Commentary

Matt Kemp makes his MVP push

A 4-for-5 night in beating Giants vaults Dodgers' OF into middle of the conversation

Updated: September 23, 2011, 3:34 AM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- On an evening when everything felt so, well, final, when the Los Angeles Dodgers were playing their last home game of the season, and Hiroki Kuroda was making what could be his last home start in the U.S. and Josh Rawitch, the team's departing chief publicist, was being given a press-box sendoff of a cake surrounded by several dozen McDonald's cheeseburgers, the loudest farewell was delivered, appropriately enough, by the loudest guy in the organization.

Matt Kemp always seems to be the center of attention on this team whether in the clubhouse, where his booming voice can always been heard above all others, or on the field, where he finally blossomed this season not only into the middle-of-the-order menace he was always supposed to be but also into quite possibly the best player in the National League.

Kemp hogged the spotlight again in the Dodgers' home finale Thursday night, delivering a career-high three doubles before capping it off with a towering, two-run homer to straightaway center field in an 8-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants before 37,560 at Dodger Stadium, a game that dealt a near-fatal blow to any thought the defending World Series champions still harbored of returning to the playoffs.

The home run was Kemp's 36th to go with his 40 stolen bases, leaving a faint flicker of hope in the six road games the Dodgers still have to play that he can become the fifth player in major league history to join the 40/40 club. He also scored three runs and, for the mathematically challenged, amassed 10 total bases, the equivalent of hitting for the cycle.

And yes, every time he did any of those things, it was greeted with a thunderous chant of "M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P,"' from a crowd that included his visiting mother from Oklahoma.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireMatt Kemp's recent surge has put him in contention to possibly winning the triple crown.

"It was pretty unbelievable," Kemp said. "I felt it tonight. It was one of those nights. I had my mom sitting there in the front row, by the on-deck circle, and that makes it even more special when she comes to games. She has been here two days and seen two home runs. She is going with us to San Diego, too, we're fixing to drive down there right now, so I might have a chance to do that again. If this keeps up, I may have to take her to Arizona, too."

And so, it is time to ask the question: Is Kemp indeed the NL MVP?

It is an issue that is far more complex than the rather simple argument of whether Kemp deserves the award. With six games to go, that aforementioned trip to San Diego and Arizona, Kemp has a real shot at winning the Triple Crown, something no NL player has done in 74 years. Kemp is hitting .336, which is third in the league but just four points behind the leader, Milwaukee's Ryan Braun. His 36 homers are second, but one behind Albert Pujols. And he has five more RBIs than any other NL player.

If Kemp ends up leading the league in all three categories, there will be no debate as to his worthiness for the award.

"I was kind of messing around earlier, going through the stat sheet in every category," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He is right there in home runs, right there in RBI, right there in on-base [percentage], walks, hitting at night, hitting during the day. It's impressive. Outfield assists. You talk about a guy who is the total package, and he has been doing that all year long.

"If you look at a guy as being the best player in the National League, I think you have to look at Matt. I know that when you all vote, you look at guys on winning teams, but his numbers have really been outstanding all year long in a lot of different categories."

The "you all" to which Mattingly referred, of course, are members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, of which 32 -- two in each NL city -- will decide Kemp's fate. And that is where the fact Kemp may be deserving of the award has almost no bearing on whether he actually will get it.

It isn't as simple as the majority of those voting writers deciding Kemp is deserving. It's more complicated than that. Each ballot turned it must contain 10 names, ranked one through 10, the guy in the top spot being the guy that particular voter believes should be the MVP. Those ballots are tallied on a points system, each No. 1 vote earning 10 points, then in descending order with each 10th-place vote getting one point. It is the guy with the most points -- not necessarily the most first-place votes -- who gets the award.

Further muddling things is that unlike the Cy Young Award, which in theory goes to the league's best pitcher, the MVP is for the league's "most valuable" player, which isn't necessarily the league's "best" player. And so, a lot of this will depend on which writers are chosen to vote and what their individual philosophies are and what those philosophies add up to in the end.

For the first time in several years, your humble correspondent isn't an NL MVP voter. But when I have been, I have always taken the "most valuable" phrase as literally as I can, believing that Kirk Gibson was the quintessential MVP for the Dodgers in 1988 because, while he didn't put up MVP numbers that year (.290, 25 homers, 76 RBIs), the Dodgers clearly wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the playoffs that year without him.

Well, the Dodgers aren't going to the playoffs at all this year. And the Arizona Diamondbacks, widely thought to be in for a dismal season last spring, are about to win a division title. Where would they be without Justin Upton, whose numbers pale in comparison to Kemp's -- he is hitting .292 with 31 homers and 88 RBIs, but with a league-leading 39 doubles and a solid .372 OBP -- but nevertheless has played an outsized role in a surprising season for the Diamondbacks?

And if the surging St. Louis Cardinals somehow steal the NL wild card, can Albert Pujols be dismissed from any consideration as the "most valuable" player? He is hitting .427 with 18 RBIs and a .464 OBP this month, an explosion that has coincided with his team's.

There also has been plenty of talk in support of Braun, but if you're looking for a true "most valuable" player, that's a tough sell. Yes, the Brewers are safely ahead in the NL Central, but they were supposed to be good, and while they wouldn't be as good without Braun, you have to figure they would still be pretty good with Prince Fielder in their lineup.

None of this necessarily means, of course, that Kemp won't be the guy. From where I sit, I still think he has a really good shot, especially if the East Coast voters who don't see him that often take notice of the numbers he is putting up. But much like '88, this could well be one of those years where the best numbers don't translate into an MVP award -- unless Kemp accomplishes something otherworldly, which is still a possibility.

Simply getting to 40/40 could do it, although of the four previous players to get there, only one -- Oakland's Jose Canseco in 1988 -- won his league MVP award. None of the others finished higher than fifth in the balloting the year they did it. But if Kemp somehow wins the Triple Crown, then it would be impossible to deny him, I think, because he will have done something that is virtually impossible to do. It hasn't been done in either league since 1967.

My guess is that the minds of most of the voters have yet to be made up, and a lot will depend on what happens over these final six days of the season. But if nothing else, we can be sure we are witnessing a season for the ages by one of the best players of his generation, and considering he will turn 27 on Friday, we also can feel fairly confident that we will continue to watch him for many years to come, and there will be multiple MVP awards in his future.

MVP or not, the perfect epitaph on Kemp's season might have been uttered by the player himself after the game, in response to a reporter's question. That question wasn't about all the issues and frustrations and underachievement Kemp went through last season, when the coaching staff and front office did little to hide their displeasure with him, and neither was the answer. But Kemp, in a soft voice that bore no resemblance to the boisterous, impossible-to-ignore countenance he normally brings to the room, said this:

"I don't regret anything that has happened this season."

And he shouldn't have to. Even if there isn't an MVP award in his immediate future.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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