Matt Kemp, Triple Crown Winner?
By J.R. Lebert aka jelebert
Does Matt Kemp have a chance at the Triple Crown?
*NOTE: As of the time of writing this article, Matt Kemp and the Los Angeles Dodgers had played 20 games. Kemp was leading the NL in batting average at .452, home runs with 10, and was second, by one, in RBI’s, with 23.
The Triple Crown. For baseball diehards, historians, and even casual fans of the game, it’s the pinnacle of individual offensive achievement in a single season. Leading your respective league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. Not since Carl Yazstremski in 1967 has someone done it. You have to go back 30 more years, to Joe “Ducky” Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1937, to find the last National League ballplayer to record the feat.
The list is a “who’s who” of batsmen: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby (twice), Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams (twice), Mickey Mantle, and Frank Robinson. Even more surprising are the names NOT on this list: Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Stan Musial, Ken Griffey, Jr., and more modern stars like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. The feat is one of the most difficult in all of sports to accomplish, only having been done 13 times by 11 men since 1900.
With the grind of a 162 game season, the threat of injury, the advances in pitching, and more modern ballparks that seem to be built for pitchers, is it even realistic to ask the question; Does Matt Kemp have a chance at the Triple Crown in 2012?
Let’s break down the four key parts of that question, one by one. “Matt Kemp.” “A chance.” “Triple Crown.” And, to me, the most important part, “in 2012.”
First, let’s look at Matt Kemp. He is a player who seems to have all of the right factors coming together at the same time. He is young, but in his prime, at 27 years old. He stays healthy, having played in 155, 159, 162, and 161 games over the last four seasons. He plays in a decent hitter’s park, Dodgers Stadium, with short porches down both outfield lines. He has decent protection, with Andre Ethier hitting behind him. The two hitters currently preceding him in the lineup leave a little to be desired however, with the speedy, talented, but very raw Dee Gordon leading off, and Mark Ellis hitting second. The Dodgers could stand to upgrade this part of their order. Kemp’s contract situation is also ideal, as he is locked up through 2019, netting him $10 million this year, and then a staggering average of $21 million per year for the next seven years.
We have already looked at what the Triple Crown is, but not in relation to the player, Kemp. Does he have the ability to hit for a high enough average, hit enough home runs, or drive in enough runs to lead the league in all three categories? If 2011 is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. Kemp batted .324, and led the league in both home runs and RBI. He also hit .342 over 300+ at bats in 2007, and hit .294 over his first two full seasons. His power is unquestioned as one of the game’s elite. It seems the only factor that could be an issue is whether the hitters in front of him can get on enough times for him to drive them in at a league leading clip, but, again, it didn’t seem to bother him last year.
The final two aspects of the question should be combined to best be examined, “a chance in 2012.” 2012 is the ideal year for Kemp to make a run at history. Transactions and injuries have already played a HUGE role in his chances. In the offseason, superstars Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder left the NL to sign with teams in the American League. Pujols is a perennial contender for the Triple Crown, with the ability to hit for a high average while driving in runners and hitting the long ball with consistency. Fielder is an absolute masher, and his high home run and RBI totals could easily steal one of those two categories any year. Ryan Howard is out for a good chuck of the season recovering from injury, taking another potential home run and RBI leader out of the race. It also never hurts when Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, Evan Longoria, Joe Mauer, Ichiro Suzuki, and Derek Jeter all play in the other league.
There are very few players in the National League who could legitimately challenge Kemp in the three key categories. Yes, the league still has Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez, reigning MVP Ryan Braun, and even Hanley Ramirez, Chris Young, Justin Upton, or Troy Tulowitzki, all of whom are capable of leading the league in any of the three categories, especially home runs and RBI. If Freddy Sanchez in 2006 showed us anything, it’s that any player has the ability to put a good season together and lead the league in average. Players like Hunter Pence, last year’s batting champion Jose Reyes, Starlin Castro, Daniel Murphy, and even Juan Pierre are still more than able to pace the NL in average. With the exception of Chris Young, however, a career .242 hitter, not a single one of these players mentioned have started off the season anywhere close to the level of Matt Kemp through the first 20 games.
Kemp plays in the NL West, the division with the weakest starting pitching in the National League, by far. Kemp has the luxury of being able to avoid two of the five best pitchers in the division, Clayton Kershaw, reigning Cy Young Award winner, and Chad Billingsley, as they are both on the Dodgers. Looking at the rest of the division, the pitching can best be described as thin. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are easily the two best pitchers Kemp will face in the division, but after them, it gets weak quickly. Who are the next five best pitchers in the division? Ian Kennedy gets the three spot, and then the debate begins. Trevor Cahill? Madison Bumgarner? Edinson Volquez? Daniel Hudson? Young and raw Drew Pomeranz?
The NL West also seems to have some easy targets at the back end of some of the rotations. 49-year old Jamie Moyer of the Rockies and aging curveballer Barry Zito, both whom Kemp could face a handful of times each, might make for some fun stat lines.
Looking at the rest of the NL, the pitching seems much tougher. In the NL East, Stephen Strasburg leads a group of young arms in Washington. The Phillies still have staff of All-Stars, led by the all-time great Roy Halladay. The Marlins re-tooled their rotation with Josh Johnson at the top. Johan Santana leads the Mets, and a great, young rotation can be found in Atlanta, led by Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, Brandon Beachy, and Tommy Hanson. The NL Central seems to be much deeper than the West too, with the big three in Milwaukee, Greinke, Gallardo, and Marcum, young stud arms in St. Louis, Latos and Cueto in Cincy, and the power pitching Cubs led by Matt Garza. All in all, no division in baseball is as weak top to bottom as the NL West, and Matt Kemp should feast on subpar pitching.
Matt Kemp may also be playing with a slight chip on his shoulder, wanting to prove to all of baseball that he should have been voted 2011 NL MVP over Ryan Braun, especially in light of Braun’s subsequent positive steroids test. There is no better way to settle the debate than between the white chalk lines of the diamond, and Matt seems to be letting his play do all the talking.
While even asking this question can seem quite premature, considering there are 140+ games to go, Kemp’s play in April has everyone at least beginning to wonder. If, at the All-Star break, he is still at or near the top in all three categories, as he was at the end of last year, the real fun, and serious Triple Crown watch, begins.
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