Matt Kemp hasn't yet been medically cleared to run this spring, but the Dodgers star owed a combined $128 million through the 2019 season is putting as much distance as possible between himself and all of the fourth outfielder talk. The 29-year-old is coming off a season wrecked by shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries that limited him to just 73 games and a career-low .395 slugging percentage -- nearly 200 points below the mark he posted while finishing as runner-up to Ryan Braun in 2011 NL MVP voting. But he told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Mark Saxon that "Beast Mode" should return in 2014 now that his swing is no longer compromised:
I couldn't really get through the ball. If anybody knows my swing, when y'all see that go up in the air like that," Kemp said, lifting his left arm over his head, "you know something good happened. I was cutting my swing off. I couldn't get extension, man. I couldn't do a lot of things.
The impact that Kemp's ailing left shoulder -- surgically repaired in each of the past two offseasons -- had on his game last year was most apparent when pitchers tried to bust him inside. He throttled inside pitches during his halcyon 2011 season, swatting 14 home runs and slugging .698. Kemp wasn't as much of a monster against inside stuff in 2012 (seven homers, .554 slugging percentage), but he was still way above average (MLB batters slugged .416 versus inside pitches that year).
Last year, though? Kemp admitted he couldn't do a lot of things while his body betrayed him. One of those things he couldn't do was drive inside pitches: he didn't hit a single home run on an inner-third pitch while slugging .290. Among the 249 hitters seeing at least 350 inside pitches last season, Kemp ranked 225th in slugging. A couple years ago, he did more damage than Miguel Cabrera when pitches challenged him inside. Last season, he inflicted less pain than Jose Tabata and Gregor Blanco.
Back when he was healthy and competing for MVP hardware, Kemp had no problem getting extension versus inside stuff. He sprayed the ball all over the diamond, hitting nearly as many home runs to center field (six) and he did to left field (eight).
Kemp's spray chart vs. inside pitches, 2011
Unable to fully extend his swing in 2013, Kemp pulled more inside pitches to left field (57.7% of balls put in play, compared to 42.9% in 2011) but did little more than roll over the ball, leading to lots of 5-to-3 outs scribbled on the score card.
Kemp's spray chart vs. inside pitches, 2013
Kemp's clearly no fourth outfielder when healthy, but he did hit like one last year when pitchers came inside. Perhaps opponents are starting to catch on, as he has seen more inner-third pitches three years running (29.3% in 2011, 30.9% in 2012, and 33.4% in 2013). Plenty of scouts will scrutinize Kemp's swing during spring training. If he looks vulnerable against pitches on the inner third, expect pitchers to make him prove that his mended shoulder will finally let him get extended in 2014.