He's back to the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove standard he set in 2009, turning the page as promised on a 2010 season that included a tabloid-covered romance with singing star Rihanna, his first multi-year contract, critical comments from general manager Ned Colletti, lack of hustle and a dugout flare-up that resulted in a benching from manager Joe Torre, and the frustrations of finishing fourth.
He already has joined new coach Davey Lopes as the only Los Angeles Dodgers to have at least 20 homers and 20 stolen bases before the All-Star break. A sixth-round pick in 2003, Kemp could become the first Dodgers outfielder drafted by the team to start an All-Star Game. He's fourth in the most recent vote totals.
"Everybody comes into the season wanting to be an All-Star," Kemp said. "It's something you dream about, to be in the Home Run Derby, playing at the top level with your favorite players, with your family there knowing that you're living your dream and accomplishing those things. Hopefully it happens."
It will be just another step in Kemp's journey toward fulfilling those expectations that come with rare talent. He ranks in the top three in the National League in each of the Triple Crown categories and leads the Dodgers in just about every offensive stat that matters -- .328 average, 20 homers, 58 RBIs, 21 stolen bases, 49 runs, .620 slugging percentage and .420 on-base percentage. He's cut down his strikeouts (66) and significantly added walks (42, only 11 fewer than his career high).
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"To see him in the All-Star Game -- all I could say is, wow," said Carl Kemp, Matt's father. "It means a lot to us as a family. To see someone progress the way he has, to get the recognition he's worked so hard for and I think he deserves. I'm biased. That's my son."
Despite the issues that enveloped Kemp last year, he set a personal best with 28 home runs (including one in each of the last five games). But his batting average dropped nearly 50 points, he broke his own franchise strikeout record (now 170) and he was caught stealing 15 times in 34 tries.
Nonetheless, he not only predicted late last season that a 2011 year with 40 homers and 40 stolen bases would be a nice way to "pay the fans back," he's on pace to do it.
"It would be tight, to be the first Dodger to do that," he said. "It would give us a better chance to win."
He's gone from clubhouse enigma to leader. If front-office turmoil has had any effect on the field, you wouldn't know it by Kemp, who is 26 and a year and a half away from free agency.
"He has a chance to be a very special player -- maybe for a long time," said Colletti, who agrees with Kemp that the foundation for his center fielder's turnaround was a meeting they had last August near the indoor batting cage under Dodger Stadium to clear the air.
"The meeting was done with feeling, with passion and with class on both sides. He told me what he was feeling and what was on his mind," Colletti said. "I told him in that meeting the only thing he can control is his effort, and he's been very good. He came into camp in great shape, he's worked hard and the results are showing."
Kemp said he rededicated himself. He worked out in the winter with a running coach at Arizona State to improve his basestealing and with hitting coach Jeff Pentland to eliminate the at-bats he gave away. He hired a chef to improve his diet after reading that NFL star Ray Lewis did it, lost weight and firmed up. But he also gives Colletti credit for heading off a souring situation.
"It was big of him to come up and have that talk," Kemp said. "When stuff is going on, don't let it linger, it just gets worse. When he said that [on the radio], I was a little bit mad and we all were frustrated. We weren't winning games and things happen. All we had to do was talk it out, work together and help the team be successful. We came together and let bygones be bygones."
As if being a big baseball star wasn't enough to deal with for the native Oklahoman, last year Kemp discovered the true cost of celebrity through his relationship with Rihanna and the linkage to his poor play.
"No matter how he tries to act like a big-city glamour guy, he's really a small-town, country kid from the Midwest," said assistant general manager Logan White, who drafted Kemp. "He's surprisingly private."
Kemp insists that the media intrusion -- from surreptitious beach photos to daily gossip -- was not responsible for his disappointing performance last year at bat, in the field and on the bases (19-of-34 steals last year, 21-of-24 this year). But he doesn't deny that it shook him as a person.
|"He wants to show everybody how good he is. He's playing the game the way it ought to be played."|
|-- teammate Casey Blake|
"Now I look back and say I'm glad I went through that because I learned a lot. I think I've learned how to handle the expectations on and off the field better. It doesn't bother me anymore, getting on TMZ and all kinds of stuff that was going on. It was crazy. Now I'm kind of used to it all and it doesn't get to me anymore."
Kemp has a younger manager in Don Mattingly, who said the slugger is learning not only which pitches he can hit, but which ones (like sliders down and away) to leave alone.
"The holes in his swing are shrinking," said Mattingly.
He has a mentor for a baserunning coach in Lopes, who has worked out some mechanical kinks in his jumps. And Kemp has a smile on his face in place of the troubled look he carried around last year.
"He was tough to talk to last year," teammate Casey Blake said. "I guess I really didn't know what he was going through. He had a lot on his plate. A lot of things that probably distracted him from playing the game. This year, a totally different player. Before last year, he played with a determination. Like he was out to prove something, with reckless abandon. It's nice to see that back this year. You see the determination back. He wants to show everybody how good he is. He's playing the game the way it ought to be played. I just see a better attitude. I see more focus."
Looking back, Kemp now realizes how little he knew when he signed with the Dodgers in 2003, giving up his primary sport of basketball. He said he never was a student of the game, it was just something he played when it wasn't basketball season. He hadn't developed his throwing arm, wasn't a fast runner and hadn't developed a hitting approach.
He showed up on the Dodgers radar by accident, according to White, who joined scout Mike Leuzinger at a tournament looking to see a hyped left-handed pitcher who never made it. White, however, liked the right fielder with the "baby fat," was confident Kemp would make the switch from basketball and signed him for $130,000.
"To be honest, I was a little naive, but I did some research and figured he could play Division I basketball, but he wasn't going to play in the NBA," said White. "He was mid-range -- not tall enough to be a big man and not small enough to be a ball handler. We drafted him and went to his home, met his mom and he signed quickly. But the first year, I would get a lot of voice messages -- 'Don't know about this Matt Kemp kid. Very long swing.' He hit .240 that first year, one home run in the last game of the season, two stolen bases. That first year, he was homesick, miserable. The next year, he started to show he could be special."
"I just know that the longer he plays the game, the better he's going to get," said Blake. "He probably still hasn't reached his full maturity as far as baseball goes. I'm still learning, everyone is still learning. I hope he keeps pushing himself. If that's the case, there really is no ceiling."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.