Kemp first 50-50 player? It could happen
Center fielder in his prime, motivated by NL MVP Award snub
Sure, it could very well be a mirage, this 9-1 start for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The .900 winning percentage has, of course, come at the expense of the Padres and the Pirates, and so these are April results that deserve asterisks, even by April standards.For the time being, and for the sake of everybody's sanity, we'll reserve all judgment on the club at large (though it's nonetheless worth noting that the Dodgers have already won nine games before Clayton Kershaw has even gotten around to winning his first). But we're not stretching the limits of sanity to point out that, even in the midst of a potential mirage, what Matt Kemp is doing is absolutely legit. How can such a thing be asserted with only 6.2 percent of the season in the books? Well, because Kemp had the courtesy to warn us beforehand, that's how. "I'm telling you," he told us via conference call last fall, "y'all created a monster." This was the conference call in which Kemp discussed being shortchanged in the National League MVP Award balloting (hey, Matt, some of us were on your side), the conference call in which he made that bold first proclamation that he's going to hit 50 home runs and steal 50 bases this season. Now, it would be pretty silly to assume Kemp will be the first member of the 50-50 club. History tells us he's due to be derailed on that quest, particularly if he keeps up a pace that would result in 97 home runs. (Hey, how's a guy supposed to swipe 50 bags if the majority of his action on the bases involves trotting around them?) And no, Kemp won't continue to hit .487 with a 1.548 OPS. He won't have a .538 ISO (isolated power, or the percentage of his at-bats that have resulted in extra bases). He won't win NL Player of the Week honors every single week of the season. And come to think of it, he probably won't sustain that 97-homer pace, either. But something was awoken inside of Kemp last year -- a year in which he finally had the energy and enthusiasm to match his potential, with the results to show for it -- and his hunger to drive himself and his team to greatness was only made all the more strong by that MVP snub. So, yeah, a monster was born, and the 10-game terror he's unleashed upon opposing pitchers in this season's opening stretch is likely to continue, in some measure. "Is there a better player in the game right now?" Padres manager Bud Black asked over the weekend. Good question. Kemp is 27, and so he's right in the thick of what will prove to be his statistical prime. He's embraced a leadership role on a club that simply would not have finished above .500 without him last year. Kemp has become one of the game's most complete players, and the Dodgers hope he'll have better lineup protection now that Don Mattingly is batting him in the third spot, ahead of Andre Ethier, instead of the fourth spot, where, last year, he batted ahead of the likes of James Loney, Juan Uribe, Rod Barajas, Casey Blake and Jerry Sands. What's most impressive about the way Kemp has started this season is that he's produced this power in two notoriously difficult ballparks for hitters -- Dodger Stadium and Petco Park. Of his six homers, two have gone to dead center and the other four have all gone to the opposite field. The guy is not pull-happy, and his is the kind of production you can't fake. Surely, the opposition will adjust, and the grind of the season will take its toll on the gaudy numbers. But in the here and now, baseball doesn't have many players more motivated than Matt Kemp, and, because Kemp is so naturally talented, motivation is half the battle. He's also motivated to make this Dodgers team turn the corner. "I feel like this year we need to turn things around and get back on track," Kemp told the Los Angeles Times this spring. The 9-1 start certainly has the Dodgers on the right track. And as easy as it is to discount the opposition (or to point out that they won't be turning any more 2-5-6-3 triple plays), the Dodgers finished last season strong, they play in a particularly unpredictable division, they have a dangerous one-two punch atop their rotation in the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Kershaw and Chad Billingsley and they have a deep bullpen. Perhaps most importantly, they have a monster in the middle of their lineup. And what Kemp is doing here in 2012 is no mirage.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.