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Tony Kemp making oversized impact on A’s in early 2021

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He leads the team in OBP while playing multiple defensive positions

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

It’s easy to overlook Tony Kemp on the Oakland A’s roster. He’s not the single best option at any position, the very definition of a utilityman, and at age 29 he doesn’t bring the tantalizing upside of a fresh new prospect. In fan debates, he’s often the one being DFA’d to make room for everyone’s creative trade idea or coveted free agent signing.

Even in the real lineup he can be something of an afterthought. The A’s picked him up ahead of 2020 and he opened last summer as the starting second baseman, and then midway through the season they acquired an upgrade at the keystone and Kemp barely played the rest of the year.

But it’s impossible to ignore him any longer. He’s playing out of his mind so far in 2021, and making a serious impact on Oakland’s fortunes. Let’s begin with the standard stats.

  • Kemp, 2021: .280/.386/.427, 134 wRC+, 2 HR, 14.4% BB, 17.3% Ks

The foundation of Kemp’s game is drawing walks to get on base, and he’s doing that better than ever. His career rate is 10.3%, last year he posted a 13.2%, and now it’s up even higher. Whether it’s sustainable is another question, but the point here today is that it happened for the first two months of the season.

The extra walks aren’t the result of hitting the ball any harder. His 85.9 mph exit velocity is in line with his career norm, and it’s one of the lowest in the majors, ranking in the bottom five percentile or so. Statcast’s xwOBA is unimpressed, with a .294 mark far below league-average, and it goes down to .278 on plays when he makes contact. There’s virtually no reason not to give him a pitch to swing at, but opponents struggle to find the zone against the 5-foot-6 sparkplug.

When Kemp does offer, he at least makes contact. His strikeout rate is one of the lowest on the team, and his 5.4% swinging-strike rate is one of the lowest in the majors. All those extra batted balls help him keep his average treading water most years, with a .239 career mark that’s just enough to keep him in lineups when coupled with all his walks, and this year he’s getting a bonus bump from a .323 BABIP. Again, that’s probably not sustainable long-term, given that it’s 50 points above his BABIP norm even though he’s not hitting the ball any better, but it did happen in real life for the last two months.

Or perhaps I slightly misspoke about him not hitting the ball any better. A couple weeks ago he muscled up for his first homer in an A’s uniform, in his 77th game for the club, and on Tuesday he produced his hardest piece of contact since joining the team — a 100.2 mph, 380 foot rocket, complete with a Griffey pose.

That dinger was part of a huge day for Kemp, in which he also knocked his sixth-hardest exit velocity of the year for an RBI double and led the A’s to a slump-busting 12-6 victory. By the end of the game he’d driven in five runs, spread among four successful plate appearances — a sac fly, a double, a homer, and a bases-loaded infield single. The last on that list was just a well-placed dribbler, but the first step to doinking one of those is simply making contact.

While his contributions aren’t usually quite that loud, he’s been chipping in regularly over the last couple weeks. A week ago Sunday he tripled and scored to help build an early lead; two days later he singled in the tying run in the 2nd inning; two days after that he pinch-hit with the bases loaded and lofted a sac fly to ensure the rally wasn’t squandered; and four days after that, this past Monday, his sac fly in the 3rd plated the first run of the game. Plenty of other times, he’s quietly drawn a walk to extend an inning long enough for someone else to come through.

For a team that isn’t getting on base or scoring enough, he sure is getting on base and knocking in runs lately.

  • Kemp, lately: .414/.429/.759, 212 wRC+, 2 HR, 8.1% BB, 10.8% Ks

He’s been a bit more aggressive, but with enough walks that he’s still getting his steps in. And that more active approach has been for a reason, as he’s collected 9 RBI during this span, which includes 11 games (eight starts) and just 37 plate appearances. The OBP is being dragged down a bit by three sac flies.

Again, outside of a couple blasts he’s not hitting the ball any better during this hot streak (.295 xwOBA, 84.5 mph EV), but he’s adapting as the situation dictates. In April that meant drawing a comical amount of walks, and more recently it’s meant putting the ball in play when all the team needs is a clutch single or even just a productive out to get the job done. If there’s anybody who can hit a lazy 280-foot flyball on command when there’s a runner on third, it’s Kemp.

The final piece of the puzzle is defense. The advanced metrics have never been fond of his work at 2B, but he’s the kind of intelligent, max-effort player who makes the routine plays and wills himself into some highlights. He haunted his old Astros teammates with this amazing grab a couple weeks ago.

He’s also helped out a bit in LF. The numbers don’t love him there either, but he’s playable and the versatility only increases his value on a team that needs to constantly mix and match parts. Normally you might prefer Jed Lowrie at second base, and the likes of Mark Canha or Seth Brown in left field, but you can’t always have the ideal setup every day and Kemp has been able to fill in often. And at the moment he’s got a hot bat that’s worth shoehorning in whenever possible.

It remains to be seen what the rest of 2021 holds for Kemp. Perhaps he’s taken a step up, or maybe he’s just had a two-month hot streak for the ages and he’ll eventually fade back to the bench. Either way, he’s had a bigger impact than expected on the A’s season so far, and in a lot of the fundamental areas that fans often clamor to see more of.