Commentary

Matt Kemp rises to baseball's penthouse

Updated: April 21, 2012, 10:51 PM ET
By Jon Weisman | Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

The story of Matt Kemp 's evolution from the Los Angeles Dodgers doghouse in 2010 to his place in baseball's penthouse today has been so well-chronicled, you might be excused for thinking that this was his only bend in the otherwise steady road to the top.

But looking back from what is now Kemp's 10th professional season and seventh in the majors to the beginning, we can see that his struggle in 2010 was the latest zigzag in a career full of them.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireMatt Kemp has come a long way in seven major league seasons.
It's fascinating to imagine what it must have been like to see the 18-year-old Kemp, taken in the sixth round of the 2003 amateur draft after a high school career more famous for its basketball exploits than anything on the diamond, playing for the Dodgers' Gulf Coast League rookie team. The man who proclaimed himself a potential 50-50 player this year was a 1-2 player back in '03: hitting one homer and stealing two bases in 43 games, with a .644 OPS.

Before his teenage years ended, however, Kemp firmly established himself as a prospect. In the South Atlantic League in 2004, Kemp finished tied for 13th in home runs -- but was younger than all but two people ahead of him, Ian Stewart and Delmon Young. That performance earned Kemp a promotion to high-A ball in Vero Beach of the Florida State League, where at age 20 in 2005, he finished second in home runs to a player four years his senior, Andy Wilson.

In 2006, just 48 Double-A games later, the 21-year-old Kemp was in the big leagues, putting the extremes that he embodied on immediate display.

In his major league debut May 28, he went 1-for-4 with three strikeouts. In his second game, he was all over the box score with two singles, three runs, two RBIs, a walk, a steal and a sacrifice fly. And it took no longer than that for Atlanta Braves announcer Don Sutton to compare Kemp to "a big buffalo running around the bases" and for the commenters at Dodger Thoughts to alter that to "the Bison," a nickname that has stuck since, literally, Day 2.

On June 1, Kemp hit his first home run. By June 14, he had seven. His explosiveness, at the plate and on the run, was everywhere to be seen.

"When he grounded out to the pitcher with the bases loaded in the seventh inning of a 3-3 tie Sunday," I wrote after his eighth career game, "Kemp experienced his biggest disappointment since his three-strikeout debut. But what was striking about the play was this. Kemp clearly got fooled on the pitch, leaning in and then ducking back as the ball rode in on him. He ended up with a defensive half-swing, tapping the ball up the first-base line. … Kemp's recoil from the check-swing left him staggering a couple steps behind the batter's box on the third-base side of home.

"Still, from his heels, Kemp exploded toward first base and -- I had to watch the replay three times to believe what I was seeing -- just barely missed passing Phillies pitcher Geoff Geary before the tag. And let me tell you, if Geary had missed the tag, it would have been very interesting to see if he could regroup and make the throw to first base to beat Kemp. An easy out almost disappeared in a whoosh."

[+] EnlargeMatt Kemp
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireIn 2010, Kemp incurred the disapproval of his GM and coaches.

By the time the next month began, 21-year-old Kemp had made 22 starts and was batting .304 with an on-base percentage of .350 and slugging percentage of .587. The star in the making looked like a star that had been made.

He didn't hit another home run in the majors that year. Over the next two weeks, Kemp went 6-for-30 with no homers, no walks and 11 strikeouts, giving the Dodgers the wiggle room to send him down to Triple-A when they wanted to activate from the disabled list … Ricky Ledee. Kemp didn't return to the majors until September, and ended up with fewer hits that month than he had homers in June, going 5-for-32 with one walk and a .250 slugging percentage.

It wasn't his first set of highs and lows, nor his last.

Kemp recovered from his poor 2006 finish to make the 2007 opening day roster, but before his first week was over, he was batting .429 -- and back on the sideline. He smashed his head and shoulder into an outfield wall, went on the disabled list and when that was done, went straight back to Triple-A without passing "Go." And there he stayed until June, when the Dodgers finally called him back up -- this time to stay.

Kemp finished his second major league season with eye-catching stats: a .342 batting average, .373 OBP and .521 slugging percentage. But by now, any illusion that he would continue to ascend in a straight line should have been shattered. In 2008, his first full season, many of us were prepared when Kemp's OPS dropped nearly 100 points, with the outfielder hitting only three home runs in the season's first two months.

The 2009 campaign brought even more weirdness. Kemp began the season stronger, but even as his improvement showed, manager Joe Torre confounded Dodgers fans by frequently pushing Kemp to the No. 8 slot in the batting order. Not until August did Torre relent and bat Kemp no lower than fifth, with the outfielder winning Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards while finishing 10th in the NL MVP vote.

That brought us 2010, the year when Kemp hit seven homers in his first 14 games but still managed to incur the disapproval of general manager Ned Colletti, Torre and coaches Larry Bowa and Bob Schaeffer. The Bison has played in 376 consecutive games, tops among active players, but that includes three games in June 2010, when he was pointedly held out of the starting lineup, entering one of them only in the 10th inning. Every aspect of his game was suffering that summer, the demands from some corners to trade him for a bucket of balls practically ferocious.

That spiraling player of 2010, after an MVP-caliber 2011 and a galactically astonishing start to 2012, is arguably the best player in baseball today.

When the Dodgers win, as they did in nine of their first 10 games this year, you can't miss Matt Kemp. He is usually the first player rushing out of the dugout, ecstasy radiating from his face. When little Dee Gordon is the game's final hero, as he was Sunday, you genuinely fear that Kemp might crush him with his exuberance.

Kemp may have consciously assigned himself the role of Dodgers cheerleader, part of the responsibility he can't help but recognize as the principal set of shoulders, along with Clayton Kershaw, that carry this Dodgers team. But I tend to think Kemp's thrilled expression comes more naturally, the culmination of a player whose struggles over the past decade were too numerous to remember, who has every reason to appreciate the good times when they appear. Every player has his ups and downs, but Kemp's practically ran back and forth between sea level and Everest.

Wednesday, Kemp struck out with two runners on in a tie game in the eighth inning at Milwaukee, then made a poor throw home in the 10th inning that helped the Brewers escape with a victory. The next bad day, bad week, bad month or bad year is never too far away, no matter how good he becomes.

But while some feared Kemp would become complacent after signing an eight-year, $160 million contract extension this past winter, we should be well past the time of believing Kemp will settle for less than the best he can be. It doesn't mean he'll always achieve it, but he has proven, time and again, that he won't stop trying for it.

Jon Weisman

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

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