Apr 14, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp (27) reacts after hitting a solo home run in the second inning against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

Matt Kemp off to a hot start

Despite leading the National League with an outstanding 8.7 WAR in 2011, Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp lost out to fellow outfielder Ryan Braun in the NL MVP race. Later, it was found that Braun failed a drug test and could have lost his MVP award, and Kemp stated that he would not accept the award if Braun lost the appeal. Needless to say, Braun won his appeal and kept the MVP.

This isn’t about steroids, because Matt Kemp was the 2011 NL MVP regardless of whether or not Braun took PEDs or not. The 27-year-old CF was still below average on defense, but he wasn’t a tremendous liability on defense- unlike in 2010- and played just as well (poorly) as Braun, despite playing a more difficult position. If you flip around the digits of Kemp’s WAR, you get Braun’s 7.8 WAR season. Although the Brewers LF had an amazing season, he wasn’t up to Kemp’s level.

In the offseason, the Dodgers showed how important Matt Kemp is to the team by giving him a franchise record eight-year, $160 million extension. This game despite the Dodgers being in financial trouble and in a state of flux with the ownership situation. Eight seasons is a lot to commit to a 27-year-old center fielder, and a front office executive fainted somewhere in Toronto when the deal was announced.

Still, the moved signified the importance of the center fielder to the future of this Dodgers team. A team that needed to lock up their best player, their beacon of hope on the offensive end, and a sub-.500 team without many offensive pieces can’t afford to lose Matt Kemp. Although most people are against these sorts of long-term deals, the extension was actually well-received. I said that this was an exactly fair deal for both sides, and the risks in this deal are justified due to the importance of Matt Kemp to the team and the fact that he is the face of their franchise.

Coming into the season, most projection systems conservatively labeled Matt Kemp as a 6-6.5 WAR player, with his defense at the same subpar clip as last year, and his hitting somewhere above .380 wOBA (.419 wOBA last season). Most people, including yours truly, viewed Kemp as the early NL MVP favorite, with the also newly extended, face-of-the-franchise first baseman Joey Votto getting some love in that regard.

I know about sample size and all that, especially since I am saber-friendly and have brought up wOBA and WAR multiple times in this piece. However, I feel that we should enjoy Kemp’s hot start throughout the first nine games and 39 plate appearances.

The star has, as the Dodgers envisioned this offseason, been the heart and soul of this team already. He already has five homers, 15 RBIs, a .487 OBP, and .580 wOBA thus far. He is making good on the NL MVP picks, and he is on his way to quelling the unwarranted skepticism that his 2011 season was fluky. Never in the history of baseball has a player had an 8+ WAR season and then proceeded to play poorly, that’s not going to happen again; especially not with the talented Dodgers CF.

Before the season, ZiPS was a little lukewarm on Kemp’s prospects for the 2012 season, projecting a .373 wOBA, a 23.4 K%, 31 homers, 30 steals, and a .234 ISO.

Those are good numbers, but the updated ZiPS projections after these nine games have been noticeably better. Now, Matt Kemp is on pace for 36 dingers, a .251 ISO, a .363 OBP, and a .386 wOBA. Those numbers are actually more believable for one of the MVP favorites, and we’ll be hearing Kemp’s name even more as the season wears on.

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Tags: Joey Votto Los Angeles Dodgers Matt Kemp Milwaukee Brewers NL MVP Ryan Braun

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