Los Angeles Dodgers 2012 Season Preview: Center Field

This is one of the few pieces in this 2012 Season Preview that I’m going to truly enjoy penning.

How could I not find joy in recapping one of the greatest seasons in franchise history, one of the handful of players on the Los Angeles Dodgers who has a ton of promise, and the man who should have won the 2011 NL MVP Award?

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Following a down 2010, many sought to have Matt Kemp shipped out of Los Angeles. Accusations of laziness, an inability to mentally comprehend the game, and caring more about a personal relationship than his on-the-field performance, plagued the Dodger center fielder. Heading into what was a make-or-break year in 2011, few stood behind Matty – mostly Dodger bloggers who skew analytical – and I’m proud to say I was one of those believers in The Bison.

You simply don’t give up on a 26-year-old who hits for power, can run the bases, and has a rocket arm, particularly at a time when his value was at its absolute lowest (and his luck on balls in play was the worst it had ever been, with a .295 BABIP that was well below his career .352 BABIP).

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Kemp backed up his supporters’ beliefs and proved all of the doubters wrong with a season that had him atop both the fWAR (8.7 – NL leader, 2nd in MLB) and rWAR (10.0 – MLB leader) leaderboards. Kemp mashed to the tune of a .324/.399/.586/.985 slash line with 39 long balls, 76 extra-base hits, 40 stolen bases in 51 attempts, a 171 wRC+, and a phenomenal .419 wOBA.

Perhaps most importantly, Matt showed refinement in the areas of his game that most affected the productivity of his 2010 campaign. He reduced his whiffs from 25.4% to 23.1% while simultaneously keeping his unintentional walk rate steady (7.3%/7.3%). Both his raw total of free passes and his walk rate increased (53 to 74 and 7.9% to 10.7%) due to 24 intentionally-awarded trips to first base. While many would discount this as simply a product of a horrid lineup around him, Matt’s dominant offensive season and ability to go yard in any situation also led to more four-ball, no-strike walks.

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The lineup around Kemp is yet another reason to praise him for the season-long Beast Mode that earned him the NL Hank Aaron Award as the top performer in the Senior Circuit. Matt crushed both lefties and righties (.341/.461/.682/1.143 & .319/.380/.560/.940, respectively), increased the amount of line drives he hit (20% to 23.2%), and continued to not make weak contact, as he popped up to an infielder only 2.2 percent of the time. All of this occurred with guys like Juan Uribe and James Loney providing “protection”.

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Defensive metrics over one season shouldn’t be taken as a picture of the player’s complete defensive skill set, and I’ll never be convinced that Matt’s 2010 season actually yielded a -27.5 UZR/150, but 2011 did see an improvement in fielding numbers, as he totaled a -4.7 UZR/150. With some conflicting numbers on defense (an average of a -9.5 UZR/150 over the last three seasons, including the one atrocious year), I believe that we can all agree on the basis of Matt’s glove work is this: he has a tremendous arm, great speed, and can run down a lot of balls despite the occasional bad route.

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As it stands, his 2010 season appears to be the outlier both defensively and overall, as he has produced two 5+ WAR seasons with the one down year in-between, as well as a pretty good 2008 season as a 23-year-old.

Questions regarding Kemp’s aptitude and intelligence were misguided from the start, and frankly were intellectually lazy as well, bordering on TMZ-ish analysis. These ideas ignored the numbers, which clearly pointed to where Matt’s game had fallen off between 2009 and 2010, and his 2011 performance cemented that he was more than just a big bag of tools.

About Greg Zakwin

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