The NL MVP case for Kemp: Too close to call?

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At the point just west and down the hill from Dodger Stadium, where Elysian Park Drive empties into Sunset Blvd., the Dodgers a posted a billboard congratulating Clayton Kershaw for winning the National League Cy Young Award last week.

To the left of it is another billboard showing Matt Kemp in action.

There are no words on it.

Yet.

Let’s fill in the blank.

If Kemp is not named the NL’s Most Valuable Player when today’s Baseball Writers Association of America voting is released, it wouldn’t be any act of vandalism against him or the team.

And if he somehow shares the award with his friend, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, there’d be no crime in that, either. With Braun hailing from Granada Hills High, there’d be a celebration in L.A. either way.

But in the Dodgers’ long-term planning department, there’s a reason why their 27-year-old center fielder was valuable enough to sign to an eight-year contract extension last week. He’s come to be worth the price of admission, if Dodger fans are actually coming to games.

But did his 2011 season hold enough value for the team’s marketing department to stand by with a billboard glue gun this morning?

Yes, because:


1) If Triple Crown numbers were good enough for Kershaw’s Cy Young candidacy, then Kemp’s ability to lead the NL in homers (39) and RBIs (126) while finishing third in batting average (.324) as he chased the cagey New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes is definitely value friendly.

No one has flirted with a Triple Crown offensive title since Carl Yastrzemski won it in the American League in 1967, and no NL player had done in 77 years.

2) If the Golden Globes are an indication of how the Oscar voting goes, then Kemp has already won the Hank Aaron Award (given to the best offensive performer in each league), took a Silver Slugger Award (to the top offensive player at each position), been fit for a Gold Glove (for his defense), was named Baseball America’s Major League Player of the Year and was chosen the National League’s Most Outstanding Player in the Players Choice Award selection.

That all came after the team bestowed him with the Roy Campanella Award, given to the Dodger who best exemplifies the spirit and leadership of the late Hall of Fame catcher. That shows value to his team, if someone’s trying to decifer how that fits into the big picture.

3) Kemp didn’t just pile up 40 steals to pad the stats and finish second in the league. He had a 78 percent success rate.

With one more home run, he’d have become the fifth player ever in the same season to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases.

But look at the six other players in big-league history who in a single season ranked in the top three in homers, RBI, batting average and steals – Ty Cobb (1907, 1909-11), Honus Wagner (’08), George Sisler (’20), Chuck Klein (’32), Willie Mays (’55) and Hank Aaron (’63).

All Hall of Famers. And no one has done it in almost 50 years.

4) More number crunching:

Kemp scored a league-best 115 runs, amassed 353 total bases, had 57 multi-hit games, was second with a .586 slugging percentage (to Braun’s .597), second with 195 hits, second with 76 extra-base hits, fourth in on-base percentage (.399, Braun had .397), and induced a career-best 74 walks (eighth in the league).

He was personally involved in 30 percent of the team’s 644 total runs.

In the sabermetric division, Kemp led the league in Wins Above Replacement (an edge he had over Braun since he played a more demanding position), was tops with 135.9 runs created, second to Braun with a .986 OPS, and third in secondary average at .434.

He played in all 161 of the Dodgers’ games. His consecutive game streak isn’t very Ripkin-esque, but 365 going into next season is easily the longest active streak in the majors.

Oh, and his 11 assists lead all NL center fielders.

5) Consider his spot in the lineup.

Most of the year, manager Don Mattingly had Kemp batting fourth, to protect Andre Ethier. The early returns: Ethier pulled off a 30-game hitting streak at one point. That shows value to the team.

But once Kemp was moved to the No. 3 hole, there was still only average-at-best protection for him, allowing pitchers an easier time getting around him. He was intentionally walked 24 times.

Braun, of course, had another MVP candidate, Prince Fielder, watching his back all season. Braun received only two intentional walks. Fielder, by comparision, led all of baseball with 32 IBBs, with Kemp second.

Make no mistake: Braun and Fielder, who, like Kemp are both also 27, showed their value by muscling their team to the NL Central division title and into the NLCS.

Across the board, Braun’s numbers (in 150 games) are in the same ballpark as Kemp’s, plus he compiled them in games that were meaningful all season long.

As the name of the award implies, this isn’t just for an “outstanding” performance.

To drive that home, of the the 22 MVP awards that have been given out since 2000, only three players went to someone who was on a team that finished more than two games out of first place. The Dodgers were 11 back of Arizona in the NL West and finished only a tick above .500 in the standings.

That, if anything, will be the decisive factor in what propells Braun and/or Fielder to the top. Although, some think those two could cancel out each other somehow and allow Kemp to gain more total votes and slip through that way.

“I think that might happen,” said ESPN writer Jayson Stark, an MVP voter who gave his top spot to Braun. “In the end, most of the voters I talked to thought that the Brewers’ MVP was Braun. But could Braun have the year he had without Prince hitting behind him? There’s no doubt that people who vote for Matt Kemp are going to decide the answer to that question is ‘no.’”

“I just hope we have co-winners like we had in 1979 (with Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez), because to me, that’s the best way to solve this,” said Jim Bowden, the former big-league general manager who also analyzes the sport for ESPN.

“They’re two of my favorite players,” Kemp said last week about Braun and Fielder. “They had amazing seasons. The relationship we have is cool. May the best man win.”

And what if Kemp wins it?

“That’d be dope,” he said.

Right to the top of the billboard charts.

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