No debate: Kemp defines MVP for Dodgers
We're about five months early for the annual parsing of what exactly the "most valuable" player designation means. Usually that argument dominates baseball conversations at the end of the season, as the Baseball Writers Association of America prepares to hand out its most prestigious award.
If things hold as they are in the National League, though, no such argument will be needed. The league's best player, and the player most valuable to his team, are beyond any doubt the same person. The best player on a team in playoff position is the same guy. And the best show in the NL? Yeah, that's also Matt Kemp.
They're already chanting "M-V-P" for Kemp at Dodger Stadium, and it's easy to understand why. The man who likely would have won the award last year if not for his team's disappointing finish is well on his way to putting in a claim for this year's hardware. He's batting a ridiculous .449 with a .513 on-base percentage, a .942 slugging percentage, 10 homers, 23 RBIs, 19 runs and 31 hits in 19 games. Every one of those numbers leads the National League.
Over in the American League, an exciting outfielder with five-tool talent is doing it up pretty spectacularly too. Josh Hamilton is abusing pitchers almost as mercilessly as Kemp is doing to his counterparts in the senior circuit. He's just as clearly his league's most outstanding player.
Hamilton has been truly great himself, and if there were a first-three-weeks MVP award, he'd be nearly as much a shoo-in for AL honors as Kemp in the NL. Kemp's put up significantly better numbers, but Hamilton's done his hitting against tougher competition. When it comes to context, though, there's no comparison. Without Hamilton, the Rangers would still be a force. Without Kemp, the Dodgers would be lost.
Hamilton, like Kemp, carries an OPS well into the four digits into Friday's games. Like Kemp, he leads his league in homers and slugging, and like Kemp, he's racking up RBIs and runs to boot.
What surrounds them, though, could scarcely be more different. The Rangers have a deep and dangerous lineup, with quite a few players enjoying strong starts. Michael Young is raking, as are David Murphy, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre. Nelson Cruz's .397 slugging percentage ranks seventh for Texas. On the Dodgers, it would be the fourth-best mark and very close to third.
That's not to say that Hamilton's job has been easier. The idea of "protection" has been largely dismissed as far as showing up in actual results, so it's not as though those other bashers are helping Hamilton produce. It's just that he's not carrying an entire offense on his back the way Kemp is. Hamilton has been great -- the best player in the AL so far this year -- but he's had help.
Kemp? Not so much.
Andre Ethier is the only other hitter in the Dodgers lineup hitting at anything close to a star level, though catcher A.J. Ellis' .424 on-base percentage is nothing to sneeze at. Ethier has four homers. The rest of the team has three. Aside from Kemp, the entire rest of the team is batting .237 with a .313 on-base percentage and a .336 slugging percentage. And that includes Ethier's quite solid .288/.333/.562 line.
For some contrast, non-Hamilton Rangers have a .283/.345/.460 line. Take Hamilton out, and the Rangers would rank almost exactly where they do in OPS. They're currently second. Minus Hamilton, they'd fall all the way to third. Yet all but three NL teams have a better OPS than the Dodgers' line minus Kemp.
As for the more complicated numbers, Fangraphs.com lists Kemp's worth at 2.2 wins above a replacement-level player so far this year -- an absurd sum, one that projects to a value of nearly 19 wins over a full season. The next four Dodgers hitters combined have amassed 2.2 WAR, and the rest of the hitting lineup after them comes in at exactly replacement level.
All of which is to say, Kemp has been the best player in his league, on what may well be the team that needs him most. Now that's valuable.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.