Matt Kemp might be the most exciting player in baseball. He has two less home runs than Jose Bautista. He has as many stolen bases as Ichiro. He plays center field (not exceptionally well, according to advanced statistics, but with a hell of a lot of verve). Matt Kemp is everything you could want in a baseball hero, especially a center fielder. He’s glamorous. He’s practically electromagnetic.
He is also my fantasy center fielder. This is a good thing. Matt Kemp is batting .329/.406/.620. He has 18 home runs and 14 steals in 17 attempts. He hit his first triple of the season yesterday in a game that saw him fall a single short of the cycle (we’ll get back to that in a bit). The reason I bring up Kemp, and his place on my fantasy team, and his near-cycle performance, is so I can bring up the following: Despite the fact that he’s my favorite player on my favorite team, and despite the fact that I’m what’d you call a semi-professional baseball fan, I’ve only seen Kemp bat about a dozen times this year.
This is a product of my unwillingness to shell out for MLB.tv. This is also a product of something Eric Freeman talked about in his post on Wednesday. He argued that Bryce Harper will force us to watch baseball players as performers, as stylistic actors, and not just as stats-producing robots whose amassed results matter more than the actual physicality of their play. It’s a shame that for me – and for many reasons, I imagine much of America – Matt Kemp’s 2011 season has thus far been relegated to a bunch of high numbers on a screen.
Matt Kemp deserves to be watched. He’s big and fast. He’s handsome. His home runs all seem to go to center and right center field. And when he crouches in his stance and his bat points out over his head toward the shortstop and he steps into a pitch you can’t help but be awed by the quickness of his swing, by how light the bat looks during his one-handed finish, and especially by the inherent and surprisingly understated balance of the entire motion. When Matt Kemp plays baseball, he’s an aesthetic pleasure — even when he’s getting bad jumps on fly balls in center field.
Of course style is what a certain kind of sports columnist can’t stand about Matt Kemp. He spoke poorly of Jeff Kent at too young an age (speaking poorly of assholes is only okay for white veterans who hustle, obviously). He took at-bats away from a sadly washed up and frustrated Luis Gonzalez. He dated a pop singer. He made a handful of overly aggressive base-running mistakes. These are Matt Kemp’s sins.
They bring us to his game last night against the Rockies: Kemp went 3-5; he homered, tripled, and doubled; he struck out twice, once in the ninth inning with Andre Ethier standing on second base. It was the kind of performance no sane baseball fan can argue with. But a single short of the cycle is also the kind of game Matt Kemp would have.
It’s the kind of game that leaves him short of the segment he deserves on Baseball Tonight. It’s the kind of game that a certain kind of sports columnist might use as a metaphor. Sure he went 3-5 with three extra base hits, but he didn’t do the little things. Matt Kemp is all big flies and big style, a certain columnist might write, but where’s the substance? The stuff of victory is made of? Where are the clutch singles? And what was with that ninth-inning strikeout?
I didn’t see the game. I watched the highlights. It was a typically shitty evening for a Dodger fan in 2011. (As a team, the 2011 Dodgers fail at both the stylistic and analytical criteria). A lot of the lineup failed to hit. The defeated bullpen helped Clayton Kershaw blow a game in classic Coors Field form. But Matt Kemp played baseball. He played it the same way he has all year: the way that makes me want to watch more baseball.