The evidence of Matt Kemp’s evolution goes beyond the numbers.
Kemp has batted .400 over a 12-game hitting streak that he will take into the Dodgers’ series opener against the Houston Astros tonight at Dodger Stadium, but hitting coach Mike Easler isn’t as impressed with what he has done as he is with how he has done it.
The 23-year-old right fielder, Easler said, isn’t the same hitter who was two for 15 over the first four games of the season and was benched for four games.
“He’s got better strike-zone management now,” Easler said. “That’s half the battle, not getting excited, staying within yourself.”
Kemp, who is 20 for 50 with two home runs and 19 runs batted in during the 12-game span, said he feels what Easler sees.
“I feel comfortable at the plate,” he said. “Everything’s working.”
In a four-man outfield where Andruw Jones was expected to be the only constant, Kemp has started the last 11 games and hit third each time. Over the course of his hitting streak, he has raised his average from .286 to .328. The increased time on the basepaths has allowed him to take advantage of his athleticism, as he has stolen eight bases in the last nine games.
Everything, Kemp said, started in the batting cages. Kemp is at the ballpark by 1:30 or 2 p.m. on most days to work with Easler.
“It’s a muscle memory thing,” he said. “You work in the cage real hard, and it takes over on the field during the game.”
The process included breaking a mind-set that was set in the spring. In camp, Kemp worked on driving balls on the outer third of the plate to right field. Being so focused on doing that, Easler said, led to his chasing pitches that were too low and too far outside.
“I think he was more conscious of balls that were pitchers’ pitches, balls that were outside the zone,” Easler said.
Manager Joe Torre said that he thinks Kemp’s spring might’ve been “messed up” because he was part of the split squad that left Vero Beach and traveled to China to play in two exhibition games.
Kemp learned how to be more selective, not only by waiting on pitches longer, but also by starting to see what the pitcher was delivering the moment the ball left his hand.
Once that improved, Easler said, Kemp was able to think of the more minute aspects of the game.
“He’s not giving at-bats away,” Easler said. “He’s learning from each at-bat. And he’s making adjustments, sometimes within the at-bat.”
“For a young kid, the way he adjusts in at-bats is pretty impressive,” Torre said.
Easler said Kemp is becoming increasingly aware of how he might be pitched and what he’s trying to do in a particular at-bat, taking into consideration how many men are on base, as well as the score and juncture of the game.
“Like some of the sacrifice flies,” Easler said. “He takes a little bit off the swing, get the ball to the outfield.
Kemp saw an increased number of change-ups over the last week, and Easler was pleased with how he managed to not get fooled by most of them.
Easler has also liked the way Kemp has at times worked his way back into favorable counts when falling behind.
“He’ll be 0-1, 0-2, and he’ll work back to 2-2 or 3-2,” Easler said. “He’s nice and relaxed. He doesn’t panic anymore.”
And failure doesn’t seem to dent his confidence. “A bad at-bat doesn’t get him down, which is important,” Torre said.