Dodgers begin to peel back the curtain on Matt Kemp’s struggles with shoulder and swing

MattKempEmo

Recently, I wrote about what I thought Matt Kemp was doing wrong with his hitting mechanics and how I thought his shoulder’s health might factor into it. Since then, coincidentally, a ton of information regarding his struggles has come out, as both the Dodgers and Kemp himself apparently thought it was about time they came clean.

Kemp, despite still putting up a tough front, is undoubtedly aware that his swing is not where he wants it to be.

A frustrated Matt Kemp was out early Friday to take extra batting practice. Apparently, he did not believe he had solved the mystery of his swing.

At the end of the batting practice he did his best Bo Jackson impression, breaking his bat over his thigh. Then he walked to the dugout and threw the two pieces into a plastic trash can with vengeance.

Later at his clubhouse cubicle, he was composed but unwilling to discuss his frustration with batting practice.

“I was just working on some things,” Kemp said. “I’m good.”

As such, any criticism of him not working hard enough seems a bit misguided. Same for the narrative that he’s blissfully unaware that he has problems to conquer, which seems a bit redundant to say at this point, but there are people out there who actually believe it.

Part of the problem regarding the lack of understanding from fans is, of course, the last quote he gave. It fits with the general stance that instead of being upfront about his injury and how it affects him, he tries to not show weakness and sweeps it under the rug.

Kemp had major off-season shoulder surgery, but has otherwise continually maintained that his shoulder was fine. Friday, too, he said he was satisfied the shoulder was sound.

“Yeah, I am,” he said. “It’s not my shoulder.”

I understand this attitude, because nobody wants to seem as if they’re making excuses. It’s the same with any injury, where you don’t want to appear soft and you don’t want to even give a hint of weakness because there’s constant paranoia that somebody younger, cheaper, and better is going to take your job. Also, there’s not wanting to let the opponent know you’re vulnerable.

However, he’s coming off major shoulder surgery, and that attitude would be a lot more understandable for players like Luis Cruz or Dee Gordon, guys scrapping by trying to cling to a big-league roster spot. Less so for franchise players, as fans ended up expecting Matt Kemp to be Matt Kemp from the get-go, when the reality is that even he knew he couldn’t be that guy yet.

Of course, the reason he can’t be that guy yet is complex, but almost all of it can be traced back to the medical part of this mess. Yes, the concern is over his power, but I don’t think we’re even at the stage where we can judge his whether his power is there since he can’t consistently square up a ball yet.

Hell, it was just a couple days ago that the medical staff cleared him to expand his lifting regimen to strengthen the shoulder.

The Dodgers medical staff has limited Kemp in the weight room, but might soon allow him to do more to strengthen his shoulder.

“They’ve held him back for sure from doing certain things, and I think they’re getting to a point where they may let him do some more of that,” Mattingly said. “There has been talk about allowing him to start doing a little bit more weight training, allowing him to do some things that he hasn’t been able to do.”

Then there’s this via Peter Gammons, who talks with Dr. Neal ElAttrache about the specific shoulder labrum injury.

“The importance of the shoulder in hitting is underestimated,” says Dr. ElAttrache. “What is particularly important is the lead shoulder.” Kemp missed nearly two months of the 2012 season with hamstring pulls and other issues, but on August 28 he suffered his most significant injury when he crashed into a fence in Colorado, He continued to play the rest of the season, but after the Dodgers were eliminated he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum and some minor damage to the rotator cuff.

The labrum tear was in the front of his left shoulder, the lead shoulder as a righthanded hitter. Mattingly adds that Kemp will return to his star level once he’s healthy; Kemp loves the limelight, but he is one of the rare players who accepts every thing that goes along with stardom. But “health” is far more complex than weeks of rehab and training following labrum surgery.

“Trying to re-establish ones mechanics after surgery is a complex process,” says Dr. ElAttrache, speaking generally. “It’s extremely delicate. It involves rebuilding strength, and all that goes into the swing from the front shoulder. It takes perfect mechanics to regain bat speed and the swing path. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes more.

