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A tale of two versions of Matt Kemp

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When it comes to Matt Kemp, are we going to get the notorious slow-starter, or will the Braves get a full year of consistency?

Atlanta Braves v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

There’s no question about Matt Kemp’s role going into the 2017 season. He’s going to be the starting left fielder for the Braves this year, and he definitely earned that role after he helped spearhead an offensive resurgence for Atlanta in the second half of the 2016 season. Some may think it was coincidence and others may feel it’s legit, but the Braves’ offense hit another gear almost as soon as Kemp arrived to play for his childhood favorites. Scott touched on this a couple of weeks back in this post:

During his two months in Atlanta, Kemp hit .280/.336/.519 with a 120 wRC+. I speak for every Braves fan out there (and probably the front office, too) when I say no one could have realistically expected that line from Kemp. And whether it was coincidence or not, the Braves ranked 2nd in baseball in runs scored per game during the second half of the year. Dansby Swanson’s arrival and Ender Inciarte’s hot hitting from the leadoff spot certainly helped, too, but Kemp provided the lineup with a legitimate power bat.

The main question for Kemp (and the rest of the Braves when it comes to their offense) is whether or not he can keep it up heading into next season. After all, most of the optimism for the Braves to at least be a decent team this year depends on their second-half performance carrying over to this year. If that’s fool’s gold then we could be in for yet another rough year of baseball on the offensive side of things.

To answer that question, we’ve got to take a look back for Kemp’s past few seasons. There’s one pattern that’s come up that repeated itself in 2016: Matt Kemp is a slow starter but has one heck of a finishing kick. Kemp’s entry in the 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual pointed this out by comparing his first-half OPS numbers to the second-half numbers since 2012.

First-half Kemp vs. Second-half Kemp

Year First-half OPS Second-half OPS
Year First-half OPS Second-half OPS
2012 1.163 0.792
2013 0.666 1.042
2014 0.76 0.971
2015 0.674 0.868
2016 0.723 0.906
Baseball Prospectus

To drill that nail into the wood even deeper, let’s take a further look at what he did last year.

Kemp’s first half of 2016 compared to the second

Half AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ ISO BB% K% HR
Half AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ ISO BB% K% HR
1st 0.254 0.275 0.301 0.301 88 0.194 3.5 22.7 16
2nd 0.287 0.339 0.375 0.375 134 0.28 7.7 23.8 19
fangraphs.com

By now, the takeaway should be obvious: Matt Kemp’s been a slow starter for the past few years now, and 2016 was no different. This could’ve been considered a short-term trend if it was just for a couple of years, but at this point in his career, this is probably who Matt Kemp is as a player so we shouldn’t be surprised if this is what happens in 2017.

Now of course, that doesn’t mean that we should just chalk up the first 81 games of this upcoming season as a wash for Kemp. After all, you’ve got one year up there (2012) where he did come out of the gates on fire, but then he followed that up by limping towards the finish line. Either way, it’ll probably be a miracle if he puts up a full year of consistency at the plate. If it’s the Kemp that we’re looking at in the first-half parts of those two tables, then the Braves are in trouble. If it’s the second-half, then we’re about to have some fun this year.

The version of Matt Kemp that shows up could also play a big role in whatever moves the Braves decide to make at the trade deadline this year. If he bucks the trend of the past few years and starts this season looking like second-half Matt Kemp, then the Braves could very well have themselves a very enticing-looking trade chip on their hands — assuming that this version of Kemp isn’t helping the rest of the offense on their way to an unlikely run at the postseason and they’d be inclined to keep him at that point. Otherwise, if the Braves are still in a seller’s position then we could be looking at another season where the Braves are very popular at the trade market.

However, if the slow-starting Matt Kemp that’s come to Opening Day for the past few seasons arrives at SunTrust Park this year — along with his ever-declining defensive skills and those arthritic hips — then I’d imagine that he wouldn’t be nearly as attractive of a trade asset as he would be if he former scenario plays out. Basically, I can only see them actually trading Kemp if he’s mashing at an All-Star level (and he’d bring in a decent haul from some team that needs a postseason boost) or if he’s out here looking like Erick Aybar did in 2015 (and we’d see him involved in yet another salary dump). If he’s perfectly normal, then I’d imagine that he’ll probably stay on the ship here in Atlanta and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

In my eyes, Matt Kemp is definitely going to be one of the most interesting Braves players to keep an eye on this season. It’ll be intriguing to see whether or not he can keep up the torrid pace that he was on to end the season and also if he can actually keep it up over the course of a full season. The fortune of the Atlanta Braves in 2017 will depend on a lot of things, and Kemp’s performances is definitely one of them.