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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

How Matt Kemp's Trip To The D.L. Will Hurt The Dodgers (Quite A Bit)

James Santelli |
May 15, 2012 | 9:49 p.m. PDT

Sports Director

Kemp leads the NL in total bases, OPS and runs scored. (SD Dirk, Wikimedia Commons)
Kemp leads the NL in total bases, OPS and runs scored. (SD Dirk, Wikimedia Commons)
It's an evening for warm jackets in Chavez Ravine, 56 degrees in the first inning and dropping along with the sunset. It might feel less chilly if there were more bodies at Dodger Stadium, but more than half the seats that were filled yesterday afternoon on Opening Day now sit empty.

Fans in white and blue jackets are still filing in as Matt Kemp steps up to the plate. He gets plenty of applause as his name is announced, and the folks cheering are not disappointed. The slim-yet-strong Kemp lines a 1-1 pitch from the Pirates' Erik Bedard sharply, just past the glove of the third baseman.

Then he puts it into overdrive, hustling all the way into second, where he slides just below the tag for a two-out double. Few men in baseball possess the speed to make that happen. It is Kemp's first extra-base hit at Dodger Stadium for 2012, with more to come.

(Shotgun Spratling, Neon Tommy)
(Shotgun Spratling, Neon Tommy)
"Playing in his 371st consecutive game, that's the longest consecutive game streak of anyone in the Major Leagues," the Fox Sports play-by-play announcers tell the audience at home.

By the end of the night, Kemp is hearing chants of "M-V-P, M-V-P!" from the Dodgers crowd, and it's not as tacky as it may be. If anyone deserves such praise from the hometown faithful, it's Kemp, who has been the best all-around center fielder in the world since the beginning of 2011. After all, he finished second in last year's MVP voting to Ryan Braun, despite the Dodgers being far from a playoff spot. He continued that great play, leading the NL in total bases, OPS and runs scored, is second in home runs, and slots fourth in on-base percentage.

And it is why it hurts so much to lose a player like Matt Kemp. He is the guy that can so easily stretch a single into a double. He is the guy for which fans are willing to brave the cool April evenings and the L.A. traffic to cheer on. He is the guy that you can chant "M-V-P" for in April and have it not seem ridiculous.

The 27-year-old Kemp was placed on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday with a strained hamstring. That ended his league-leading consecutive game streak at 399 games. It may not be Ripken-esque, but over two full seasons without missing a game is an impressive feat. And his health is not the only impressive thing about Kemp.

Last year, Matt Kemp was responsible for over 20 percent of the Dodgers' offense, according to a Bill James all-encompassing-offensive stat Runs Created. This year, he has created over 21 percent of L.A.'s runs, the most of any player this side of Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton. That is despite the fact that the Dodgers are much improved offensively, the side effect of right fielder Andre Ethier being healthy and catcher A.J. Ellis having a career year at age 31.

Dodgers fans are used to cheering on Kemp at every game. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
Dodgers fans are used to cheering on Kemp at every game. (Shotgun Spratling/Neon Tommy)
Combine that with some stellar pitching: Clayton Kershaw, Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly all sport an Earned Run Average below 2.25. That's a huge reason the Dodgers have MLB's 3rd-best ERA.

Mix the powerful offense and the strong pitching with some outstanding defense, and what do you get? Why, it's a fresh 24-11 record (the best in baseball) and a six-game lead in the NL West (the largest division lead in baseball). The fact is, even if Kemp is out for an entire month, the Dodgers lineup won't be ruined. He has "only" been worth 2.3 wins above replacement level to his team through one-and-a-half months, despite an MVP-caliber season. If the Dodgers fall from the top of the NL West, it will be for other reasons than simply losing Kemp, such as Capuano and Lilly's numbers falling like a house of cards.

But no team wants to lose one of the very best outfielders in the world. Having rookie outfielder Scott Van Slyke take Kemp's slot in the lineup (let's remind ourselves that he has only played 35 games above the Double-A level) doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents. Andy Van Slyke might have, Scott does not. That lineup could only scratch across one run against Diamondbacks youngster Wade Miley, and that might be the sign of things to come.

The injury may also give pause to the new Dodgers ownership. Magic Johnson and Guggenheim Baseball Management inherit an eight-year, $160 million contract extension that was signed at the end of the McCourt era. That deal was signed not just because of Kemp's skills, but because he was young and has been one of the healthiest players in the game. Any injury has to be disconcerting, a player's hamstrings usually only get worse after the age of 27, not better. This particular injury might only cost Kemp a few weeks, but who knows if it will be aggravated in the future.

For now, the Dodgers still have a 5.5-game lead. But the focus of L.A.'s sports fans has been cast on the playoff runs of the Kings, Clippers and Lakers. If the new owners want to recoup their $2-billion investment, a good start would be drawing sellout crowds and high TV ratings this summer. That can only happen if the Dodgers are still rolling off wins aplenty with the attention on them. Maybe a couple weeks from now, Angelenos will look up from the ice rinks and basketball courts and see a Dodgers team still dominating the National League.

That will have to happen without the services of their best player, the man whose hot bat warmed up the chilly April nights, the man for whom "M-V-P" chants at the second home game were appropriate.


Reach James by email or follow him on Twitter, @JamesSantelli.



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