LOS ANGELES, CA: Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the third inning during the MLB game against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. Both teams wore the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Oh, sure. Kemp played well last season. But he's now won his third straight National League Player of the Week Award, and he's leading Earth with six home runs and a 1.026 slugging percentage. While we know he can't keep this up, there's at least one reason to think Kemp's just hitting his stride: He told us so.
Here's Anthony Castrovince (via MLB.com):
But we're not stretching the limits of sanity to point out that, even in the midst of a potential mirage, what Matt Kemp is doing is absolutely legit.
How can such a thing be asserted with only 6.2 percent of the season in the books?
Well, because Kemp had the courtesy to warn us beforehand, that's how.
"I'm telling you," he told us via conference call last fall, "y'all created a monster."
This was the conference call in which Kemp discussed being shortchanged in the National League MVP Award balloting (hey, Matt, some of us were on your side), the conference call in which he made that bold first proclamation that he's going to hit 50 home runs and steal 50 bases this season.
I was on Matt's side, too. As brilliantly as Ryan Braun played last season, I figured that Kemp played just a bit more brilliantly, all things considered. But MVP voters like guys on playoff teams, and the Brewers won 14 more games than the Dodgers.
I will admit that I didn't expect Kemp to play better this season than he played last season.
Here are two lines, Kemp before 2011 and Kemp in 2011:
I will admit that I figured 2011 was Matt Kemp's Career Year.
Which it might be, still.
Maybe not, though. As good as Kemp was last season, it's not like he just destroyed the majors. WAR-wise, he was in the same ballpark as Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista, and Dustin Pedroia in the other league. It's possible that Kemp, always regarded as supremely talented, finally plumbed all that talent for the first time. And at 27, he might have a bit left to plumb. Last season he set a career high with 39 home runs, and it's not crazy to think he might hit 45 home runs (or 50!) this season. For one thing (as Castrovince mentions), this season he's got Andre Ethier hitting behind him, and probably will see more fastballs (and fewer than last season's 24 intentional walks).
Considering that he's hit six home runs already, 45 (or 50!) doesn't seem out of reach. I mean, I think he's going to revert to his established level of ability and finish with 35-40 homers this season. But players aren't robots.
I do think it's odd to seriously consider 50 stolen bases, though.
If we think 50 home runs is realistic because Kemp's already hit six home runs, doesn't it follow that we have to think 50 steals is unrealistic ... considering that he's stolen just one base this season, and been caught twice?
Nobody's ever hit 50 home runs and stolen 50 bases in one season. Nobody's ever come particularly close. The highest aggregate is 88, turned in by Alex Rodriguez: 42 homers, 46 steals. There are only three other members of the 40/40 club: Alfonso Soriano (46/41), Barry Bonds, and Jose Canseco (both 42/40).
There are some pretty good reasons why nobody's come close. As Castrovince notes, every home run is a hit that can't be followed by a steal. Home-run hitters tend to be somewhat bulky, and a bit slower than before. Managers don't like to see their power hitters risking life and ankle sliding into bases just for fun. Perhaps most obviously, 50-homer seasons are quite rare and so are 50-steal seasons.
Granted, Matt Kemp came so close to becoming the fifth 40/40 man, with 39 steals and 40 homers. But to reach 50/50 he'll have to do significantly better in both categories, he'll have to do something that no player in the history of professional baseball has ever done*, and he'll have to stay healthy.
Anything is possible.
* No, I don't know this for sure. Pretty sure, though.