Much has been made of the owner-less Los Angeles Dodgers decision to hand Matt Kemp 160 million dollars over the course of eight seasons. His MVP caliber 2011 season is a stark contrast to his surprisingly poor 2010 season. You can make this about UZR being a flawed statistic, but the truth is that Kemp wasn’t exactly such a good hitter that season. However, no “replacement” player in history has ever turned around and had an 8 WAR season afterwards, so we can thus prove his 2010 to be a statistical anomaly mainly brought down by UZR. In a down year, he was still about a league-average hitter offensively in ’10, and he had a 5.2 WAR in 2009.
There is always a huge risk in giving a center fielder an eight year deal, but Matt Kemp is one of the few CFs who would ever merit such a contract. He’s durable, athletic, and is a very marketable player. I mean, he only dated Rihanna last season (much to the chagrin of Joe Torre). Most sabermatricians don’t take into account the mental portion of the game enough, and dating Rihanna is obviously going to be a huge distraction. Not only that, but Torre wasn’t exactly helping out Kemp either that season.
I do have two problems with Kemp going forward, and they are his strikeout rate and BABIP. The K rate will always be there and is one of Kemp’s flaws, so I would much rather address the BABIP. Kemp had an extremely unsustainable .380 BABIP, but he does have a career .352 BABIP and Bill James projects him to have a .351 BABIP in 2012. That being said, Kemp was lucky last season, but he wasn’t extremely lucky and shouldn’t have a major drop off in overall offensive production in coming years.
I expect Kemp to have a string of 5-6 WAR seasons until he turns 30, and then he will decline from then on. Thus, he should be worth about 160 million dollars over those eight years with an average of about 4.5 WAR per season. The deal given to Kemp is risky- he will certainly decline- but reasonable given what he should be able to accomplish in his peak. It is also very possible that he reels off consecutive 6-7 WAR seasons with all that talent and upside he has and maxes out this deal. It isn’t likely, but again, I can’t recall an 8.7 WAR player who suddenly nosedived. Then again, center field is an extremely difficult position to predict for the future with how swift declines can be (Carlos Beltran).
It seems as if Kemp has genuinely improved as a hitter in 2011, because he has a better line drive stroke and really added some power (.262 ISO) making him a versatile threat who can beat you in many different ways at the plate. He has also improved on off speed pitches, which shows an improved approach at the plate. Going back to the BABIP paragraph, Kemp’s increase in liners shows a player who is one of those (like Joey Votto) who can sustain a high BABIP.
Matt Kemp is one of the most talented players in baseball, even when you consider his subpar defense. Kemp should continue to steal bases at a high rate, hit for power, get on base (should have a .360 OBP), and his production is certainly terrific for a center fielder. Kemp is the face of the franchise- along with ace Clayton Kershaw– and has maintained that he wants to stay in LA (understandably, it’s a big market) and be their “guy” going forward. Kemp should generate quite a bit of revenue for the Dodgers, and he provides a glimmer of hope for a franchise still in disarray.