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How Good Was Matt Kemp's Prime?

Matt Kemp playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers; CC by License 2.0

Many baseball fans forget, or may never have known, that Matt Kemp was one of the premier power-speed threats in Major League Baseball. In 2023, the five-tool prowess of Kemp would be fairly common among the best players in baseball. In 2011, however, his “toolsy” style of play was a rare sight in MLB. Kemp's 2011 season, in which he placed second in MVP voting and won both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger,  stands out as one of the most remarkable in his career, marked by extraordinary performances and statistical achievements. Advanced statistics play a crucial role in evaluating a player's overall impact, and in Kemp's case, they provide deeper insights into the magnitude of his contributions during that memorable season.

Kemp's offensive prowess in 2011 was nothing short of spectacular. Traditional statistics like his .324 batting average and 39 home runs only scratch the surface of his excellence. Delving into advanced metrics unveils a more comprehensive picture. Weighted on-base average, or wOBA, is a weighted measure of a player's overall offensive production, assigning values to different offensive outcomes. In 2011, Kemp boasted an outstanding .422 wOBA, signifying his ability to reach base consistently and hit for power. This ranked among the elite in the league, solidifying his offensive impact. Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is an advanced metric that adjusts a player's offensive production to account for overall run environment, including park factors and league-wide offense. His wRC+ of 171 in 2011 is a testament to his offensive dominance. A score of 100 is considered league average, so his mark indicates that he was 71% above the average hitter that season.

Kemp's ability to combine power and contact hitting was a key factor in his standout 2011 campaign. Isolated power (ISO) measures a player's raw power by isolating their extra-base hits. In 2011, he boasted an impressive .262 ISO, showcasing his knack for hitting for both average and power. This statistic is crucial in assessing a player's ability to drive the ball effectively. 

While power is crucial, contact rates are equally important. Kemp's contact rates in 2011 demonstrate his ability to make consistent contact. His 80.1% contact rate and 15.2% strikeout rate indicate his balanced offensive approach. This combination of power and contact made him a formidable force at the plate.

Plate discipline is a critical aspect of a hitter's game, and Kemp's 2011 season showcased his improvement in this area. His walk rate increased to 10.7% in 2011, a notable improvement from previous seasons. This heightened discipline forced pitchers to throw more hittable pitches, contributing to his overall offensive success. A higher walk rate also speaks to a batter's ability to identify pitches and lay off those outside the strike zone. 

Kemp's chase rate, measuring the percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone, decreased to 24.6%. This indicates improved plate discipline, as he became more selective in his swings. A lower chase rate suggests a batter's ability to wait for pitches in their wheelhouse.

In addition to his offensive prowess, Kemp's baserunning added another dimension to his overall value. He swiped an impressive 40 bases in 2011, showcasing his speed and baserunning acumen. Stolen bases contribute not only to a player's individual statistics but also impact the game by putting pressure on opposing pitchers and catchers.

Baserunning runs above average (BsR) is a comprehensive metric that evaluates a player's overall baserunning performance, combining stolen bases, caught stealing, and other baserunning plays. Kemp's BsR of 8.3 in 2011 reflects his positive impact on the basepaths, adding another layer to his offensive value beyond traditional hitting and power metrics.

Kemp's defensive contributions were also a significant part of his overall value in 2011. Ultimate zone rating (UZR) quantifies a player's defensive contribution by considering their ability to make plays within their defensive zone. Kemp's UZR of 7.4 in 2011 highlights his excellence in the outfield. Positive UZR values indicate above-average defensive performance, and his mark shows his ability to impact games with his glove.

Defensive runs saved (DRS) is another valuable defensive metric, measuring a player's runs saved or cost defensively compared to the average player. Kemp's DRS of 16 further emphasized his defensive impact, illustrating that he saved 16 more runs than an average defender in the outfield.

When evaluating a player's overall impact, wins above replacement is a comprehensive statistic that combines offensive, defensive, and baserunning contributions into a single value. Kemp's fWAR of 8.7 in 2011 was one of the highest in the league, underscoring his status as a true superstar. This metric quantifies a player's overall value in terms of wins added to their team above a replacement-level player. Kemp's fWAR of 8.7 indicated that his contributions were worth approximately 8.7 wins more than a hypothetical replacement player over the course of the season.

In conclusion, Matt Kemp's 2011 season was a masterclass in all facets of the game. Advanced statistics not only validated his eye-popping traditional numbers but also provided a deeper understanding of the nuances of his game. With his second-place MVP finish, which arguably should have been his, Kemp’s career peaked in unceremonious fashion, and many baseball fans forget his short-lived greatness. From his offensive prowess to his defensive excellence and baserunning impact, Kemp's 2011 campaign was a textbook example of a player at the peak of his abilities, leaving a lasting mark on the baseball landscape.

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