Matt Kemp Powers Dodgers To Best Start In Baseball
After finishing a close second place in last year’s NL MVP voting behind Ryan Braun, the 27-year-old outfielder is tearing up the league. He leads the league in essentially every offensive category through the Dodgers’ first 10 games of the season. It’s pretty wild. Kemp leads the MLB in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, RBIs, runs, hits and we won’t even go into the advanced statistics.
Two particular statistics illustrate Kemp’s early command at the plate: batting average and slugging percentage. Kemp’s SLG% of 1.026 easily beats Chris Young, Corey Hart and Omar Infante, who boast slugging percentages of .892, .857, and .829, respectively. In other words, the Dodgers center fielder leads the second-best player in that department by more than 130 points. Not close. Not at all.
As far as batting average is concerned, Kemp is hitting an other-worldly .487, which means that he’s recording a hit nearly one out of every two at bats. Like slugging percentage, Kemp’s batting average will come back down to earth eventually. With that said, Kemp’s early plate dominance gives away his ambition to finally win the NL MVP award he just missed winning last season.
More accurately, Kemp is tearing up Padres pitching in particular. The Dodgers have played the Padres seven times already this season and in those seven games, their star center fielder has bombed six home runs and driven in 13 runs. So far he’s batting over .500 against San Diego this year, accumulating 14 hits in 27 at bats.
Although Kershaw hasn’t contributed much so far, fellow starter Chad Billingsley has exceeded expectations so far through his first two starts. We must keep in mind that two starts is an extremely small sample size, especially against two teams as offensively inept as the Padres and Pirates. Regardless, the 27-year-old right-hander did not merely take care of business. He dominated both starts, pitching a combined 14.1 innings and compiling 15 strikeouts, while issuing just one walk. Billingsley is enjoying a microscopic ERA of 0.63 with an identical WHIP and an impressive opposing batting average of .163. Last season’s numbers were the worst of Billingsley’s career. While it’s far too early to conclude that he will turn in an All-Star season, at least the early indication is that he’s a much-improved pitcher from a season ago.
For winning nine of its first 10 games, Los Angeles’ run differential (+1.7 runs/game) isn’t as high as one would expect. Then again, its run differential is third in the league, only behind last year’s World Series participants, the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers.
In fact, five of the Dodgers’ nine wins have come in one-run games, so that would largely explain the rather close run differential despite the team winning all but one of its games. Whether it is true or not, it is often said that winning close games is a trait embodied by good baseball teams. This season’s squad has won two games on walk-off plays (an Ethier walk and Dee Gordon single), as well as two additional games behind game-winning hits that were not walk-offs, but did occur in the eighth inning or later.
In LA’s third game of the year, the bullpen pitched 6.1 scoreless innings keeping the score tied at 5 just long enough for Dee Gordon to record the game-winning single in the Top of the 11th. Then, talented closer Javy Guerra slammed the door shut on the Padres and earned his second save of the season.
Most recently, the Dodgers bullpen threw 3.2 scoreless innings in another one-run win. Although Javy Guerra was aided by a controversial fair ball call in the Top of the 9th that ultimately resulted in a rare triple play, the relievers were once again on their games. On the aforementioned controversial call, replay showed (even though the umpires could not review the call) that it was indeed a fair ball. The only problem was that the home plate umpire appeared to throw his hands up, which the Padres runners interpreted (and for good reason) to mean “dead ball.” They didn’t run, which made for an easy triple-play thanks to a heads-up decision by A.J. Ellis not to give up on the play. All craziness aside, the Dodgers bullpen was impressive enough to give the Dodgers a chance to win the game in the Bottom of the 9th and Gordon did not waste that opportunity.
Like starting pitcher Billingsley, outfielder Andre Ethier has also shown considerable improvement this year, primarily in his offensive power. Ethier is by no means dominating anywhere close to the level of Kemp. In fact, he’s hitting .289, which is good, but definitely not great. With that said, the 30-year-old lefty has seen a vast improvement in his power numbers through 10 games. In fact, Ethier posted career lows in home runs and slugging percentage last season at 11 and .421, apiece. Although the season is young, the left-handed slugger is enjoying a career-best .658 slugging percentage along with three dingers. It’s interesting to note that seven of Ethier’s 11 hits are extra-base hits. Again, it’s not that he’s recording that many hits. He’s not. However, when he is getting hits, they are typically going for doubles or home runs. Yahoo!’s Tim Brown argues that Ethier is more relaxed as a result of putting baseball in better perspective.
Although speedster Dee Gordon has already stolen seven bases in eight attempts (he’s on pace for 113 stolen bases…ok, I’ll stop), he’s not reaching base nearly enough, especially as a leadoff hitter. Gordon’s only 23 years old (nearly 24), so part of his offensive struggles are not a surprise, but he is presently striking out too much. Early on, he is also hitting the ball in the air too often. In baseball, nothing wastes a player’s speed more than popping the ball up.
The old saying is true: You can’t beat out a fly ball. Gordon’s speed is truly remarkable. If he’s able to reach base more consistently, that will enable the Dodgers to more easily manufacture runs and better set the table for run producers, Kemp and Ethier.
To Gordon’s credit, he has recorded two-game winning hits so far this season. On Sunday afternoon, Gordon celebrated Jackie Robinson Day by lacing a single through the left side of the infield for a walk-off win. He was first mobbed by Kemp before the rest of his teammates joined in. For a guy listed at 150 pounds, Gordon sure didn’t seem to mind being tackled by the entire team.
The Dodgers have played good defensive baseball, too. LA has committed just four errors all season, whereas the four other NL West teams are averaging 12.3 errors thus far.
In addition to the fact that 10 games makes up just 6 percent of the 162-game regular season, there is one other caveat. The Dodgers have played against two of the weaker teams in the entire league. Facing the offensively inept Padres and Pirates has undoubtedly aided the Dodgers pitching staff. The Dodgers have benefitted from facing the Padres seven times already. These Padres were second-to-last in batting average last season, at a clip of .237.