How Matt Kemp Can Actually Improve for the Atlanta Braves

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Good Kemp or Bad Kemp?  There does seem to be a renewed effort and focus coming from the Braves’ left fielder as we start winding down the Spring campaign.

When Matt Kemp arrived last year the Atlanta Braves, in an honest moment, would probably tell you they weren’t really sure what kind of player they were getting.

MVP level seasons and an impressive MLB track record combined with injury issues and unflattering reports from previous teams had made Kemp a bit of an enigma. The Braves just didn’t know.

The motivation for acquiring him was centered more around the guy they were getting rid of than the guy they were getting. Had the Braves not had the albatross of Hector Olivera and his contract around their necks, I doubt very seriously they would’ve taken on a deal as large as Kemp’s given the relatively small payroll with which they operate.

But they did, and they did, so they pulled the trigger. Atlanta had themselves a brand new clean-up hitter and a bit of a lightning rod.

Kemp’s acquisition has stirred up a not-so-original debate about overall player value and how it relates to certain types of players.

Measuring Value

If you’re old school and like HRs and RBI as the way to value players then Kemp is a monster. He hit 35 home runs last year and drove in 108. Those sort of numbers used to make you a legit superstar.

If you’re new school and like WAR and defensive metrics, then he’s overrated, overpaid and close to replacement level. He put up 0.7 WAR last year and given his age and contract, there isn’t much to get excited about.

This post isn’t about convincing you which side of that debate you should stand on. I don’t even really care to try as most people aren’t looking to be talked out of their current positions.

No – instead, this post is about taking a common idea both camps can agree on and using that idea to show where Matt Kemp can realistically can improve his game.

I say realistically because there’s been a lot of talk since the trade about Kemp increasing his value by improving his defense. He’s lost weight, put in extra work and striving for that goal.

But 32-year-old players with bad knees and arthritic hips don’t become better outfielders in one off-season, if ever. The preponderance of evidence shows Kemp wasn’t that great of an outfielder even when he was young and in great shape. He got by on his athleticism which has mostly been taken from him by injuries.

Losing weight never hurts but I’m not buying that defense is how Kemp is going to increase his value. Not significantly enough to matter at least.

So how does he improve? Can he improve?

I think so.

Mar 8, 2017; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Matt Kemp (27) looks on during the fourth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 8, 2017; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves left fielder Matt Kemp (27) looks on during the fourth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

To The Numbers

Take a look this table:

2008-2014 is when Kemp was unquestionably one of the best players in the game. 2015-2016 is when the questions started so the table is broken up into those two time periods.

In all the debating about Matt Kemp’s value, a myth has formed about what kind of player he is. There’s this idea out there that he’s this offensive machine whose WAR and overall value is being brought down by defensive metrics. Many of you will think it’s the defensive metrics that are the problem there but it’s actually the first assumption in that myth that I want to address.

Is Matt Kemp an offensive machine?  He certainly used to be. But now? Look at that wRC+. 109 over the last 2 years. Hmmm. Slightly above league average.

It’s not bad but it certainly isn’t what it used to be and at 32, Kemp should still be more than capable of achieving upper level offensive value. And it doesn’t take much investigation to figure out why he hasn’t the last couple of years.

One thing we know about baseball is getting on-base is good. Or to put it another way, making outs is bad. Doesn’t matter if you’re old school or new school, whether you’re following @santoniobrown or @LeeTrocinski on twitter:  we can all agree it’s in the hitter’s best interest to not make outs.

And as you can see by his on-base percentage, between 2015-2016, Matt Kemp has made a lot more outs that he used to.  And as you can also see it’s the walks that have suffered.

A Walk in the Park

Kemp’s walk rate has drastically dropped the last few years. In his should’ve-been MVP year of 2011, his walk rate was 10.7. Last year it was 5.4.  And that has happened while his other numbers have stayed relatively the same.

K% basically the same, ISO the exact same, and while his AVG has dropped to .268 that’s plenty good enough to be a valuable offensive player.

Matt Carpenter put up a 135 wRC+ last year with a .271 average. How?  He put up a 14.3 walk rate. You can run a relatively low average and be valuable as long as you’re taking your walks.

And Kemp hasn’t.

So why have the walks gone away?

Mar 12, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA;Atlanta Braves left fielder Matt Kemp (27) hit a foul ball off his face during the second inning against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. But notice the lunged swing.  Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 12, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA;Atlanta Braves left fielder Matt Kemp (27) hit a foul ball off his face during the second inning against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. But notice the lunged swing.  Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

I Think We Found Something

Matt Kemp’s loss of walks can be explained in one table:

If you’re not familiar with the stat, O-swing% is how often a player swings at pitches out of the strike zone divided by how many pitches he sees out of the strike zone.

For some reason, starting in 2015, Kemp went for this ultra-aggressive approach where he swings at a lot pitches he simply can’t do anything with. The fact that he’s maintained his power numbers while swinging at pitches out of the zone 40% of time is a testament to how talented he is. But this approach has hurt his overall value at the plate as his OBP has nosedived by over 40 points.

I talked about sacrificing contact for more power in my Freddie Freeman breakdown a few weeks ago and how, if done while maintaining plate discipline, can be a positive.

Freeman’s O-swing% last year was 32.4 which is what Kemp’s was when he was an annual MVP candidate. Freeman did it the right way, being more aggressive in the zone while staying disciplined. Kemp has done it the wrong way by taking this aggressive approach and applying it universally to both strikes and balls.

The good news for Kemp is walks typically follow power. And Kemp has plenty of power. Pitchers fear power more than anything and consequently throw less strikes to power hitters. The walks are there for him to take. He just has to lay off the pitches.

As you watch Kemp in the early part of the year, this is what I suggest paying attention to. Forget the defense. It probably won’t be good. Laying off bad pitches and taking more walks are far more realistic paths to increasing his value.

Next: Acuna Seems Special

If he can reduce his aggression on pitches out of the zone and become an on-base machine again, the Atlanta Braves could have one monster hitting behind another monster.

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