By Matt Citak
In professional sports, one of the worst things a player can be called is a major bust.
Whether it’s not living up to where you were taken in the draft or the big contract you signed, no professional athlete wants to be considered a disappointment.
But over the last few years, that has been the story for Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.
Kemp put together a magical campaign in 2011. The 6-foot-4 outfielder hit .324/.399/.586 with a whopping 39 home runs, 126 RBI (both his HR and RBI led the National League), 115 runs, and an impressive 40 stolen bases.
Kemp took home several awards that season, including his second Silver Slugger Award, his second Gold Glove Award, his first Hank Aaron Award, and his first All-Star nod. He finished just 13 points behind Jose Reyes for the NL’s batting title, coming oh so close to taking home the Triple Crown, and wound up finishing second in the NL’s MVP voting (behind Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun).
The Dodgers rewarded Kemp for his amazing performance, handing him an 8-year, $160 million deal prior to the start of the 2012 season. At the time of the signing, it was the richest deal given to any player in the National League.
While Kemp went on to have a solid 2012 campaign, injuries forced him to miss over 50 games, leading to slightly deflated stats for the outfielder. His injuries woes got even worse in 2013, where he hit just .270 with 6 HR and 33 RBI in only 73 games.
Considering he had played in 399 consecutive games prior to his first injury in 2012, which at the time of the injury was the longest active streak in the majors, this was a drastic turn of events for Kemp. Despite his unbelievable 2011 campaign being just a few years earlier, Kemp was already beginning to get labeled as a bust.
Over the next few seasons, the outfielder would find himself included in several trades. First he was sent from the Dodgers, where he spent the first nine seasons of his MLB career, to the San Diego Padres prior to the 2015 season. He spent a year and a half in San Diego, where he put up good power numbers but saw his average rest in the .260s.
The Padres then flipped Kemp to the Atlanta Braves at the 2016 trade deadline, where the outfielder would go on to finish the 2016 season on a high note, hitting .280/.336/.519 with 12 HR and 39 RBI in 56 games.
But the happy feelings in Atlanta did not last very long, as Kemp fell back to mediocrity in 2017. His 19 HR was the fewest he had hit in a season in which he appeared in at least 100 games since 2008. In addition, he also led the NL in double plays grounded into (25) while not stealing any bases for the first time in his career.
That is why not much was expected from Kemp when the Dodgers reacquired him this past offseason. The team was upfront about the move being a financial decision, but told him that he would be given an opportunity to earn his playing time. And wisely, Kemp accepted his new role and decided not to take anything for granted, showing up to spring training 40 pounds lighter than he was the season before with the Braves.
78 games into the 2018 season, Kemp has done more than just earn his playing time- he’s been incredible.
For starters, the 33-year-old has remained healthy. He has appeared in 76 games thus far, which ties Chris Taylor for the second-most on the Dodgers (trailing Cody Bellinger for the team lead by one game).
Not only has he remained off the disabled list, but he’s also been great at the plate. Kemp has put together an impressive .311/.351/.539 slash line, with his batting average ranking seventh and his slugging percentage ranking sixth in the National League. The two-time All-Star has also hit 13 HR and 47 RBI, and his production and health have been huge for a Dodgers team that’s been decimated with injuries this year.
Los Angeles got off to a very rocky start this season, beginning the year 16-26 despite having a deep, talented roster. It didn’t help that just one month into the season, the Dodgers found out shortstop Corey Seager needed Tommy John surgery, thus prematurely ending his 2018 campaign. Combine that with Justin Turner having to miss the first few months of the season due to a fractured wrist, and all of a sudden this normally powerful Los Angeles lineup was thirsting for someone to step up.
Enter Matt Kemp.
Despite it being an incredibly unlikely story-line, Kemp has emerged as the Dodgers’ best hitter this season, and it really isn’t that close. While Bellinger and Max Muncy are tied for the team-lead with 15 HR, both of their batting averages rest below .260. Kemp’s 47 RBI also lead the team, while his 16 doubles are one shy of Taylor for the most among Dodgers players.
It’s quite obvious that Kemp’s play is a significant reason why the Dodgers have gone 26-10 since their rough start, and now sit just 2.5 games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West and tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the second NL Wild Card spot.
Almost seven years after signing the mega-deal, Kemp is finally living up to the expectations that came with it. And how fitting is it that he’s doing it back in the City of Angels, with the club that handed him the deal in the first place?
While a lot can change between now and October, Kemp looks to be on his way to at least contending for MLB’s Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Who knows? If the Dodgers can keep up their strong play and make a deep postseason run, maybe Kemp will be adding an NLCS MVP, or even a World Series MVP, to his list of accolades as well.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.