Attendance plummeted at Dodger Stadium this year, amid ownership issues that have required league intervention and performance issues that have ensured another unsatisfying finish. This is the atmosphere of anguish and ambivalence that Matt Kemp has called home in 2011. But rather than succumb to the sickly surroundings, Kemp has been a true bright spot in Dodger blue. And if you ask me, he's also been the Most Valuable Player of the National League.
My MLB.com colleague, Alden Gonzalez, argues otherwise, but Kemp deserves the award over the Brewers' Ryan Braun and the rest of the field, for his stellar statistics have come in spite of and not because of his surroundings. A year ago, he was a disgruntled, distracted disappointment. This year, he's nothing short of dazzling. That Kemp won't become the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 or the first NL winner since Joe Medwick in 1937 ought not cost him the honor. The mere fact that he was in contention for that rare feat is worthy of some sort of celebration. After all, in the 44 years since Yaz did it, not one player, according to Elias Sports Bureau, had been within five points of the batting title, within one home run of the home run title or within one RBI of the RBIs title in the final week -- or, for that matter, the final 15 days -- of a season before Kemp found himself in that very position. Kemp will have to settle for going into the season's final day ranking third in batting average (.324), tied for first in home runs (38), first in RBIs (124), tied for second in stolen bases (40), first in runs scored (114), fifth in on-base percentage (.399), second in slugging percentage (.584), second in OPS (.983) and first in runs created (134.4). Yes, Braun has his place alongside or in front of Kemp in those categories. He ranks second in average (.335), tied for sixth in home runs (33), fourth in RBIs (111), tied for seventh in stolen bases (32), second in runs scored (109), fifth in on-base percentage (.400), first in slugging percentage (.601), first in OPS (1.001) and second in runs created (130.5). And as tends to be the case with the MVP vote, many who cast their ballots will use the NL Central title claimed by Braun's Brewers as an easy deciding factor, no matter how archaic it might be. After all, only six of the last 32 MVPs from either the NL or AL have come from non-playoff clubs. But are we even sure Braun is the MVP of his own team? In my mind, he shares that distinction with the guy batting directly behind him. Fella by the name of Prince Fielder (38 homers, 120 RBIs, .980 OPS). And while we can split hairs and say that Braun's overall numbers slightly eclipse those of Fielder, those two are a potent package deal. Well, until 2012, that is. I suppose once Fielder bolts in free agency, we'll get a clearer indication of Braun's value to the Brew Crew. For now, Braun, despite clearly being one of the best pure hitters in the game, gets hurt from the MVP perspective because of the support Fielder provides from the cleanup spot. If you like your MVPs to come from contenders, I think Justin Upton is a more worthy candidate, even though his statistics don't shine as brightly, because you'd have a better argument that the D-backs wouldn't be where they are without him. But if you're enlightened enough to realize there's still value in a player's performance in so-called "meaningless" games, Kemp's your man. Beyond the offensive statistics, he plays a premium position in center field and has willed the Dodgers to a winning record they probably has no business possessing. Kemp and Braun both bat in prominent spots, and that's about where the similarities in situation come to a close. Because while Braun has a beast beside him in Fielder, Kemp has been followed in Don Mattingly's lineup by a steady diet of James Loney with sides of Juan Uribe, Jerry Sands, Rod Barajas, Casey Blake, Jay Gibbons, Aaron Miles and Juan Rivera. That has to be some sort of separator in the statistical evaluation, doesn't it? For Kemp to notch the NL's first 30-30 season in three years and threaten for 40-40 under those circumstances is incredible. With little in the way of a supporting cast and with opposing pitchers having little reason to serve him anything resembling a strike, Kemp's numbers have kept coming. "You talk about a guy who is the total package," Mattingly recently told reporters, "and he has been doing that all year long." That includes Kemp's defense, which has been superb. And it includes his clubhouse influence, which has been profound. A year ago, Kemp's priorities were questioned as he clashed with coaches and became frequent tabloid fodder. This year, his teammates named him the Roy Campanella Award winner as the club's most inspirational player. He's played every game on the docket this season and clearly made the most of them. In fact, his 363 consecutive games played is the longest active streak in the Majors. This is a phenomenal player having an inspired season under phenomenally uninspiring circumstances. Matt Kemp has simply been the best player in the NL this year. Forget the standings. He ought to be the MVP.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.