The Oakland A’s lineup is stacked, with star potential at virtually every position. What’s more, they’ve started to come alive lately after some early rust, averaging six runs apiece over their last five games.
Matt Olson is hitting dingers. Mark Canha is getting on base and driving in runs. Matt Chapman, Robbie Grossman, Stephen Piscotty, and Austin Allen have all blasted clutch homers to tie or win games since Tuesday, and Marcus Semien just notched a walk-off hit. Ramon Laureano seems to be the hero every other day, and Khris Davis is finally showing signs of breaking his long funk.
But none of them can quite measure up to the current hottest hitter on the team: No. 9 batter Tony Kemp.
Over the last week, in his platoon with Chad Pinder at second base, Kemp has come to the plate 18 times and reached base in 11 of those trips. That’s six hits and five walks, and one of the outs was a sac bunt. His line during that span works out to .500/.647/.500, for a wRC+ of 247. That’s more than 70 points higher than the runners-up Davis (176), Piscotty (175), and Laureano (171).
Kemp (August): 6-for-12, 5 BB, 2 Ks, 247 wRC+
Granted, all of Kemp’s hits have been singles, whereas his teammates have been finding plenty of extra bases. But anyone who watched Friday’s marathon can appreciate the need for a simple single now and then to drive in a key run, and that’s something the A’s lineup has struggled with over the last couple years. A slap hitter who is good at making contact is a worthy addition to the mix when everyone else is prone to striking out with runners in scoring position.
What’s more, while Kemp won’t always land this many hits, the ones he’s gotten so far have been solid rather than total luck. All six of them carried a Statcast expected batting average of at least .500, with a couple in the .600s and a couple more in the .900s. Even the ones that were softly hit were still the kinds of bloops that fall in virtually every time, and a couple of his outs were lightweight robberies too. Add it all up and his recent xwOBA is around .500, and his mark for the season is over .400, even though he hasn’t hit anything harder than 96.2 mph exit velocity.
On top of those hits, he’s got nearly as many walks. Again, there’s zero power involved, but he’s only unintentionally gotten out six times in his last 18 trips. Why do I like him?
For the last couple years, Kemp was the pesky No. 9 hitter in the Astros lineup. It seemed like every time up he’d annoyingly draw a walk or loop a single, either leading off an inning to set up for the top of the order, or to extend a rally so the star hitters could come up and get a chance. Now the 28-year-old is doing it for the A’s instead of against them.
It is endlessly frustrating to face a stacked lineup and not be able to put away the No. 9 hitter. It’s valuable too, as we saw on Friday — his walk in the 13th kept things alive for Semien to come up and win it. Granted, it would also have been cool to just see the hot Kemp do it himself, but in lieu of that, he at least didn’t make an out.
Of course, all of this is coming in a tiny sample, which is why we’re using the word “hottest” and not “best.” We all know he won’t hit .500 forever, or keep up an OBP quite this absurd. But he’s doing it right now, and the short season requires a greater appreciation of these hot streaks. The nature of small samples hasn’t changed in terms of their (lack of) long-term statistical significance, but there is no long-term this year, which means these little heaters will have far more impact than usual regardless of their sustainability.
Kemp is contributing on the other side of the ball too, including this impressive play from Friday:
R A N G E pic.twitter.com/86BiSDDFXR— A's on NBCS (@NBCSAthletics) August 8, 2020
While gems like that are excellent, the one I found myself appreciating the most came in the bottom of the 12th. With two on and two out, the batter sent a routine grounder to Kemp, and he flipped it to Marcus Semien for the force to end the inning. Nothing to it, right? Except we saw the A’s lose multiple games on similarly basic flips and throws last year, when previous second baseman Jurickson Profar had the yips. Praising a big leaguer for reliably making the routine plays seems like a low bar until you see what it’s like to not clear it.
Second base is the one position in Oakland from which nobody really expected anything entering the season. Most of the other spots were filled with established stars or otherwise exciting names, but second base was an open competition between a couple inconsistent youngsters, a Rule 5 draft pick, and Kemp, a career utilityman acquired in a minor trade.
Somehow, at least for now, that punt has yielded a stint of significant production from 2B just a couple weeks into the season. The A’s got the sure hand they needed on defense at the keystone, and now he’s giving them some bonus offense from the position too, for however long it may last. Tony Kemp is the hottest hitter on the team right now, just like nobody expected.