Matt Kemp was once a decent defender, but probably not as great as many would think. He has won two gold gloves in his career; one in 2009 and one in 2011.
One could probably say that had his best defensive season in 2009, when he registered a 5.1 WAR in the outfield. Adding onto this, Kemp had a 3.1 UZR and a 3.7 UZR/150. That sounds good, until you see he had -3 defensive runs saved (DRS), ranking him 39th among qualified outfielders.
In 2011, Kemp most likely won his gold glove in the outfield due to an amazing year at the plate as well as flashy plays like this. At the plate, Kemp showed off a .324/.399/.586 line with 39 HR and 115 RBI. Many say he was robbed of the NL MVP in that year (Ryan Braun* won it).
Despite his amazing season at the plate, sabermetrics were not kind to him on the defensive side in 2011, as he registered a -2.6 defensive WAR, a -5 DRS, and a -4.8 UZR. Ever since 2011, his defense has taken a drastic slide. This slide was due in large part to the many, many injuries Kemp has had. Here is just a little bit of what Kemp went through after his 2011 season, via Fangraphs:
- May 2012: left hamstring (DL, 14 games)
- June 2012: left hamstring (DL, 37 games)
- August 2012: left shoulder in wall collision (offseason labrum surgery)
- May 2013: right hamstring (DL, 24 games)
- July 2013: left shoulder (DL, 14 games)
- July 2013: left ankle (DL, 52 games)
- Sept 2013: left ankle (2 games plus all of playoffs)
- October 2013: left ankle and left shoulder (surgeries)
- April 2014: recovery from surgeries (5 games)
It is clear that injuries have hurt Kemp’s defense, and his defensive performance as well as friction with some members of the Dodgers played a big role in him being shipped off to the Padres after the 2014 season. The Padres were hoping Kemp could rekindle a little of his MVP and gold glove seasons from year’s past. At the plate, he obviously struggled in the first half of the season. During the second half, though, he caught fire. A .286/.339/.528 line with 15 home runs during mostly meaningless games is nothing to get really excited about, but it does provide optimism that Kemp still has production left at the plate.
Defensively, Kemp really struggled. He had a -15 DRS, which was the worst among right fielders. His UZR was also the worst among right fielders. His -24.1 defensive WAR is downright awful, and contributed to him only having a 0.4 WAR in 2015.
In 2016, his defense is projected to be just as bad. Is there any way the Padres can mitigate his defense so that he will not be as much of a liability?
There are some factors that signal is might not be as bad. First off, the Padres will not have Wil Myers out there for the first two months of the season. Jon Jay, Melvin Upton, and Travis Jankowski will be much, much better than Myers ever was last year, and Kemp will benefit from actually having a player beside him with some range.
Secondly, new manager Andy Green looooooooves defensive shifts. Green was a leader in designing shifts in Arizona, where the Diamondbacks led baseball with 71 defensive runs saved. The Padres finished 26th with -28. The DBacks also registered 12 shift-runs saved, which ranked as the second most in the NL. He himself said,
“I think it’s possible (to shift more in the outfield). There is a lot of data that would support moving the outfield aggressively at certain times. I don’t think we’ll be out-of-this-world extraordinary, but we will be progressive.”
He himself stated that shifting Kemp is going to be vital: “We think we can do some things from a positioning standpoint to put him in a much better position to succeed. That will be a point of emphasis. Also, we’ve already started to identify how his breaks can be improved, how his mobility back to right center can be improved.” This is going to benefit Matt Kemp.
Thirdly, Matt Kemp realizes he was a liability on defense. Due to this realization, Kemp arrived early to spring training to work specifically on defense.
He was seen working on routes with new Padres first base coach Tarrik Brock. He insists that his ankle is feeling better and that he is as healthy as he has been in a while. Of course, this is all talk from Kemp, but it is good to see he is committed to improving his defense.
There is nothing that will make Matt Kemp an average MLB outfielder. He will still be a poor defender, a liability at times, and take some routes that will make everyone scratch their heads. However, he will not be as poor as last year due to an improved strategic approach and a better defensive outfield. I am sure pride is also a factor in Kemp’s motivation to improve defensively, as he was probably a little embarrassed to be as bad as he was last year. Expect a much more committed Matt Kemp in 2016, especially on the defensive end.
At the start of spring, Kemp said: “Hopefully I am better as a player, and we are better as a team.” Perhaps this commitment will lead to a solid year for Kemp and the 2016 San Diego Padres.
Go Padres and go committed Matt Kemp!