The Padres 2014-2015 offseason captured the attention of local fans and national pundits. The team wanted to generate emotion and excitement in San Diego baseball, and bolster an offense that’s been so bad for so long fans simply accept it as an inevitability. The hoopla was led-off by a trade involving, among other players, outfielder Matt Kemp and outfielder Matt Kemp’s contract for catcher Yasmani Grandal.
Our good buds Dustin and Geoff provided analysis of the deal at the time, and while they couldn’t know what AJ Preller had in mind for the rest of the offseason, they provided thoughtful and balanced analysis. Both nailed their prediction of Grandal as a 2015 breakout candidate. Here’s Geoff’s money graph:
Kemp’s defense? Depending on who you ask or what metrics you look at, he’s either kinda lousy or just plain awful. Here’s the thing, though. Whoever the Padres brought in to spice up their offense wasn’t coming to town to flash leather. It’s possible that Kemp could cost them games with his glove, but the hope is that his bat will be potent enough to offset that liability.
So, how lousy was Kemp’s defense? Did he hit enough to make up for it? What kind of player can we expect in the future? Can I convince you to keep reading? Let’s find out.
To evaluate his defense, we’ll look at Matt Kemp’s historical UZR/150. UZR is a counting stat that measures defense above or below average at that position. The 150 part means it’s adjusted to equalize playing time, which makes it work like a rate stat. For context, the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier‘s historic defensive season led the Majors in UZR/150 at 40.7. Jason Heyward‘s excellent but human 22.3 UZR/150 followed Kiermaier. At the other end of things, Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez was worst in the majors among qualifiers last year at -26.4.
Our boy Matt Kemp, sad to say, wasn’t far behind Alvarez at -18, good for 4th worst in baseball at a single position.
UZR is one of the best freely available methods of measuring defense. It isn’t perfect and a large sample size is needed, which is why I’ve helpfully created a graph that includes all 10,371 defensive innings of Kemp‘s career:
Again, UZR compares to league average at a position so it’s important to consider. Matt played primarily right field in 2007, center from 2008 through 2013, then left in 2014 and right again for the Padres last year. While below average defense in center isn’t ideal, what’s most concerning is Kemp’s last two seasons as a corner guy. They’re full seasons of work, and Kemp was bad.
His UZR tracks closely to his Defensive Runs Saved, another metric which gives us an additional layer of confidence in these numbers. Matt Kemp was very bad at playing defense.
The offense has hung in there. When the Padres traded for him, we dreamed on his phenomenal 2014 comeback offensive performance in his final season with the Dodgers. Unfortunately dreams aren’t always the best plan of action. A slow first half of 2015 was followed by another resurgence in the second half to combine for a slightly above average offensive season, bringing us full circle back to dreaming on an offseason that Kemp has figured something out.
Sadly, while we humans dream, computers compute, buzzkilling their way through 0s and 1s to find truth where our hearts find hope. Steamer projects Kemp at .268 / .325 / .450, and ZiPS at .261 / .317 / .421.
BRB, throwing my computer out the window. There’s some, but not a lot left to dream on.
Fitting It Together
After the trade, Geoff’s hope, was for “kinda lousy” defense to not completely obliterate the offensive value. Even with those “expectations,” the non-obliteration wasn’t to be. How bad was Kemp’s overall picture? So bad that even if you count his offensive resurgence in his final year in LA, plus all of 2013 and 2015, he’s combined for just 1.3 fWAR across all 3 seasons.
Eric Stults more than doubled Kemp’s fWAR total in the same period.
That’s the power of defense. It matters.
Watching him run hurts my own hips. And it might be a coincidence but it’s damn difficult to find video on Padres.com of Kemp actually sprinting. Perhaps related, I did find this video of Kemp receiving praise for what appeared to be a questionable route on a diving catch. I’m no scout but something is the matter. And I’m no Doctor, but if they haven’t already it’s hard to see how arthritic hips can get better. That’s what makes his situation so scary: he’ll be a 31 year old with bad hips. Sure, UZR and DRS aren’t perfect and perhaps the measurement could improve some, but based on history (see figure a, the giant-ass graph above) that isn’t likely. It could get worse.
Part of Ron Fowler’s plan for next season is to assume the Padres under-performed their true talent level last year, then hope and pray they overperform this year. While advocating for patience is reasonable in some scenarios, regression to the mean likely won’t save Matt Kemp. Steamer projects a slight offensive improvement while ZiPS expects a reduced offensive output. In either case, his defense holds him back so much that a slight uptick in offense won’t be enough to return Kemp to an above-average outfielder, let alone stardom. He’s an above-average DH in a league without one.
Then there’s the money. Apparently the Padres needed the cash last year, because most of them stacks coming from the Dodgers were already sent. The Padres will pay Kemp $18 million a year through 2019. While some (understandably) celebrate the Padres spending money at all, the team doesn’t act in a vacuum. Money given to Kemp is money not given to someone else, exemplified when the Padres dumped Jedd Gyorko’s affordable salary earlier this offseason.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence that Kemps skills: a decent bat, a flashy arm, and a charming personality are all marketable. We paid the price of a young catcher with star potential, $18 million, and playing time in exchange for a charming fake star and Commitment From Ownership. I’m not sure how much those latter things are worth, but my guess is “not enough.”
The Padres likely won’t break 80 wins again this year, a feat they’ve managed only 3 times the last decade. They aren’t in a position to afford a player for his name value, or who he used to be, especially when who he used to be was a Dodger. But barring a DH rule change, that’s mostly what they’re getting.
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