Matt Kemp is better than you
April, 15, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp hit another home run Sunday as the Dodgers won their ninth game of the season.It was about as perfect a day as you can dream up for the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the 65th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Vin Scully returned to the broadcast booth after missing five games, Matt Kemp homered again, and the Dodgers turned a bizarre triple play in the ninth inning of a tie game and then walked off in the bottom of the inning with their ninth win in 10 games.
On a day when baseball honored Robinson's legacy by having every person in uniform wear No. 42, Kemp's red-hot start -- six home runs in 10 games, including four in his past three, along with a .487 batting average and 16 RBIs -- seemed apropos: An African-American player wearing a Dodgers uniform making his statement about being the best player in the game.
"Thank u Jackie Robinson!!!" Kemp tweeted earlier in the day, before belting a solo home run to right field off Edinson Volquez in the third inning of L.A.'s 5-4 win over the Padres.
But it's also worth noting on this day of celebration that USA Today reported the percentage of African-American players on Opening Day rosters this year was 8.1 percent, down from 8.5 percent a year ago, with both figures dramatic decreases from 1975, when 27 percent of big leaguers were African-American.
The Dodgers feature Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, who struggled through 5.1 innings in getting a no-decision on Sunday, but it is Kemp who has become the face of the franchise after his near-MVP season of 2011 when many thought he was baseball's best all-around player. Kemp may not like the notion, but he's also symbolic of the type of player baseball must do a better job of attracting: Known for his basketball exploits in high school in Oklahoma, the Dodgers drafted Kemp in the sixth round in 2003 and convinced him to sign. His bonus of $130,000 was in line for that round; Kemp didn't have the grades for a Division I basketball scholarship and instead chose baseball.
We're lucky he did. He's insanely hot right now, one of those stretches in which you can't pitch to him. He went 3-for-4 with a walk on Sunday; he went 3-for-4 with two home runs on Saturday; he homered and drew three walks on Friday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kemp is one of just four players since 1920 hitting .450 with at least six home runs and 16 RBIs through his team's first 10 games, joining Dante Bichette (1994 Rockies), Lou Brock (1967 Cardinals) and Willie Mays (1964 Giants). His raw power allows him to wait for pitches and drive them to the opposite field -- four of his six homers have gone to right. The Dodgers play again Tuesday in Milwaukee, and I suspect the Brewers are going to be very careful with him.
At the start of the season, ESPN.com ranked the top 500 players in baseball. Kemp came in 13th; I thought it was a little low, but it was somewhat understandable if you factored in Kemp's disappointing 2010 when he hit just .249. But after hitting .324 with 39 home runs and 40 steals in 2011, Kemp intimated during spring training that he'd like to travel where no major leaguer has before: 50-50. While that goal may be difficult to reach, it also made a statement in my mind: Kemp isn't content being one of the best players in baseball; he wants to be the best. No questions asked.
The biggest roadblock to that happening will be his strikeout rate. He will strike out a lot -- 159 times in 2011, which ranked seventh in the NL. After a miserable spring training in which he struck out 26 times with just two walks in 65 at-bats, there were concerns that he'd start slow or that he'd lost control of the strike zone. But he flipped the switch on Opening Day and has been unstoppable since. The best sign for Dodgers fans: only seven strikeouts through 10 games. Kemp's .380 average on balls in play in 2011 matched Adrian Gonzalez for best in the majors; as hard as Kemp hits the ball, that figure wasn't necessarily a fluke, but some regression is likely. Fewer strikeouts, however, means more balls in play, which means a better likelihood of him hitting .300-plus again.
And if that happens, the debate may end up being: Who's No. 2?
* * * *
As for the Dodgers, everyone is already quick to point out that they've beaten up on the Padres and Pirates so far. Fair enough, I suppose, but 9-1 is still 9-1. The Dodgers are just the 11th team since 1990 to start 9-1 (the last team to start 10-0 was the 1987 Brewers). Here's how the previous 10 fared:
2011 Rangers: 96-66, reached World Series
2009 Marlins: 87-75, missed playoffs
2003 Yankees: 101-61, reached World Series
2003 Giants: 100-61, division champs
2003 Royals: 83-79, missed playoffs
2002 Indians: 74-88, missed playoffs
1996 Orioles: 88-74, won wild card
1994 Braves: 68-46, strike season
1992 Blue Jays: 96-66, World Series champs
1990 Reds: 91-71, World Series champs
Not including the '94 Braves, that's an average record of 91 wins and 71 losses. Only one of the teams finished under .500. Look, it's not a guarantee that the Dodgers are headed to the playoffs, but it certainly has to be viewed as a positive sign. They're 9-1 even though Kershaw hasn't won any of his three starts (though he has a 2.35 ERA). James Loney is hitting just .148. Leadoff hitter Dee Gordon, who delivered the game-winning hit on Sunday, is struggling with a .200 average and .273 on-base percentage.
But there are some signs that the Dodgers may be more competitive than most envisioned. The bullpen has a chance to be one of the best in the league with Kenley Jansen setting up Javy Guerra and a solid corps of middle men including Matt Guerrier and Josh Lindblom. Chad Billingsley had a rough 2011 (career-worst 4.21 ERA as he walked 84 in 188 innings), but he's been brilliant through two outings, allowing one run with a 15/1 strikeout/walk ratio. Aaron Harang's 13 strikeouts on Saturday may be a fluke but, hey, he's the team's fifth starter. Suddenly a rotation of Kershaw, Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Harang looks like it could be decent, especially in the NL West, not exactly a division full of mashers.
It's too early to make strong declarations, but I leave the first 10 days of the season with this thought: Kemp is on a mission and the Dodgers are looking like baseball's surprise team.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.