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Matt Kemp starring for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the age of 33 in 2018 sounds like a tale plucked straight from Major League Baseball’s bizarro world.
And yet, it’s happening.
With seven wins in their last nine games, the Dodgers are coming around after a slow start. Kemp has boosted the turnaround with a .929 OPS and a pair of home runs. Overall, he’s played in 20 games and put up an .887 OPS with three homers.
For the record: This is the same Matt Kemp who managed just a .780 OPS across the last three seasons, which were split between the San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves.
Another one for the record: It’s also the same Matt Kemp who, according to Baseball Reference, produced just four wins above replacement while earning $115 million between 2012 and 2017.
There was no ignoring any of this when, nearly three years to the day after they’d dealt him to the Padres in 2014, the Dodgers re-acquired Kemp in a trade with the Braves in December 2017. It was a stretch to imagine the Dodgers trying to rectify a mistake by welcoming back a prodigal son.
The real crux was the money involved.
The Dodgers technically didn’t save any cash by sending Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Charlie Culberson and $4.5 million to the Braves in exchange for Kemp and the final two years of his $160 million contract. But as noted by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the distribution of Kemp’s money would help the Dodgers achieve their goal of getting under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold for 2018.
The only thing Kemp was promised after the deal was a place in the Dodgers’ left field competition. And general manager Farhan Zaidi wasn’t coy about the possibility of another trade changing that.
“He understands the dynamic, that we’re open to having dialogue with other teams that might have more opportunity for him,” Zaidi said in January, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
Frankly, this stretched the limits of believability.
At his peak in 2011, Kemp rode his tremendous power (39 homers), speed (40 stolen bases) and hitting acumen (.324 average) to a second-place finish in the National League MVP voting. That earned him an eight-year contract extension, but he had barely started cashing bigger checks when he was blindsided by the injury bug early in 2012. He played in just 179 games across 2012 and 2013.
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Kemp never really got back on track between 2014 and 2017. Although he hit 102 home runs, his health, fitness and productivity in non-power aspects of the game came and went. He managed just 0.7 WAR across those four seasons, second-worst among players who appeared in 500 games.
This along with Kemp’s age and contract made him look more like dead weight than trade bait. It would have surprised nobody if he were released.
But a few months later, here he is looking like vintage Matt Kemp.
This is thanks in part to how he literally looks more like his old self. Following the trade, he was so energized by going back to Los Angeles that he kicked his offseason training into overdrive and lost 40 pounds.
He thus went from looking like this:
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To showing up to spring training like this:
Ron Vesely/Getty Images
“I was surprised to see what kind of shape he was in,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told Bob Nightengale of USA Today, “because I just had the visual last year of him in Atlanta. So, when I saw him show up the first day in spring training, I was overwhelmed, and very excited.”
Whereas most “best shape of his life” stories tend to fade into much-ado-about-nothing territory once the games start to count, Kemp’s is proving to be relevant. According to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, Statcast data shows that Kemp has added more speed than anyone from 2017 to 2018.
That already appears to be making a difference on defense. Kemp’s minus-29 defensive runs saved between 2016 and 2017 were the worst of any left fielder. So far this year, he’s in the black with one DRS.
Some of the credit for that is also owed to Roberts. He’s been careful not to push his luck with Kemp by removing him for defensive replacements late in games.
Roberts has also used Kemp appropriately on offense, as the righty has enjoyed the platoon advantage more often than ever before:
Kemp’s .925 career OPS against left-handed pitching confirms that this is a good idea in theory. With a 1.200 OPS against southpaws thus far in 2018, it’s proving to be an excellent idea in reality.
To Kemp’s credit, it also appears that his rejuvenation is filtering down to his swing. He’s joined the launch angle revolution by upping his average to a career high 16.9 degrees. That’s helped rescue his hard-contact habit from mediocrity:
There are limits on how much of a star Kemp can be in his present situation. The Dodgers can’t expand his playing time without also heightening their concern for his physical wellbeing. And as long as he remains a not-quite-regular player, he can only do so much to help the Dodgers.
All the same, Kemp’s rebirth as one of the best players on one of the most star-studded teams in MLB is a heck of a feat.
It’s already turned a seemingly inconsequential trade into one of the biggest steals of the 2017-2018 offseason. In time, it could prove instrumental in delivering a sixth straight NL West title to Los Angeles.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.