MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Kemp sets sights on continued improvement

Spencer: Kemp not resting on laurels this season

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Matt Kemp had a season for the ages in 2011, but he's not about to rest on a mound of laurels.

"You work in the offseason to be the best," Kemp said following Wednesday's workout at Camelback Ranch. "You train to be the best and try to have an even better season than the one before. There are things I need to improve on; I'm still learning, even though I'm a vet.

"Fifty-fifty? Hey, I set my goals high."

No kidding. Kemp's ambition heading into 2012, along with driving his Dodgers to exciting places in October, is to become Major League Baseball's first player to combine at least 50 homers with 50 steals.

"If I get close to that," he said, "it's still a heckuva season. I believe in myself. It's not being cocky. That's not me. But you've got to believe in yourself. If you don't, who will?

"Nobody's ever done it, 50-50. I'm going to try as hard as I can to be the first."

Kemp traces his breakout 2011 -- leading the National League in homers, RBIs, runs scored and total bases -- to several factors.

"I felt better, quicker, more athletic," he said. "You have to train your body to get through a 162-game season. Sometimes your body is telling you one thing, and you've got to tell it to do something else."

One thing Kemp's body tells him daily is not to sit around. Kemp hasn't missed a game the past two seasons and has sat out only seven in the past four seasons combined.

It is of great comfort to manager Don Mattingly that he can pencil his superstar into the lineup every day and worry about other things.

"I told Donnie B. [Baseball] I don't want to come out of any games this season," Kemp said.

The support of Torii Hunter and his family during offseason visits to the Angels star's Prosper, Texas, home has been an ongoing inspiration to Kemp.

"It's a beautiful place," said Kemp, an Oklahoman born and raised. "My hometown [Midwest] is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Torii's place. Torii's my bro, and Katrina [Hunter's wife] is like a big sister to me.

"We stay in touch all the time. Torii was somebody I looked up to as a youngster. When I came to the big leagues, he became one of my best friends. He's taught me a lot -- about life and baseball.

"They've got me wanting to purchase land in Texas. It's really quiet down there. When I settle down and get married, have a family, it'd be a nice place to live."

Kemp, having turned 27 during the final week of the 2011 season, is just coming into his prime. Dodgers coach Davey Lopes, whose career has touched on six decades as player, manager and coach, sees no limits for Kemp.

"When Davey came here [last season]," Kemp said, "he told me probably the most important thing I've heard. He said, 'You need to pay attention to everything, watch film ... be more of a student of the game. If you do that, you can be one of the best players ever to play the game.'"

Signed to an extension carrying through 2019, Kemp will be 34 when the contract expires. If he stays healthy, he should own most of the franchise's offensive records.

Lopes has seen nothing to suggest it's a bad idea for a player to have, and express, lofty personal goals.

"The great ones can do that," Lopes said. "They may fall a little short, but why shouldn't he want to shoot high and try to do something nobody has ever done? What's wrong with that?

"If he hits 47 home runs and steals 48 bases and hits .320, he's had a bad year? C'mon, get serious."

In a dominant 2011, on the level of such legendary outfielders as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson, Kemp improved career highs by 11 home runs to 39; by 25 RBIs to 126; by 18 runs scored to 115; by five steals to 40 (in 51 attempts); and by 56 total bases to 353.

His .324 batting average eclipsed his previous high of .297 in a full season, as did his on-base percentage (.399, over .352) and slugging (.586, over .490).

To bookend with his NL Silver Slugger Award hardware, Kemp claimed an NL Rawlings Gold Glove Award for his work in center field. His athletic grace extended to the dignified way he reacted -- praising the winner -- when the NL's Most Valuable Player Award went to Ryan Braun.

Only in batting average (.332) and slugging (.597) did Braun, the Brewers' left fielder, surpass Kemp. Milwaukee's Miller Park was the NL's fifth-best hitters' park, with Dodger Stadium No. 11 in offensive production.

Mattingly -- arguably the game's best hitter over a six-year stretch starting in 1984 -- likes his players aiming for the stars with the confidence to let the world know.

"I'd much rather have Matt talk about 50-50 than 20-20," Mattingly said. "To set the bar for yourself where you really have to work for a full year, those goals are great."

Playing for Mattingly is another benefit cited by Kemp.

"He knows how hard it is to play the game," Kemp said. "He knows the struggles all athletes go through. He has been there. He wasn't just a regular -- he was a star. Great guy to play for."

One potential trap for Kemp in chasing a high standard is lapsing into hunting for pitches out of his comfort zone. He has support around him in the lineup, but there's no Prince Fielder behind him as Braun had.

Lopes points out the progress Kemp has made in plate discipline and controlled aggression, as he drew a career-high 74 walks, 24 intentional, last season.

"He had to show some patience, and it was a learning experience," Lopes said. "We talked about that. Sometimes you get frustrated and want to swing at something out of your zone.

"Barry Bonds is the guy I always bring up. He wasn't going out of his zone. He'd take four and walk to first base. He's the greatest hitter I've ever seen, and a big part of that was being patient and waiting for that one pitch he could drive."

Kemp and Bonds overlapped as NL West rivals for two seasons. In 150 total games in 2006 and '07, Kemp had 25 walks against 119 strikeouts. He still strikes out -- 159 times in 2011 -- but the ratio of walks to strikeouts has improved season by season.

"He's a great talent, obviously," Lopes said. "And he really wants it."

Kemp doesn't have to be the first to 50-50 to be the game's best player. A compelling case can be made that he already has reached that summit.

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