving photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images


Steve Sax said...

Awesome post, Orel. I was going to write "The Folly of 'The Folly of Youth'", but you beat me to it.

On the debit side of Matt Kemp's recent ledger, might I also add a fly ball late in today's game on which Juan Pierre gambled in left before it bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double. I didn't see the play, but the radio commentators made note of the fact that Kemp had not moved an inch from his spot in center to try and back up Pierre, should he miss a diving catch and the ball roll around in the corner or carom off into center. Kemp, by their account, didn't budge.

"With great power comes great responsibility."

Anonymous said...

Can't wait until the Dodgers trade Matt Kemp for Luis Castillo or something.

That'll be great.

But seriously, even assuming that he is a dick, or that his teammates hate him, or that he's selfish, or that he's lazy, the Dodgers can't afford to trade him. Not saying that there's any real significant evidence to any of those points though.

Regardless, if he produces, the Dodgers don't really have a choice but to keep him. Not saying he's Bonds-esque, but with the way the Dodgers offense is going, he might as well be.

karina said...

Love your Harry Potter reference, Sax.

I think they should really keep the kids playing. For the very first time in years, they have a bunch of players with lots of raw talent. I'd rather stay away from the postseason this year but let the kids learn from their mistakes, while playing at the major league level, learning to deal with the pressure of having great expectations in their shoulders, because they belong to a large market-very beloved MLB team.
James Loney hits a lot of grounders that become into double plays? maybe he'll learn to use his hands to put the ball in the empty holes at the field, using his wonderful abilities as contact hitter...Matt Kemp maybe strikes out in very important situations of the game, with runners in scoring position? he'll learn he can do the job, he just have to control his emotions and etc, etc.
I'd rather have them to learn the intricacies of every MLB field, to learn how the wind affects the movement of the ball in San Francisco?, y'know the stuff you can only know by playing. Maybe they'll commit some mistakes in the process, but they'll become better players.
I think we all have to develop patience. I think most Dodger fans don't wanna deal with another Pedro Martinez or Edwin Jackson trade, just to quote a couple of examples. I think every knowledgeable Dodger fan would rather have Edwin Jackson as a starter this year than having a Jason Schmidt on the DL.
The reason i like more about Joe Torre being the manager is he could really guide the kids in the growing process.
I guess what i mean to say is, i'd rather be hopeful about the future of the team while being young and cheap than heartbroken for following a mediocre, aging and overpaid team for years. Familiar with that scenario, anyone?
It's no coincidence the most interesting teams to watch this season on the MLB are populated with youngsters. Let's not forget young players are pursuing to get the glory and the money, while the veterans are comfortable in their big fat contracts.
Just my two cents.

Dusty Baker's Toothpick said...

Great post. I'm at the point where I've pretty much written off the 2008 campaign as a transition year. It's a transition for the youngsters, as they learn to make adjustments and get comfortable with their roles on the team.

Kemp is an electric player, no doubt. I've heard that Kemp doesn't have a high baseball I.Q., and after seeing the guy play the past couple of years, I think he's making strides. There are some guys who need to work a little harder at learning all of baseball's nuances. Kemp has all the raw skills, and baseball is after all, a skills game.

Rob said...

Dave Winfield is a terrible comp for Matt Kemp. Winfield played exactly zero, zilch, nada games in the minors, came up, and was almost immediately productive as a 21-year-old. His number one PECOTA comp ($) is Derek Bell; scary that his number two comp is Todd Hollandsworth. OTOH, he has a similarity index of 35, which says none of his comps are likely that good.