- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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PHOENIX -- It wasn't the most impactful, interesting or insightful quote coming from Matt Kemp's first All-Star media day. But from the standpoint of someone who has watched almost every game Kemp has played in the major leagues, it was the one that jumped out at me.
I don't even remember what the question was -- it came from one of the other half-dozen or so reporters gathered around Kemp's table. But the answer was this:
"I'm happy, man. Look at all these people and all this going on. This is fun, man."
This wasn't the sort of comment the Matt Kemp of a year ago was apt to make, at least not with a gigantic smile across his face leaving little room to doubt his sincerity. In a few hours, he would participate in the Home Run Derby, something only a small percentage of even these All-Stars get to do. He is in the midst of the season of his life, one that ultimately could net him the National League's Most Valuable Player award.
It didn't net him much in the Derby, alas. Kemp hit just two home runs in the first round, both of them coming when he already had nine outs. That was the least among the eight contestants, and thus he quickly was eliminated. But the two homers he did hit were worth $18,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs, and Kemp still appeared to enjoy himself.
"That was tight," he said afterward. "It was a great experience. I was really excited just to be a part of it. I wish I could have hit more home runs, but it was definitely harder than it looks on TV. I may have been a little amped up."
Kemp actually appears to be happy most of the time these days, and why wouldn't he be?
"I'm just having fun," he said earlier in the day. "That's the main thing. We're playing a kids' game, and I have played this game since I was 4 years old. It has always been fun."
Well, perhaps not always.
For the most part, Kemp has declined to go into detail about what he went through last season. Whenever he is asked about it, he usually responds by saying he has put it behind him. If you have been paying attention, you know what he dealt with then, including the possibly distracting relationship with singer Rihanna, the almost-certainly distracting feuds with general manager Ned Colletti and then-Dodgers coaches Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer, and the numbers that were decent, but certainly a step backward. He hit a career-high 28 homers last season with 89 RBIs, but had only a .249 average.
"Last year, I wouldn't say I wasn't having fun, but I was definitely frustrated about the way things were going," Kemp said. "We weren't winning many games, so that was frustrating. And I wasn't performing the way I wanted to perform. There were times when I wasn't having fun. Losing isn't any fun at all."
For those who reveled in the downfall of a player whose personality could be less than charming at times, those off-field issues were the reason of choice for his regression. For the more technically minded, though, it was more about the return of an old problem, one Kemp seemed to have put behind him during the latter stages of 2009.
Once again, he had become susceptible to breaking balls. To those watching every day, the slider down and away appeared to be his worst enemy because it seemed like that was the pitch he almost always got with two strikes. It is a pitch that is virtually impossible to hit and one that for Kemp, anyway, was virtually impossible to lay off. And so the result -- a career-worst 170 strikeouts -- was not unexpected.
However, according to ESPN Stats & Information, it is Kemp's improvement at hitting the curveball, rather than the slider, that is largely responsible for his turnaround. Through last year's All-Star break, Kemp had hit .143 on curveballs put into play. Through Sunday, when the Dodgers completed the first half of 2011, Kemp was hitting .324 on the same pitch. His slugging percentage on such pitches had gone from .343 to .618.
This even as his swing percentage against curves has gone from 34.5 percent to 45.3 percent, suggesting he has honed his eye in terms of which curves to go after and which ones to simply ignore.
"You don't want to let that spinner go, the one where they're just trying to get it over for a strike," Dodgers hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. "You want that breaking ball that starts at you, because it ends up over the middle. Sometimes they hang it, and it spins. You don't want to miss that pitch. It's that breaking ball that starts over the outer half and ends up out of the strike zone that you have to lay off."
Kemp implied that his improvement against the curveball is a by-product of having a better plan when he goes to the plate.
"It's just a matter of being prepared every day, trying to figure out what a pitcher is trying to do in certain situations," Kemp said. "I still have mental lapses at times. I think we all do. Maybe you have a couple of bad at-bats or you have a bad series. That's part of baseball. But I know what I need to do now to be successful, and part of that is making sure I swing at good pitches."
Kemp is improving there, but he still has a ways to go. After striking out once every 3.54 plate appearances last season, he is doing so once every 4.68 this year. But despite what it looks like to the naked eye, he actually has gotten worse at the low-and-away slider, both in terms of hitting it and in terms of laying off it. According to ESPN research, he now swings at the down-and-away slider outside the strike zone 58.1 percent of the time, a staggering jump from 34.6 percent last year.
What this means is that he is getting that pitch less often, which could signal he will get it more frequently in the second half. That could be a potential land mine for Kemp as he pursues the MVP award and the Dodgers, who don't have much in the way of offense beyond Kemp and right fielder Andre Ethier, try to claw their way back into the race in the National League West.
For now, though, Kemp is cruising along with a .313 average, 22 homers, 67 RBIs, a .398 on-base percentage and 27 stolen bases, giving himself a decent shot at joining baseball's elite 40-homer/40-steals club. And he brings an attitude to the field and even to the clubhouse that has never really been seen before, even in his breakout season of 2009.
Joe Torre, the former Dodgers manager who sometimes found Kemp challenging to manage and even benched him for a few days last June after a dugout confrontation between Kemp and Schaefer, has seen a lot of Kemp on television this season.
"He just looks like he is locked in," Torre said during a visit to the All-Star workout. "We can all see the determination. Right now, he is showing he can be that guy that everybody counts on, and he isn't shying away from it."
Kemp is still a work in progress, both on the field and off it. Although generally not as surly as he was last season, he can still be curt with the media, and that is when he isn't trying to avoid them altogether. There still are occasional signs of immaturity that remind us he is 26. Before games, he usually is the loudest guy in the clubhouse, but in a clubhouse that could stand to have a little life injected into it, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
However, in a clear departure from the past, there no longer is any questioning of Kemp's commitment, not only to improving his game but also to the Dodgers. During Monday's media session, he was asked if he feels the Dodgers can hold onto him for the long term given their current financial difficulties and the lingering question of just how long owner Frank McCourt can stave off what continues to look like an inevitable sale of the team.
"Of course," said Kemp, who is in the final season of a two-year, $10.95 million contract but won't be eligible for free agency until after 2012. "This is the team that gave me a chance to come up here and show my talents. They drafted me. You never know what is going to happen. You don't know what the situation is going to be, and I have little control of any of that. But I would love to stay in L.A. It's my home, and my friends are there."
That is easy to say when the day you do have control is still more than a year away. Who knows who will own the Dodgers on that day, who the general manager will be, who the manager will be? Who knows what kind of budget the club will have from which to make an offer to Kemp, and who knows what the philosophy will be when it comes to long-term deals for high-priced free agents, something Kemp almost certainly will be after next season?
What we do know is that Kemp isn't going anywhere for the rest of 2011. If he wins the MVP, it will be in a Dodgers uniform, something that hasn't been done in 23 years. His game and his approach with the media still need a little more polish, but we can presume that will come with time. For right now, all we can really do is sit back and enjoy the show.
And what a show it is.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. ESPN Stats and Information contributed to this report.