Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Crasnick Psychoanalyzes Matt Kemp

Matt Kemp is arguably the Dodgers' greatest enigma: all that potential does not seem like it should juxtapose with seemingly indifferent behavior. Interventions (like from former Dodgers third base coach Larry Bowa) have been attempted; Hollywood's glamour (from former romantic flame Rihanna) have been blamed. But no one really knows why Kemp is sometimes the star we knew he'd be, while other times he's the distracted player we hoped he'd avoid.

Jerry Crasnick of ESPN does a wonderful job profiling Kemp and his positives and negatives, and though I found the article decently insightful (excerpted here, but you should really read the whole thing), but honestly after reading this, I can't predict which Kemp is going to show up in 2011:

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, with a basketball pedigree and a locker full of tools, Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp has heard his share of "the next Dave Winfield" comparisons. Time will tell whether Kemp can maximize his skills and summon the Winny within, but the current version has a lot of people wondering. At age 26, Kemp is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a .760 OPS.

If you think it's exasperating to manage him or watch him from the box seats, try pinning him down for an interview.

The common refrain out of Dodgers camp is that Kemp is anxious to "turn the page" on a 2010 season that was, by all accounts, an ordeal. Kemp hit 28 homers and was one of only two major leaguers (along with Ichiro Suzuki) to appear in all 162 games. But his defense regressed, his batting average and on-base percentage plummeted and he succeeded on only 19 of 34 stolen-base attempts. When TMZ and other celebrity outlets weren't providing breathless updates of Kemp's relationship with the recording star Rihanna, general manager Ned Colletti and two Dodgers coaches were calling him out for questionable effort on the field. With each new flare-up, Kemp's reputation within the game took another hit.

So it's time for some positive outreach in the name of changing perceptions. Or is it?

On the day that position players are scheduled to report to Dodgers camp, Kemp consents to an interview the next morning. He is friendly and engaging and appears receptive to the request.

Then the designated time arrives the next day, and Kemp begs off because he needs to do some early hitting. He says he will be available when his session in the cage is complete. But he doesn't return to the clubhouse until 8:55 a.m., just moments before the doors will close for a team meeting.

Another attempt is made when the clubhouse reopens, and the mood quickly turns contentious. Kemp, in the process of grabbing his bats and heading onto the field, makes it clear he is disturbed by the intrusion and delivers a lecture on the importance of giving him the proper space.

"When I'm at my locker and I have a free moment, I'll give you some time," he says, his voice rising in agitation. "You're going to write what you want, anyway." [...]

"I think deep down in, Matt is a good young man," [former Dodgers manager Joe] Torre said. "But he's also a very intense young man. He's wound pretty tight. You have people telling him a lot of different things that he gets annoyed by. It's not a matter of him being disrespectful. But if he does something wrong and you try to tell him, he might just [wave you off and say], 'I know.'"

Perhaps no one in the Dodgers organization knows Kemp better than Logan White, the team's assistant general manager for scouting. As a high schooler in Oklahoma City, Kemp was a talented, physical basketball guard with enough skill to generate interest from Oral Roberts and Wichita State. But the Dodgers signed him as a sixth-round pick, and Kemp made it to L.A. after barely 300 minor league games. White was there from the start, working Kemp out in the cage, getting to know the family and telling people that Kemp had superstar potential once he gained the requisite experience.

White, fiercely loyal to his draft picks, acknowledges Kemp's personality quirks. But he believes that the public perception glosses over Kemp's positive attributes. Last year, when White's son's Little League held a charity event, Kemp and several other Dodgers showed up and helped raise $6,000. Kemp signed autographs, mingled with the kids and dug into his own pocket to make sure he raised more money than any other player.

"When Matty gets uncomfortable around people, he can be brash and loud," White said. "But to me, he's lovable Matt. My family loves him. I know he's big and strong and he can look tough and unapproachable sometimes. But he has a heart of gold. He really and truly does."

Two respected baseball guys, rushing to Kemp's defense. And now it's Davey Lopes' issue (at least on the basepaths). I'm still hoping for the best.