Sunday, August 14, 2011
Matt Kemp's shot at 40/40 a long one
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- Matt Kemp's season for the ages is beginning to grow thick with subplots.
Can he win the National League Most Valuable Player award despite playing for a lousy club? Can the bankrupt Los Angeles Dodgers come up with enough money to hold onto him this winter, when he won't be eligible for free agency but when the numbers he is putting up probably will drive his salary in his final winter of arbitration up near the eight-figure range? And if the Dodgers do manage to hold onto him for another year, or perhaps even longer, can he ever repeat the level of production he has given them this season?
Those are all worthy questions, but we won't know the answer to any of them anytime soon. So after Kemp's two-run homer in the bottom of the first inning Saturday night started the Dodgers on their way to a 6-1 pounding of the hapless Houston Astros before 36,111 at Dodger Stadium, Clayton Kershaw taking it the rest of the way with another of those masterful performances we have actually come to expect of him, I thought we should examine another issue with Kemp, because this one will be answered long before any of those others will.
Can Kemp become the fifth player in major league history to reach the exclusive 40/40 club?
Matt Kemp has more stolen bases than home runs at this point, making it harder for him to reach 40 in each category as the season winds down.
There is no denying that he has the skill set to get there. Although it isn't necessarily commonplace, it also isn't all that rare that a player comes along who has both home run power and base-stealing speed. But a power hitter with the ability to steal 40 or more bases is extremely rare, and that is why only four other players -- and none before 1988, when Jose Canseco became the first to do it -- have gotten there.
The others were Barry Bonds in 1996, Alex Rodriguez in 1998 and Alfonso Soriano in 2006.
If you do the math, the odds would seem to be stacked against Kemp.
First, he has to avoid injury, even the kind that might sideline him for a day or two. To get to 40/40, you pretty much have to play every game, and Kemp has done that so far, appearing in all 118 of the Dodgers' games and starting all but two of them. If he does that, he probably will get 40 steals, assuming he doesn't go into a lengthy slump that would limit the number of times he gets on base, which in turn would limit his chances to steal.
Kemp will go into Sunday's series finale against the Astros with 30 steals. Based on games played, that puts him on pace for 41.
It is in the home run department, however, where he may fall short.
Kemp's first-inning blast off Wandy Rodriguez was his 27th of the season, and it came in his 493rd plate appearance. He finished the game with 496 plate appearances, an average of 4.2 a game through 118 games. At that pace, he will finish the season with 678 PAs, which means at his current rate of one home run every 18.4 PAs, he will hit 37 homers.
Unless, of course, he picks up that pace.
"Home run hitters sometimes hit them in bunches," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "Matt has been feeling good all year and having good at-bats. We still have to go to Colorado and Arizona, and we're going to Milwaukee next week. The ball jumps out of those ballparks, so a guy like him could hit five or 10 in a short span of time."
What Mattingly didn't say, and didn't have to, is that Kemp's biggest hurdle in the chase for 40/40 might be his home park, which plays pretty fair during the daytime but where the vast majority of the games are at night, when the marine layer and typically cooler air turns the place into a death trap for fly balls.
Consider this rather striking split: Kemp is averaging a home run every 21.9 PAs at home this year, one every 15.5 PAs on the road. The good news there, though, is that of the Dodgers' 44 remaining games, well over half of them (27) are on the road. On the other hand, that evens out when you consider that six of those road games are in San Diego and San Francisco, where deep fences and spacious outfields favor pitchers over hitters.
In a combined 50 plate appearances in those two parks this year, Kemp has zero homers.
Another problem for Kemp could be the fact he has so little protection in the lineup that he already has set a career high for walks, which he set when the Astros gave him an intentional pass in the fifth inning Saturday night. It was his 54th walk of the season (his 15th intentional), and every one of those is a plate appearance in which he had no shot at hitting a home run. He is on pace for 74 walks, fewer than Canseco or Bonds had in their 40/40 seasons but more than either Rodriguez or Soriano had in theirs.
Additionally, Kemp has cut down on his strikeouts this season, averaging one every 4.6 PAs. But based on that projection of 678 PAs, he still will strike out 146 times this year, more than all but Soriano among previous members of the 40/40 club.
By the way, those 678 PAs don't play in Kemp's favor, either. Of the previous four players to reach 40/40, only Bonds, who had 675, had fewer than 700 PAs. Rodriguez, who batted first or second in all but 11 of the Seattle Mariners' games in 1998, had a staggering 748 PAs that year -- although it is worth mentioning that he also had reached 40/40 by Game 144.
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The feeling here is that Kemp isn't going to make it. The numbers simply aren't in his favor. However, there is one factor that could change that. Suppose Kemp reaches 40 steals, then makes a push for 40 homers. Would it be selfish? Well, yeah, but the Dodgers (54-64) aren't going to be fighting for anything from a team standpoint, and how many chances does a player have to chase immortality? Could anyone blame him if he did it?
Here, though, is the problem with that: It's hard to hit home runs when you're trying to.
"That isn't how you hit them," Mattingly said. "That is how you get into trouble."
When Bonds reached 40/40 in '96, he hit his 40th homer in Game 150, then hit his 42nd and final one in Game 154. But it took a late push of nine steals in nine games for him to reach 40/40, and when he finally did in Game 160, he then took the final two games of the season off. The point is, Bonds got his homers first, then tried to rack up steals. If you can get on base enough, you can do it that way. But trying to swing for the fences to reach 40 homers probably won't work.
Case in point was one guy who came tantalizingly close to 40/40 and didn't get there. That would be Vladimir Guerrero of the Montreal Expos, who in 2002 stole his 40th base in Game 156, then hit his 39th homer in Game 157. With five games to come up with that one home run, he never got it. I was at Olympic Stadium on the final day of that season, and when Guerrero was called out on a controversial checked swing on what surely would be his final at-bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, the place went nuts, angry fans littering the field with debris and the visiting Cincinnati Reds heading to their dugout until order was restored.
That is why, as I sit here now, I don't think Kemp will do it. His steals are ahead of his home runs, he is being pitched around too often, he still strikes out too much, and because he bats fourth as opposed to first or second, he isn't going to get enough plate appearances.
But that doesn't mean it isn't going to be fun to watch him try. And given that this team doesn't offer much else in the way of entertainment -- other than, say, watching Kershaw (14-5) dominate every five days -- that at least is enough to keep our attention.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.