Matt Kemp, The Brink Of Disaster

Matt Kemp Batting for the Padres, September 2015. Photo by Arturo Pardavila III

Matt Kemp taking batting practice with the Padres, September 2015. Photo by Arturo Pardavila III. Creative Commons license.

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:

matt kemp uzr

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.

His average batted ball velocity last year sat at 89.38, or 98 out of 221 qualified batters and tied with Nick Hundley.

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.

The Future

Watching him run hurts my own hips. And it might be a coincidence but it’s damn difficult to find video on 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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  • Pat

    Ugh! Reality bites!

    • Sac Bunt Chris

      It’s rough.

  • Billy Lybarger

    I’m planning a similar analysis of James Shields because I don’t think we can Debbie Downer this upcoming season enough.

  • vapadres

    Ya know, when I first got to camp I figured this team had no chance. I was just hopin’ we’d win enough that I could stay on and really start to build something here. But there’s a lotta talent on this club, Charlie. The veterans are starting to play back to form and the rookies are developing faster than I thought. There’s two or three potential all-stars in there. I think we’re a first division team right now.

  • vapadres

    All we need is for something to bring it all together

    • Shaqapopolis

      Like a Seth Smith type?

      • vapadres

        I was thinking of an owner that wanted to fire everyone and relocate the team to Miami, but A Seth Smith type could work too

  • Jefe

    Thanks Chris – sure needed the pep talk 😉

    • Sac Bunt Chris

      Glad I could help out!

  • Tony Losoya

    At he got us that Cycle…

  • Tom Waits

    I’ve heard some suggestions that Andy Green’s shifting expertise and better coaching could help Kemp’s defense. Not buying it. Unless Green has precognitive powers and can place Kemp within arm’s reach of a batted ball’s landing point, the stiff legs and incomprehensible routes will still kill most of his value.

    I like looking back at the posts from Dustin and Geoff and seeing how many people turned a blind eye to Kemp’s defense, Grandal’s skills, and Rene Rivera’s impending impersonation of Wile E. Coyote (cliff! meep meep!) That was all freely available information.

    It’s less fun to see the same attitude applied to the 2016 team. You expect fans to be optimistic, but it’s disheartening to hear people who (I assume) are employed and can vote say that Blash = Justin Upton, that Myers and his wrists will be rendered Bunyanesque by the wearing of a 1b mitt, that Melvin Upton can play CF on a competitive team, or that Alexi is the secret ingredient for success. It’s disheartening not just in baseball terms, but in a “I’m losing hope in humanity, and get the hell off my lawn” way.

    • Sac Bunt Chris

      Awww. I thought my post might make people sad, but man. I think there’s always going to be irrational optimism. There are lots of people who are employed full time, in different capacities, to sell the team every year. These people have a lot of power.

      Also being happy is more fun than being sad. Sports exist to make us happy. If people are happier by being optimistic, even if that doesn’t fit the most likely scenarios, I think that’s ok.

  • ballybunion

    I’ll take this effort as a needed pinprick to prevent the cock-eyed optimists from becoming too, well… cock-eyed. Already I’ve heard feverish fans taiking “winning record”! I don’t want to sound like Jeff Moorad but a win total “that begins with 8” is really pushing it. There are too many moving parts on this team to expect anything more than the S.S. Green’s shakedown cruise.

    If Preller is as smart as I think he is, he always intended the Kemp acquisition to be the big splash to wake up the fans, and keep Kemp for two years before shipping him to an AL team. In fact, there will be a DH opening in Boston next off-season, and Dombrowski has a proven track record of swapping potential to get proven talent. He might even take Kemp’s whole salary!

    • Tom Waits

      Taking on a flawed and expensive player with the expectation that you could flip him two years later isn’t a sign of smarts. It’s the opposite. The insistence on playing Kemp in RF, and playing him virtually every inning, is another sign that Preller doesn’t grasp how to make the best use of him.

      Trading for Upton, Myers, and Kimbrel, plus signing Shields, would have woken up the fans just fine.

      Kemp wouldn’t even be that good as a DH without a big improvement. Depending on which measure you like, and where you draw the qualifying at-bat line, his 2015 offensive production puts him in the 9th-12th range. He absolutely can be a better hitter than he was last year, but he’s not going to be attractive as a DH unless he does it. A return to his 2014 numbers and he looks tasty to several teams.

      Boston’s most likely DH after Ortiz is named Hanley Ramirez.

      • ballybunion

        Well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. Seriously, others aren’t as down on Kemp’s hitting ability and value as you are, and some of them are general managers who would take him in a heartbeat – at the right price. You can blame Bud Black and Pat Murphy for running him out there every game and every inning. Once Upton and Jankowski were available, Kemp could have been given the last couple innings off. I’d personally take Kemp over Hanley for the more consistent power he provides.

      • Tom Waits

        Kemp hit 23 HR last year. 41 other guys hit that many or more. 70 guys put up a better wRC+. 80 were better in wOBA. He’s shown that he can be much better than that, but nobody’s buying until he does.

        Kemp’s 2015 was comparable to Nelson Cruz’s 2013. Cruz was better in rates, but played less (still hit more HR). Both terrible defenders. Cruz got 8 million from Baltimore. Then he had his huge 2014 and got 4/57. Right now we have Kemp at 4/72. The math seems straightforward. Teams don’t him at 18 million at all. They won’t want him at 14 million unless he has a big 2016. Preller’s not willing to get him down to 10-11 million. Therefore we get to see Kemp “play” right field some more.

        Black and Murphy worked for Preller. It takes one phone call to resolve the playing time situation. Preller didn’t feel the need to make that call.

        Hanley’s career ISO is 198, two points lower than Kemp. He’s not an ideal DH by any means, but he’s already there.

      • Pmurt Dlanod

        Don’t waste your time on this commenter. He is useless. He insisted to me a while back that Justin Upton would accept the qualifying offer.

      • Tom Waits

        I have no problem with ballybunion. I disagree with him on virtually everything, but maybe that makes me useless, not him.

      • Pmurt Dlanod

        Nah it’s him. He tried to tell me that Justin Upton would take the QO simply because “he’s young and has plenty of time to go for a big multi-year deal,” ignoring the obvious fact that there was simply no good reason for him to wait a year.

      • Sac Bunt Chris

        Please keep the conversation about baseball (or whatever stupid baseball related things we write about), not other commenters. Thanks.

      • Pmurt Dlanod

        I’m just calling him out on the carpet because he wants to be condescending towards me and argue some point that is completely flawed.