A Brief Defense of Matt Kemp, Leadoff Hitter

The Padres have shifted Matt Kemp in the lineup tonight from his usual cleanup slot to leadoff, a seemingly peculiar move for a player who has posted a .281 on-base percentage with 13 walks on the season.

The move has been met, not surprisingly, with a good deal of outage on Twitter, as many fans and analysts have been clamoring for Kemp to move down in the order for weeks now. While I wouldn’t go so far as to classify it as a good move, it’s hard to get too upset about it.

First, lineups don’t really matter, not in the way people want to believe they do. Most studies show that a truly sabermetric-optimized batting order might net a team five or 10 runs over an entire season. Tinkering with a guy here and there isn’t going to have a major impact on a team’s run production, positive or negative. That said, besides player preferences, there’s not much reason not to run an optimized batting order out there every night.

The bigger issue — for me, anyway — is that Kemp isn’t really a .281 OBP hitter. If he is, he shouldn’t even be on the team, let alone batting first or third or fourth. Sure, he’s been terrible so far in 2015, but from 2012-2014 he posted a .349 OBP. How many Padres players on the current roster have posted an OBP that high in that span? Just one — Justin Upton, and his OBP was just a single point higher than Kemp’s in those years.

Take a look at the current Steamer rest-of-season projections. Kemp’s 112 wRC+ ranks second on the team, behind Upton, and his on-base percentage ranks third, behind Upton and Yonder Alonso. Unless there’s reason to believe Kemp has truly fallen this far — injuries, for example — his true talent level as a hitter still makes him one of the Padres’ biggest threats, and 300-some ugly plate appearances don’t negate a career’s worth of (mostly good) work.

Kemp batting leadoff still doesn’t make much sense. Alonso, a high contact/OBP guy with less power, fits the role better, and Kemp should probably hit fifth, or maybe second. But if Murphy and/or Padres’ brass thinks it might spark something in Kemp — maybe some needed patience — it’s probably worth a try. Either way, it’s nothing to be outraged about.

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  • Pat

    Why must you always be so reasonable Dustin? Where’s the outrage? 🙂

    I’ve been wondering about Kemp. Is he injured? Honestly he lumbers in the field or at least seemingly so. But he’s been stealing a bag here and there. I don’t know but whatever it is I hope he fixes it soon!