Matt Kemp’s Defense Looks Good So Far … But Will It Last?

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As a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers — and a huge fan of Prime Matt Kemp from 2008-12 or so — I’ve been quite interested to see that Kemp has not been a disaster in left field so far this season. In fact, after combining for -41 Outs Above Average (or 41 Outs Below Average, if you don’t care for the paradoxes that come when math and grammar collide) over the past two seasons, Kemp has put up a perfectly adequate +1 in his first 26 games this season. And considering the expectations on Kemp coming into the season, “perfectly adequate” is actually “borderline miraculous.”

But then there’s the eye test. I watch a lot of Dodger games, and to my naked eye, Kemp still looks extremely slow in the field and seems to get poor jumps or reads or something. I can’t put my finger on it, but he still just seems to get around much worse than most outfielders.

So that got me wondering: What can we learn from the first-month Statcast numbers?

Let me make one thing clear: This is not intended as a criticism of Kemp, but a realistic view of his defense. The fact that he has been almost exactly average thus far is more than any of us could have hoped for. I was pretty confident that he would never even see any time in the Dodgers outfield this season, but he has played nearly every game, and considering the injuries to Yasiel Puig and Corey Seager — the latter of which has moved Chris Taylor and/or Kiké Hernandez from the outfield to the infield — it seems likely that we will continue to see Kemp manning the grass at Dodger Stadium. As such, I was/am interested to see if his newfound defensive prowess will continue, and the numbers can help us formulate a guess.

One thing that really jumps out at me: Kemp has the fourth-highest “Expected Catch Percentage” among outfielders with at least 25 chances. Put another way, he has had almost entirely easy chances so far this year. Here are the top 11 in Expected Catch Percentage:

Expected Catch Percentage

Rk.PlayerOuts Above AverageExpected Catch Percentage (%)Actual Catch Percentage (%)Catch Percentage Added (%)
1Naquin, Tyler-19895-3
2Dyson, Jarrod195972
3Hicks, Aaron094951
4Kemp, Matt194962
5Jones, Adam-29389-4
6Schebler, Scott-19389-4
7Renfroe, Hunter093941
8Maybin, Cameron09392-1
9Almora Jr., Albert193952
10Marisnick, Jake193974
11Santana, Domingo293974

Kemp has caught 96 percent of the balls hit in his area; the expected percentage is 94. Considering the small sample size — fewer than 30 overall chances — those are basically equal. But again, a version of Kemp that catches exactly the expected percentage of baseballs hit his way is hugely valuable and vastly improved.

But let’s look at the actual balls hit to him. Here’s a graphic of Kemp’s catch difficulty scale.

As the GIF loops, you will see me highlight a particular catch: 3.2 seconds of hang time, 35 feet to travel, and a 74-percent catch probability. That is utterly unremarkable, except that it is the most difficult catch Kemp has made this season. Between that 74 percent and the several at zero percent, there is just one dot: a 62-percent opportunity near the foul line 51 feet in and to Kemp’s right. He did not make that catch.

Besides the 74-percent catch, here are the catch probabilities on the other catches Kemp has made this season: 86, 87, 93, 95, 97, 98, 98, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, 99, and 99. Are you seeing the trend here?

Matt Kemp seems better on defense so far this year. Can he keep it up?Click To Tweet

Now, the fact that we can actually list the catch probabilities of every play Kemp has made underscores just how early in the season we are. We know that Kemp’s speed has improved this year — his Sprint Speed has gone from 24.9 feet per second to 26.5. In 2017, he was surrounded by catchers and Miguel Cabrera on the Sprint Speed leaderboard; this year … well, there are still a lot of catchers near him, but there’s also Brian Dozier and Charlie Blackmon, two guys who have spent quite a bit of time batting leadoff, even if their speed doesn’t quite justify it. So it seems likely that Kemp’s defense is legitimately better this year than it has been the past few years. But it’s important to remember that even back when Kemp has the physique of a Greek god, he was not a good defender. He won a couple Gold Gloves, but that was at least as much due to his fame and offensive prowess as anything else.

Even when Kemp looked like this, he was not a great defender.

Kemp is not going to be a great defender. He might be a decent defender, but we should probably resist the urge to rush to even that judgment. Simply put: Kemp has not yet been tested. It’s easy to say that he is doing better this year, but it’s also technically true to say that nothing has really changed — he catches nearly every super-easy opportunity, and he doesn’t catch much else. The only difference so far this year is that the “much else” hasn’t happened yet.

I don’t wish failure on Matt Kemp. My personal fondness for him, as well as the fact that my favorite team is pretty much locked into him in left field, make me hope against hope that he really is a better defender than my eyes tell me he is. But if I’m wishing on the evening star or 11:11 on the clock, I think I might be more useful wishing that this pattern of no one hitting any tough balls in Kemp’s direction would last another six months or so.

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