|Kemp says he's glad he made his bold prediction. 'It's good to be positive.' (AP)|
LOS ANGELES -- Today could be the day. That was my thought as I walked up to Matt Kemp's locker before the Dodgers game Thursday night against Pittsburgh: Today could be the day he snaps. It has to happen, right? Yeah, it's early in the season -- calendar says it's April 12 -- but how many times, before he snaps, can a guy be asked a question as loaded as the one I was going to ask him?
You know the question, or you should. It would be the same question you'd ask Matt Kemp if you found yourself in Los Angeles, at Dodger Stadium, in the Dodgers' clubhouse, and you had just five minutes alone with him. Not a lot you can ask in five minutes, so you better go ahead and ask the question you came to ask.
Again, you know the question:
Matt, about your prediction of 50 homers and 50 steals this season ... huh?
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Something like that. Maybe that wasn't word-for-word what I asked Kemp, but it was close. It could have been exactly that. Don't know, because I don't write down what I say. I just write down what they say. And here's what Kemp said when I asked him about his 50-50 prediction for the 2012 season:
"Sometimes," Kemp said, "you just have to think outside the box."
That's one way of looking at it. Kemp was thinking outside the box when he thought out loud during a conference call with Los Angeles media in November, a conference call in response to Kemp's second-place finish for the 2011 MVP to Ryan Braun. It had been just two hours since Braun had been named MVP. Emotions were running high. Kemp was barely a week into an eight-year, $160 million contract extension. He was coming off a season in which he nearly won the Triple Crown, leading the National League in home runs (39) and RBI (126) and finishing third in batting average (.324), 13 points behind NL leader Jose Reyes.
And he was asked about not winning MVP just two hours earlier.
"I'm going to go 50-50 next year," Kemp said on Nov. 22.
I asked him about that prediction on Thursday: Where did it come from? Why would you say that? How? What?
"Here's what happened," Kemp said. "When I said that, it might've been the first time I even thought about [50-50]. But we were talking about how I didn't win the MVP, and I said, 'I guess I've got to put up 50-50 to win MVP."
And then, I asked Kemp? And then? After you said it, were you like the rest of us who heard your prediction and just kind of thought ... huh?
"No, you know what? After I said it, I thought about it," Kemp said. "And I thought, 'I'm glad I said it. It's good to be positive.'"
That's where Dodgers manager Don Mattingly sits on this whole thing, or at least, that's where Mattingly says he sits on this whole thing. In some ways it's hard to believe, that a longtime big-leaguer like Mattingly, raised on the "respect the game" code, would find anything good about one of his players predicting one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history. But Mattingly has been a huge Kemp supporter since becoming manager last season, saying Kemp should have won MVP with or without Braun's link to PED's, and Mattingly continued with the public support on Thursday.
"It's good, really, that he sets his sights so high," Mattingly said. "I'd much rather him talk about 50-50 than 20-20."
Here's the thing about all this 50-50 talk, something that Mattingly would probably agree with even if he'd never say it:
Kemp might just do it.
I mean, really. He could do it. He's 27 years old, which means he's just now entering his prime. His best years? They should be ahead of him, not behind him. And the years behind him have been pretty damn good. Since becoming an everyday player in the big leagues at age 23 in 2008, Kemp's home-run total has gone from 18 to 26 to 28 to 39. Last year he increased his career high by 11 home runs. If he does it again this season, he's at 50. Unlikely? Sure. But not impossible.
And 50 steals should be easier than 50 home runs.
"Absolutely," Kemp said when I said that last sentence to him. "More opportunities to steal a base."
Kemp has topped 30 steals three times, with a high last season of 40, but he's getting more opportunities than ever. Last season his .324 batting average was 39 points above his career average. Last season he also increased his career high in walks from 53 to 74. Add it up, and his on-base percentage last season was a career-best .399.
This season Mattingly has moved Kemp to third in the order for two reasons. One, that could translate to another 20 or so at-bats over the course of the season. Two, it gives Kemp more protection than last season, when he hit cleanup and would have games where the No. 5 hitter was Juan Uribe (.204, 4 home runs, 28 RBI in 2011) or Casey Blake (.252, 4, 26).
Batting third, Kemp is protected now by two-time All-Star Andre Ethier. He'll still be pitched around, but again, he'll have more opportunities than he had last season. And last season he had 39 home runs and 40 stolen bases, good enough to finish second in the MVP, which was good enough to get him a conference call where he set his sights on 50-50 and then told the media -- who voted Braun for MVP -- it was our fault.
"I'm telling you," Kemp said in November, "y'all created a monster."
As of Thursday night Kemp had two home runs and one steal, but it's early. Plenty of time to pad those stats -- and he'll do that. Plenty of time to decide he's sick of the 50-50 topic, too. My guess? He'll do that, too. And when it happens, it will be spectacular.
I'm telling y'all, he created a monster.