Refocused Kemp back among elite

Refocused Kemp back among elite

LOS ANGELES -- He's not the guy with the hitting streak.

But Matt Kemp does lead the Dodgers in runs scored, total bases, RBIs, stolen bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and walks.

Yes, even walks.

And with the rare offensive skill set required to excel in those areas of power, batting average (.378) and speed, it is Kemp who provides protection in the lineup for the guy with the April-record 24-game hitting streak, Andre Ethier.

The 2009 Matt Kemp has returned. That's the one who had the breakthrough season, unleashing his five-tool package to win a Rawlings Gold Glove Award and Louisville Slugger Silver Slugger Award.


"I had a lot going on last year, and now I come to the field happy, for real."
-- Matt Kemp

Then came a 2010 season of distractions: a tabloid-covered romance with singing star Rihanna, his first multiyear contract, critical comments from general manager Ned Colletti, lack of hustle and a dugout flare-up that resulted in a benching from manager Joe Torre, and the frustrations of finishing fourth.

How did he return to the leaderboard in just about every offensive category and quiet complaints about his defense?

"I had a lot going on last year, and now I come to the field happy, for real," said Kemp.

Rihanna has moved on, and so has Kemp.

Colletti said the change probably began last August, when he sought a sit-down meeting with Kemp to clear the air. The perception had been that Colletti was down on Kemp, ever since an April radio interview of Colletti criticizing the center fielder's play.

"We had a long meeting a month or so to go [in the season], and we continued to communicate through offseason texts," said Colletti. "I told him in that meeting the only thing he can control is his effort, and he's been very good. He came into camp in great shape, he's worked hard and the results are showing."

Kemp said he rededicated himself. He worked out harder, hired a chef to improve his diet, lost weight and firmed up. But he also gives Colletti credit for heading off a souring situation.


"This year, [he's] a totally different player. Before last year, he played with a determination. Like he was out to prove something, with reckless abandon. It's nice to see that back this year. You see the determination back. He wants to show everybody how good he is. He's playing the game the way it ought to be played. I just see a better attitude. I see more focus."
-- Casey Blake

"It was big of him to come up and have that talk," Kemp said. "When stuff is going on, don't let it linger; it just gets worse. When he said that [on the radio], I was a little bit mad and we all were frustrated. We weren't winning games and things happen. All we had to do was talk it out, work together and help the team be successful. We came together and let bygones be bygones. It definitely makes it easier to play. I feel like we're on the same page. The coaches, the manager, they have your back and you have theirs."

Kemp has a younger manager in Don Mattingly and a coaching staff he better relates to, featuring baserunning guru and new mentor Davey Lopes, a close friend and former teammate of Kemp's agent, Dave Stewart. But Kemp also seems more willing to be coached.

"Davey likes to teach the right way to play the game," said Kemp. "He doesn't tell you to do it, he offers his knowledge. He's been there. He stole hundreds of bases. He knows what to teach. And I like to learn, I do.

"To tell you the truth, I've never been a student of the game as much as I should. I watched some video of what pitchers were trying to do, but I never really sat there studying, breaking it down every day, never paid that much attention. Now, I'm older. I get the fact that I've got more to learn. I'm not wasting at-bats like I did. I'm not saying it's easier, but it's all making sense."

Once Casey Blake became comfortable in the Dodgers' clubhouse after his acquisition in 2008, he quickly became Kemp's clubhouse big brother -- when allowed.

"He was tough to talk to last year," said Blake. "I guess I really didn't know what he was going through. All I could do was help the best I can. It was frustrating last year. You kind of knew what he was going through. He had a lot on his plate -- a lot of things that probably distracted him from playing the game. From the fan's perspective, they'd probably like to think it's just a game and you're always able to leave personal issues aside. But sometimes you can't.

"This year, [he's] a totally different player. Before last year, he played with a determination -- like he was out to prove something, with reckless abandon. It's nice to see that back this year. You see the determination back. He wants to show everybody how good he is. He's playing the game the way it ought to be played. I just see a better attitude. I see more focus."

Kemp said one goal is to become the first Dodger to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases.

"It would be awesome," he said. "It would be tight, to be the first Dodger to do that."

Lopes said Kemp's tool package reminds him of other rare players, like Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and even Barry Bonds.

"Before he bulked up," Lopes added.

Pitcher Ted Lilly said Kemp's batting approach has changed, from the perspective of an opposing pitcher.

"I see him a little more selective, tougher to pitch to because he's not chasing," said Lilly. "In the past, when you pitched against him, he was susceptible to a hard slider in or away. Now, when guys make a good pitch on him, he gets inside and hits it hard. That creates more of a caution for the pitcher to go in there. The next thing you know, they make a mistake he can drive or they walk him. He's taking a lot of walks."

Kemp's only 26. What's his ceiling?

"I just know that the longer he plays the game, the better he's going to get," said Blake. "He probably still hasn't reached his full maturity as far as baseball goes. I'm still learning, everyone is still learning. I hope he keeps pushing himself. If that's the case, there really is no ceiling."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.