“Step to the rhythm of a Sho-nuff winner (winner) I been Here before (yo!) I ain’t no beginner....I’m too legit to quit, I’m too legit to quit.”
M. C. Hammer, singing about Tony Kemp
Tony Kemp, Legit Major Leaguer
Question. Who has the highest batting average on the Houston Astros?
OK, that’s too easy. Jose Altuve of course.
Who has the second highest? Hint: not Carlos Correa, not Yuli Gurriel, not Alex Bregman, not George Springer. No, its Tony Kemp, hitting .316.
Ah, but who cares about batting average? As Billy Bean supposedly said, the only thing that matters is on base percentage. So who has the highest on base percentage? Jose Altuve, right? Wrong, Tony Kemp, .391
But you say, 89 plate appearances, small sample size. It’s not real.
Fair enough. Maybe, maybe not.
So let’s take a deeper look. What I think we are going to find is that Tony Kemp has excellent and consistent plate discipline and ball contact skills that will translate in the big leagues. He can hit left or right handed pitchers, and there are no gaping holes in his strike zone. Tony Kemp, as much as any player, only swings at strikes, and as much as any player, when he swings he makes contact. Guys like that get on base. Consistently. And guys who get on base consistently, even if they lack power, who can bunt, have base running skills and defensive versatility, can find a niche on most major league teams.
Hitting ninth in the Astros lineup, getting on base in front of George Springer, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, is a real good niche for Tony Kemp.
In short, Tony Kemp is a consummate pro. At 26, he has honed his craft but can still improve. He has paid his dues. He is ready to make his mark. He will not be sent down again and he will not quit. Big league-wise he is legit.
Let’s start with the big picture. Since coming to the Astros on May 16th, the Astros have won 17 of the 24 games in which Kemp has played. In those games Kemp has gotten on base in 20 of those games, and gotten on base at least twice in 12 of them. His on base numbers are not the result of an isolated hot streak. In his month with the team this year he has produced consistently in almost every game he has played.
His slash line during this time is .316/.391/434. His WOBA is .361, and his WRC+ 134. In those 24 games he has scored 9 runs, driven in 10, and has 3 stolen bases. He does have only 1 home run and a low ISO of .118. His BABIP, .338, suggests some good fortune, but not extremely so. He has above average speed, and seems to have some of Jose Altuve’s knack for “hittin em where they ain’t.”
Tony Kemp, Steady Eye, Steady Contact
Clearly the strength of Tony Kemp is his ability to make contact, put the ball in play, and get on base. His K%, 9% is below his BB%, 10%. Not many players in 2018 do that.
Let’s dig deeper into his plate discipline and his batted ball profile. His contact % is an impressive 88%. His swings outside the strike zone (O swing%) is a paltry 29.8%, and yet of those he makes contact 78.7% of the time (Z contact%). He swings at 58.7% of balls in the strike zone (Z swing %) and hits them at an astounding 93.6% (Z contact %) He swings and misses on a miniscule 5.2% of the pitches.
To get a handle on these statistics let’s compare Kemp to the best contact hitters on the Astros, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman. I will put all three of their plate discipline data on the following table.
Kemp, Altuve, Bregman Plate Discipline
OK, Bregman has better plate discipline. but that is top of the elite. Bregman swings outside the zone only 20% of the time, Kemp about 30%. And Bregman swings inside the zone 61.5%, Kemp 58.7%. So Bregman swings a little more when he should, and a good deal less when he shouldn’t. But Kemp’s discipline is at least in the same league.
But the real point of all this is contact. Kemp makes contact more than Altuve or Bregman. He swings and misses a good deal less than Altuve, and just a tad more than Bregman. His K rate is the lowest of all three players.
The following table shows the batted ball tendencies of the three players above.
Batted Ball Profile Kemp, Altuve, Bregman
Kemp actually has the highest percentage of line drives of the three, although slightly more ground balls and considerably fewer fly balls than Bregman. His medium hit rate is the highest, but his hard hit rate is about 8% less than Altuve and Bregman.
OK, I’m not trying to argue that Tony Kemp is as good a hitter as either of these players, only that he can effectively and consistently get on base and let them hit him in. I am comparing Kemp here to two players, Bregman and Altuve, whose xWOBAs are elite, especially Bregman, whose .409 is one of the best in the league.
No doubt Kemp is just a medium velocity line drive hitter, a guy who hits singles and an occasional double into the gaps or down the lines. His average exit velocity this year is 81.5 mph, less than league average 87.3. But with his line drive trajectory of 8.3 degrees, baseball Savant projects Kemp to maintain a .334 xWOBA, significantly better than league average of .317. Likewise his expected batting average of .276 is better than league average .248. He will slug below average, but getting on base is his role in the major leagues, and to let Bregman, Altuve et al slug him in. The main point is, Tony Kemp is getting good, consistent, contact, and along with his 10% walk rate that means he should be able to sustain a consistently good on base percentage.
