The Los Angeles Dodgers are up for sale, but Matt Kemp isn't going anywhere. The 27-year-old center fielder, who would have been arbitration-eligible for the last time this winter, signed an eight-year, $160 million deal that keeps him in L.A. through 2019. Kemp is a prime NL MVP candidate, coming off a season in which he batted .324 and set new career highs in on-base percentage (.399), slugging percentage (.586) and home runs (39).
Kemp's career year was driven by his power surge and pitchers treading cautiously against him (he was intentionally walked 24 times, behind only Prince Fielder), but he also got a boost from a .380 batting average on balls in play. While that's an extreme number for any hitter -- just 47 players have posted a .380+ BABIP during a season in which they qualified for the batting title during the Expansion Era -- high BABIP totals are nothing new for Kemp.
Speedy players who avoid pop-ups typically post higher BABIP figures, and Kemp fits both criteria. Despite standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in at 220 pounds, he missed a 40/40 season by one homer in 2011 and he has a career Speed Score of 6.5 (five is average). Plus, his infield/fly ball rate is just 3.1 percent, less than a third of the roughly 10 percent MLB average. Through his age-26 season, Kemp has a whopping .352 BABIP. That's fifth-highest among Expansion Era hitters:
Highest BABIP Through Age-26 Season During Expansion ERA (1961-Present, min. 2,500 PA)
So, how has Kemp done it? Let's take a closer look at his high-BABIP hitting.
Kemp has posted higher-than-average BABIP figures against all pitch types, but that's especially the case on fastballs/sinkers and curveballs:
In terms of pitch location, Kemp has gotten hits on balls in play like Ted Williams unless the pitcher spots one low-and-away. Check out his in-play average by location over the past three seasons, compared to the league average for right-handed hitters. This does include homers, but it still gives us a good idea of Kemp's across-the-plate BABIP prowess:
The farther inside the pitch is, the higher Kemp's BABIP: he's got a .325 BABIP on outside pitches, a .333 BABIP on pitches down the middle, and a .358 BABIP on inside pitches. Perhaps that's why opponents stay away from him, throwing lots of pitches off the outside corner:
At age 27, Kemp is in the prime of his career and shouldn't have a problem posting well above-average BABIP totals during the bulk of his new mega contract. No one should expect a .380 BABIP again (the new Bill James projections on Fangraphs show a .351 BABIP for Kemp in 2012, a near-perfect match for his career mark), but he has done this for too long for it to be considered a fluke. Kemp has the skills -- speed, few pop-ups, a powerful line-drive stroke -- to keep up his high-BABIP hitting for a long time.