“A player may think he is fully recovered, especially after all the work that rehab entails, but regaining the mechanics doesn’t come easily,” says the doctor. “Sometimes we can see a hitter opening up too quickly. He may step out with his front foot to catch up to pitches, and also so he doesn’t have to finish off his swing, which puts a great deal of pressure on the shoulder, especially the front of the lead shoulder.

“Sometimes those mechanics can be just a tick off, and they are hard to re-establish. I’m certain there are cases where the should is never exactly the same as before an injury or the gradual wearing down process. It is mechanical. It can be mental. For the hitter, a shoulder injury isn’t really any different that a shoulder injury can be for a pitcher.”

“Never underestimate the complexities of the mechanics of hitting,” says Dr. ElAttrache. “Especially when dealing with the lead shoulder.”

So there’s some real concerns there, and thus there are obviously real consequences when trying to play through his struggles, all of which can explain what he’s going through.

It also connects heavily to my analysis, as it specifically explains how the injury can throw off a hitter’s swing. But I’m hardly the only one saying that the swing needs work, as Don Mattingly has recently admitted as much in interviews.

Manager Don Mattingly said there have been no medical reports that Kemp has been having any issue with his shoulder, but he has observed a slight difference in his swing.

“I noticed his swing getting cut off, but nobody’s said anything medically that his shoulder is tight,” Mattingly said. “When his swing is good, it’s center field, right-center. He still top-spins the ball to left field and always has.

“To me the key is, is he top-spinning into left-center or is he top-spinning the ball to short? That’s two different things. If he’s top-spinning in left-center and left field, it tells me he’s getting extension to a certain point and he’s cutting off just a little bit, but not that much.”

Mattingly, who took in Friday’s early batting practice for Hanley Ramirez, Dee Gordon and Kemp, said his center-fielder was simply trying to work through some swing issues.

“He’s not where he wants to be,” Mattingly said. “He’s frustrated out there. The biggest thing we want to do with Matt is try to keep the bat in the strike zone longer. Just from my standpoint of watching Matt the year before and this year, when he’s going good he’s driving the ball to center field, right-center.”

It’s always nice to be able to compare your analysis with what the actual staff sees. It’s even better when you can point to stuff they say like, “Sometimes we can see a hitter opening up too quickly. He may step out with his front foot to catch up to pitches, and also so he doesn’t have to finish off his swing…” and “I noticed his swing getting cut off…“, and say to yourself, “See, I’m not a complete idiot just making stuff up on the Internet.”

But more important than my own interests, this flood of information after the fact is good to see, as I think it reassures people that the team acknowledges a problem, it exposes people to the root causes of his failures, and it shows that they’re actively working to solve it.

Basically, as I assured people bashing the staff after I wrote the article, Mattingly and Mark McGwire aren’t idiots. They know a ton more than I do about what’s going on, and they’re best to help him get through it. Remember, Mattingly was the guy who helped him work through his 2010 struggles in the first place.

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Most fans, though, are understandably concerned. Ignoring all the idiots who just blindly hate because a player isn’t playing well, I’ve heard a lot of intelligent worry in comments and tweets, and there’s justifiably legitimate concern about his swing and his health.

With that said, I would say the generalized interest I have in him digging himself out of it is three-fold:

1) Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw are my two favorites players since I was scarred by the FOX ownership when Mike Piazza was traded.

2) His success or failure has, for better or worse, been tied directly with the Dodgers offensive production. He’s also the position player with the most upside in the organization by far, alongside maybe (hopefully) Yasiel Puig.

3) He has already fixed similar issues before, and the guy who fixed him is still with the club. Plus, they recognize it and will work through it.

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As I said years ago about his 2010 mechanical adjustments, nobody can predict how this will end up. It’s fickle, really. It could all click for him tomorrow, it could take a year or more like Dr. Neal ElAttrache speculated, or it could never come back like Adrian Gonzalez came to grips with.

Regardless of what happens years from now or tomorrow, the point of all of this wasn’t to heighten worrying, cause mocking, or initiate judging, but simply to show that there are always fixable flaws in players when the talent is there, and that this issue goes way beyond the basic arguments many are so desperate to cling to.

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