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Stop Hatin on Kempin’s Defensin

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I guess Astros fans have nothing better to bitch about

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

I read nearly every comment on this blog. They pay me to do that. I throw in my own comments every once in a while. And one theme I hear constantly is what a bad defensive outfielder Tony Kemp is. How he makes easy plays look hard. That outfield by Tony Kemp is a scary adventure. “Kempin ain’t easy.”

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Trouble with that narrative is: it just ain’t so. He is at least a league average outfielder. There are facts to prove this, so let’s dig in.

At Vanderbilt and in his early minors career Tony Kemp was primarily a second baseman. With Jose Altuve ensconced at that position, the Astros moved Kemp to the outfield. No doubt there has been a learning curve for him, and thus some of the adventures on certain plays that shouldn’t be so adventurous. Some people, probably less astute fans, are often impressed when Tony makes a diving leap and makes a superman catch. More experienced observers take note that if he had made the right first step in the first place, it would have been an easy play.

No matter. An out is an out. The score keeper doesn’t add or deduct style points. Since 2017 Tony Kemp has made 181 putouts in the outfield. He has not made one error.

But one may object, “sure, he doesn’t drop balls, but his occasional uncertainty and confusion cause him to not get to balls he should get to. Plus he’s not very fast and kinda small.” Well, there are advanced metrics that adjust for those variables, and they are favorable to our Kemp.

According to UZR (ultimate zone rating) Tony Kemp has a positive career rating in all outfield positions of 1.4 (UZR/150). Zero is average. That includes 2016 which I have otherwise discounted as ancient history when he truly was totally fresh to the outfield. Since then, by year, his UZR ratings have been: 2017—+23.3, 2018— -4.1, 2019—+51.1. Just for comparison, George Springer’s career UZR/150 is........drum roll please....... 1.4.

Another advanced metric for judging defensive performance is DRS, (defensive runs saved.) Here Tony has a career -1. Hardly a crippling liability. That includes a -3 for 2016, which, as I said before, is irrelevant for our purposes. By year his DRS is: 2017—+2, 2018— -4, 2019—+4.

One trend in both statistics that deserves highlighting; improvement in 2019.

But I can already hear some of your thoughts: “Tony just looks bad out there. He doesn’t get to balls he should get to.” Of course UZR and DRS are designed to account for this, but many are the skeptics of these measures. Another metric, more “eyeball” oriented, is Inside Edge Fielding. It rates plays in six categories: Impossible (0% chance), Remote (1-10%), Unlikely (10-40%), Even (40-60%), Likely (60-90%), and Routine (90-100%).

As already stated, Kemp made no errors since 2017. He made no Impossible catches. (If someone actually made an impossible catch, it wouldn’t be impossible, right?) He made no Remote catches, but he made 44.4% of Unlikely catches (10-40% chance) That is better than the odds. He did not miss an opportunity with Even chances, again beating the odds. He made 100% of all the rest. So the eyeballers who grade for Inside Edge say Tony Kemp makes more unlikely catches than average, he doesn’t just make easy plays look hard.

Many object that Kemp’s arm strength is a serious liablity. The metrics do show his arm to be below average, but this is taken into account in his overall scores. But it was reported that Kemp used last off-season to work on his throwing, and it’s showing. His DRS rARM rating in 2018 was -0.2. This year it is 0; average. His UZR ARM rating was -0.8 in 2018. This year it is +0.5.

One more objection to clear away. Some say that defensive metrics require a larger sample than we have on Kemp to be valid. True, but the sample we have on Kemp is the ONLY SAMPLE THERE IS. All the evidence we have says Tony Kemp is a decent outfielder. There is NO contradictory evidence. If you want to believe otherwise, that is your right, but there is nothing to back up your opinion; not traditional measures like Fielding Percentage or Inside Edge, not advanced metrics like DRS or UZR. Unless you think a statement like “Jake Marisnick would have made that catch look easy” somehow proves that Tony Kemp is therefore a bad outfielder.

So stop hatin on Kempin’s defensin.