Going into spring training, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a logjam in the outfield. With right-fielder Yasiel Puig coming off a solid season and Chris Taylor having locked down the center field job with an out-of-nowhere 4.8-bWAR 2017 season, the Dodgers were left with one open spot in the outfield and no less than six players fighting for it: Enrique Hernandez, Andrew Toles, Trayce Thompson, Alex Verdugo, Joc Pederson, and Matt Kemp.
Verdugo is the top position prospect in the Dodgers organization. Toles has been between solid and outstanding in parts of two seasons in the big leagues. Hernandez and Thompson both have a mixed history of struggles and success with the Dodgers.
And then there’s Pederson, who struggled so badly last year that the team sent him back to the minor leagues, and Kemp, who was re-aquired by the Dodgers in a salary-related transaction and then they were unable to unload him. Pederson did have a solid World Series — in fact, if the Dodgers had won Game 7, Pederson likely would have been the Series MVP — and Kemp’s power at the plate has always remained, but the holes in both players’ games made them almost afterthoughts for the left-field position coming into the spring.
Fast-forward to June 13, and both Kemp and Pederson are playing regularly and helping to drive a Dodgers offense that is averaging over eight runs a game so far in June. Kemp has a .922 OPS in 224 plate appearances, and Pederson has a .923 OPS in 177 plate appearances. Each player also comes with a special surprise: for Kemp, it is his defense, which has been just slightly below average after years of being historically bad; Pederson, meanwhile, has slashed his strikeout rate from a high of 29.1 percent in 2015 down to just 14.1 percent this year.
It has become fashionable for people to mock the preseason predictions about Kemp and (to a lesser extent) Pederson, but the simple fact is that no one could have predicted that “Matt Kemp, solid defensive outfielder” and “Joc Pederson, above-average contact without sacrificing power” would be key storylines for the 2018 Dodgers. Even if you had a time machine and you came into the future and watched it happen, by the time you got back home and hopped on Twitter, you would have convinced yourself that it was a fever dream. Tom Dorsa wrote the other day about the surprising emergence of Max Muncy and Ross Stripling, who seemingly came out of nowhere to help this team; Pederson and Kemp are different — they had proven track records, and they threw them out the window. Both players have reinvented themselves.
And for that, they deserve credit. This tweet is representative of a lot that I have seen:
Prepping for this quick 2-game Rangers-Dodgers series and these writer's takes on Matt Kemp when he got traded back to LA this off-season are pretty funny. He's 6th in the NL in OPS. pic.twitter.com/o00NWFxHI9
— CJ Nitkowski (@CJNitkowski) June 12, 2018
The implication here is that those dumb writers were wrong about Kemp. But they weren’t wrong about the version of Kemp that existed at the time. Two things they didn’t anticipate were that Kemp would come into spring training in his best shape since early 2012, and that he would embrace his role as a platoon guy fighting for a job. The thing is, there wasn’t a lot of evidence to suggest that those two things were likely. Kemp had been out of shape for a few years, and never worse than the end of last year. And in 2014, Kemp’s last season with the Dodgers before being traded away, there was a lot of passive-aggressive not-quite-grumbling from Kemp when he was moved from center field to left field because of his defensive issues.
So the emergence of an in-shape, happy-to-contribute-in-whatever-way-I-can version of Matt Kemp does not prove wrong those who said Kemp was unlikely to make the team, and to suggest otherwise does Kemp a disservice. Kemp is a different ballplayer — not a reincarnation of his 2011 self that should have won the National League MVP Award, but a brand new version. He is never going to steal 40 bases again like he did in 2011, and he’s unlikely to even be an above-average fielder. (I wrote last month about the fact that he has hardly been tested in the outfield, and that remains largely true.) But he is hitting the crap out of the ball, not being too much of a liability in the outfield, and being a team leader in the dugout and the clubhouse. At least two of those three things seemed extremely unlikely in February, and Kemp deserves all the credit.The success of @TheRealMattKemp and @yungjoc650 for the @Dodgers is a testament to their commitment to improving.Click To Tweet
Pederson also deserves credit for reinventing himself. Even during his impressive World Series run, the signs all pointed to it being a case of a player getting hot over a small sample. Joc’s World Series slash line was .333/.400/.944; the existence of round numbers like .333 and .400 should tip you off that we’re talking about a tiny number of plate appearances. (Jerry Mumphrey in 1987 is the only player ever to have those two round numbers in a season with more than 58 plate appearances.) Meanwhile, Pederson’s strikeout rate — easily his biggest problem as a hitter — remained terrible in the World Series. In 20 plate appearances, Pederson struck out eight times. Despite three home runs and two doubles against the Astros, there was not much reason to believe that Joc had suddenly turned a corner.
And then his early performance this year didn’t do much to dispel the concerns. In 54 plate appearance in spring training, Joc batted .148 with just one home run. After 49 plate appearances this season, he was batting .190 with one homer and a .310 slugging percentage. But he has really turned things on in June, pounding seven home runs and five doubles in the past eight games. While eight games are only a slightly larger sample size than a seven-game World Series, the decreased strikeout rate over the entire season suggests an overall change in approach that gives hope for longterm success.
Both Kemp and Pederson have been helped by injuries — Toles has been battling a hamstring issue most of the year in Triple-A, and Corey Seager‘s season-ending elbow injury shifted Taylor from center field to shortstop — but with top prospect Verdugo pounding the ball in Oklahoma City, they’ve still had to earn their positions. And both players have done so by becoming version of themselves that no one knew might exist.
For that, Kemp and Pederson deserve all the praise in the world. The Dodgers wouldn’t be where they are without them.