One indication of Kemp’s staying power is his left/right splits. Although a left handed hitter, he actually has hit better against left handers in his career than right handers. This year, admittedly only 21 PA, his WRC+ is 187 against lefties, vs right 118. I would not expect that difference to remain over time, his career split is only 6 points, but Kemp doesn’t appear to show any disinclination to hit left handers.
Another indication of Kemp’s staying power as an on base hitter is his plate coverage. There aren’t very many areas of the strike zone that Kemp can’t hit. Below are two heat charts, the first shows Kemp’s whiff rate in the various parts of the zone, the other his BA in the various parts of the zone. I am using career charts to increase the sample size, but the pattern is similar for 2018. If I just used 2018, the charts would look even better.
Clearly Kemp doesn’t miss very much inside the strike zone, although he does have a weakness low and inside. We’ll get to that later.
Below is the heat map for Kemp’s batting average in his ML career.
The following is his heat map for 2018 only.
Taking both charts into account Kemp seems to be able to hit anything in the strike zone for a base hit, and this season has even developed a preference for outside pitches. It doesn’t look like a pitcher would be able to pound a certain location in the zone and think that Kemp would never hit that pitch.
Tony Kemp: Versatility and Athleticism
One aspect of Kemp’s utility is his defensive versatility. He can play LF, CF or 2B. Though some people see him make what look like spectacular plays in the outfield and are impressed, advanced defensive metrics are less so. In his three short stints in the majors his overall UZR/150 rating in the outfield is -9.5. I would point out that he has spent most of his life playing the infield, especially second base, but has been converted to outfield only in the last few years. In my opinion, with more experience Kemp should become a better outfielder, although his weak throwing arm will always be a deficit.
Kemp is definitely a plus runner, clocked by Statcast at 27.9 ft./sec. This is equal to Alex Bregman, and slightly faster than Carlos Correa and George Springer. It is about a foot faster than league average, but a foot slower than Jake Marisnick and Jose Altuve. It is third fastest on the current roster.
I am going to close this discussion with two caveats. The first, obvious and obligatory, is that the sample for Kemp is very small, less than 100 PA’s this year. This is understood. The hazard of predicting future results from such a small sample of past performance is understood. The point of this article is to argue that peripherals indicate that his performance is sustainable, but it is a hazardous prediction. I just don’t see Kemp suddenly becoming a swing and miss batter. What we have seen is what he is. The hits may come and go. The contact will be steady.
If Statcast’s prediction of a .341 WOBA and BA of .276 is correct, Tony Kemp is a made man in the big leagues. If he can maintain a .350 OBP and a .400 SLG%, steal some bases and avoid egregious fielding errors, then he will be doing his job, the job that Nori Aoki was brought to the Astros to do in 2017, but could not accomplish. I believe prime Aoki is about what you can expect from Tony Kemp. Nori Aoki was no all-star, and Kemp won’t be either, but he had his niche in the major leagues, and so will Kemp.
The second caveat is the one hole I have found in Kemp’s batting profile. He is very vulnerable to sliders and cutters, especially from right handed pitchers, the ones he faces the most. The following is a chart from Kemp’s ML career and his performance against the various pitches he has faced.
He has seen 76 sliders in his career and has 2 hits, one this year. He has seen 61 cutters and has one hit, that was this year. He has seen 39 sliders against right handers and has not gotten one hit, and has 4 k’s, a high number for Kemp. This may explain the blind spot low and inside in the heat map for Kemp, where a good right handed slider would tend to go. Against left handed sliders Brooks says Kemp has seen 37 and has a career .200 average and a .300 SLG %. Kemp is not missing the sliders by much. The data shows he is hitting them into ground balls. He needs to get under them just a bit.
Tony Kemp would not be the first rookie major league player who had to adjust to major league breaking balls. With his otherwise stellar bat control skills, with time I believe he will make that adjustment. And when he does he will get even better.
Tony Kemp, Great Teammate
One more thing about Tony Kemp. He is a superb teammate. He invented the latest team custom, hugs for homers. And ever since, Evan Gattis has been hitting like Babe Ruth. Last Saturday, in Kansas City’s extreme heat, he was seen in the dugout serving cold towels to the position players. He plays on a team of players that shine in the exuberance and joy with which they play, and with the love they have for baseball and each other. Tony Kemp fits right in with this very special group of beautiful people.
Note: all stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball as of Saturday, 6-16-18.