Commentary

.400 miles away for Matt Kemp

The greatest offensive April ever (perhaps) has observers thinking history

Updated: May 3, 2012, 12:59 PM ET
By Jon Weisman | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

When a ballplayer takes a .400 batting average into May, you're supposed to know not to ask whether he can take it through the end of the season.

You know that no major leaguer has hit .400 over a season since Ted Williams in 1941. You know it's a barrier that has withstood Stan Musial, Rod Carew, George Brett, Andres Galarraga, Tony Gwynn, Larry Walker, Nomar Garciaparra, Todd Helton, Barry Bonds and Ichiro Suzuki -- all of whom have hit at least .375 since '41, but never .400.

What does Matt Kemp, now batting .411 on May 2, have that these guys didn't have? Probably nothing, or a figure approaching nothing.

Last weekend, David Pinto of Baseball Musings ran some numbers. Kemp had just gone 2-for-4 in Friday's Los Angeles Dodgers victory over Washington, raising his batting average to .452. Pinto found that Kemp's probability of hitting .400 this year was 0.0000016.

If he played a million baseball seasons, the odds say Kemp wouldn't hit .400 in two of them. And that was before his batting average fell 43 points in less than a week.

So what are we doing here?

Here are two reasons to keep having the conversation.

1. No cigar, but close

Though not a soul has hit .400 in the majors since before Pearl Harbor, they've certainly made it interesting. In the strike-shortened year of 1994, Gwynn missed .400 by three hits in 110 games. In 1980, Brett missed by five hits in 117 games. Ichiro, who played in 161 games in 2004, missed .400 by 20 hits -- not even an extra hit per week.

Obviously, .400 appears like a ceiling that major leaguers can no longer bust through, but this isn't like trying to be the first man to Jupiter as much as it is like trying to be the next Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier. Or something like that. You get the idea. The impossible, on some small level, seems doable.

2. The potential for mastery

There's something about the way Kemp has hit with such authority for the first month of the season -- while also striking out his typical 23 times in 24 games -- that might get you thinking. Yes, baseball is the most humbling of games, but what if, for all the many ways Kemp has crushed the ball in 2012, he still improves as the season goes on. What if, at 27, amid his torrent of home runs, he figures something out about the pitches that still fool him from time to time and he learns to make better contact.

Kemp batted .442 on balls in play through the end of April. That figure is kind of insane, but after hitting .380 on balls in play last year, it can't help but make you wonder a little what he might do if he could cut down the strikeouts without sacrificing other parts of his game.

None of this makes me think the chances for Kemp to hit .400 are much better than two in a million, but let's put it this way: If October arrives and Kemp has succeeded, these will be the reasons.

Even if he doesn't hit .400, nor come close to that 50-homer, 50-steal target he boldly set for himself, it's not as if Kemp doesn't have a shot at one of baseball's hallowed marks. No player has won the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and after winning two categories last year and finishing third in another, Kemp truly has a realistic shot at that stunning achievement.

Jon Weisman

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Jon Weisman is the author of Dodger Thoughts and a TV editor and writer for Variety.