Dodgers manager sat center fielder Matt Kemp in Friday's series opener against the Phillies, and for the first time all season acknowledged the position as one the Dodgers need to improve at defensively.
"He doesn't look the same. The burst, the outrun-the-ball thing. We've talked to Matt and don't hear anything medically that he's not feeling good," Mattingly said on Thursday, per Michael Radano of MLB.com. "We just want to see the same burst. We don't know if it's a matter of him being out a few years. He's trying, been working, and we'll continue to go from there."
Among 28 center fielders with at least 200 innings at the position entering Friday, Kemp ranks 26th in Ultimate Zone Rating, at 7.5 runs below average. Similarly, Kemp ranks dead last among 52 center fielders in defensive runs saved per Baseball Info Solutions at 11 runs below average, and 52nd and last in Total Zone Rating as well at six runs below average.
Kemp admitted his defense has suffered since his October microfracture surgery on his ankle, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register:
“I wish I was explosive as I could be in the past. I have good days and bad days. Some days my ankle is looser than other days. Some days it’s a little stiff. I’m not hurt or anything. But you have those good days and bad days. That’s true for any baseball player.
“Shoot – I wish I could go out there and steal 100 million bases like I used to. But like I said some days my legs – I don’t feel it as far as being loose. But the more I play, the more it gets better and better. I’m happy about that.”
Mattinlgly admitted to knowing the poor defensive numbers for Kemp, as he has in the past. Per Radano:
"When you see a game from this bench you don't get to see everything," Mattingly said. "We're going to go back and look at video. Look at all of the angles. You always continue to evaluate the plays that we make or don't make and look for reasons why. The metrics allow us to take all the information, and also you want to take in the game and see what happens.
"Obviously center field is a position we continue to look at and we have to get better out there."
That last quote is about as harsh as Mattingly, a players manager, will talk about one of his own players in the press, not that it's anything Mattingly hasn't said directly to Kemp I'm sure, possibly even again during the closed door meeting between the two reported by Plunkett, Radano as well as David Vassegh of Dodger Talk.
But what exactly does getting better mean?
Kemp started 34 of 43 games in center field since his return, plus one more start at designated hitter, and started 20 of the last 25 games in center before Friday's night off. Unless the Dodgers are just completely fed up with his play, it's unlikely Kemp gets totally discarded as at least an occasional option in center.
Andre Ethier started in center field on Friday night and in his 119⅔ innings in center field entering Friday rated out as average by the three ratings listed above (well, -0.2 Ultimate Zone Rating is close enough). Is Ethier all of a sudden the every day center fielder?
The Dodgers prefer Carl Crawford in left field so he's unlikely to move. Might this mean Yasiel Puig gets a few more starts in center field, seeing if his insane progress on the learning curve at the plate translates into the field as well?
Joc Pederson is arguably the best center fielder defensively of the bunch, but though he is lighting up Triple-A — .346/.447/.648 with 15 home runs in 47 games for the Isotopes through Friday — it is unlikely the Dodgers are willing to make such a drastic move just yet. Because once Pederson gets called up, it will be to play and not to sit.
So for now, what we know about the Dodgers outfield is that Puig starts every day, and the rest can sort itself out. Whether Puig's every day play will remain in right field or shift to center is a subplot worth watching in the coming days.