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Ask Alex: Can Matt Kemp really go 50/50?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Like the 49ers, Matt Kemp is hoping to create a memorable 2012. (AP)

We all have questions about the 2012 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address some of the big ones as the year approaches.

The Situation: Matt Kemp had an incredible year in 2011. He was probably the best player in the league — he led the league in Wins Above Replacement, for example — but lost out to Ryan Braun, whose Milwaukee Brewers made the postseason before their left fielder found himself in a bit of controversy.

After missing out on his first MVP award, a disappointed Kemp made a bold prediction for the 2012 season:

"I'm going to go 50-50 next year," Kemp said. "I'm telling you, y'all created a monster. I'm about to get back in the weight room super tough so I can be as strong as I was last year... Forty-forty is tough, so 50-50 will be even tougher, but anything can happen."

The Question: Can Matt Kemp do the unthinkable and go 50-50?

The Analysis: Matt Kemp didn't actually even hit the 40-40 mark last year as he finished with 39 homers and 40 stolen bases. So, in accordance with Eddie Murphy's paraphrase of Nietzsche from "Coming to America" — "one cannot fly into flying" — I'd have an easier time believing that the Bison could go 50-50 if he had managed the previous milestone.

For that matter, 30-30 is hard enough, as I wrote in 2010. Back then, I tried to predict whether anyone would hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in 2010, and I wrote that Matt Kemp was probably the likeliest player in baseball to do it. As it happened, no one went 30-30 that year. (Then again, four players, including Kemp, did it in 2011.)

No one has ever managed 50-50, either. As it happens, only four men in baseball history have ever gone 40-40, and each one only did it once: Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996), Alex Rodriguez (1998) and Alfonso Soriano (2006). No one has ever had at least 50 home runs and at least 50 stolen bases in the same season, and only two hitters have both a 50-homer season and a 50-stolen base season in their resume.

Can you guess who they are?

You probably know the first one was Barry Lamar Bonds. The second one is Brady Anderson. And that's the entire list. It makes intuitive sense, but fast guys generally don't have a lot of power and vice versa. Once a guy bulks up to hit more homers, his ability to steal bases tends to diminish. The highest home run total in history for a man who stole at least 50 bases is 37, and that was done by Eric Davis in the offensive spike year of 1987. The highest stolen base total in history for a man who bashed at least 50 dingers is 24, and that was Alex Rodriguez in 2007.

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(AP)

I probably don't have to tell you that, with the exception of Davis' 1987, most of the relevant records were set during the steroid era, and that offensive levels across the league have declined considerably. For example: in 1996, when Brady Anderson hit 50 and Barry went 40-40, baseball teams scored an average of 5.04 runs a game. Hitters hit 4,962 homers and stole 3,239 bases. Last year, teams scored 4.28 runs a game, hit 4,552 homers, and stole 3,279 bases. Teams may be slightly more likely to steal bases in the post-steroid era, but they're a lot less likely to hit homers.

How much less likely? Since 2007, only one man has hit 50 home runs: Jose Bautista in 2010. No one did it in 2008, 2009 or 2011. Last year, Bautista led the major leagues with 43 homers, the lowest major-league leading total since the 1994 strike season. Among full seasons, it was the lowest major league-leading total since 1988.

Also, Kemp is fast, but he isn't that fast. Last year he stole 40 bases in 161 games, a rate of one every 4.03 games, by far the best rate of his career. But in order to reach 50, he'll need to steal a base every 3.24 games, without missing a game in the 162-game season — obviously, if he misses any time at all the rate will need to be even lower. Only once in his career has he ever managed a rate that low, when he stole 14 bases in 44 games in Triple-A in 2006. But he wasn't nearly that felonious in Double-A to start the season, so his overall season rate was one stolen base every 3.68 games, which averages to 44 SB in a 162-game season.

Moreover, his success rate is decent rather than spectacular. Over his career, he's 144 for 194 in stolen bases, for an only OK 74.2 percent success rate. In the minors, he was 69 for 91, for a 75.8 percent success rate. The general sabermetric rule of thumb is that you should steal at a 75 percent success rate or it isn't worth it, so Kemp is right at the break-even point. He may have the green light from manager Don Mattingly for now, but while he isn't hurting his team on the bases, he isn't helping them much either.

The Forecast for 2012: There are few more talented human baseball players than Matt Kemp. (Call me a speciesist if you like, but I simply refuse to accept the accomplishments of robot ballplayers.) But I doubt his ability to hit 50 home runs or steal 50 bases, let alone to do both at the same time. He's clearly fired up for personal accomplishments (like his crosstown colleague, Kobe Bryant), and considering that he's headed into his age-27 season, he is likely to put up career-best numbers. So it's very possible that he could pick up that extra homer (and more) and go 40-40 for the first time.

I'll predict that Matt Kemp hits 42 homers, steals 35 bases, and finishes in the top five of the MVP voting. But though he will probably hit 30-40 homers several times in his career, I predict that after 2012, he'll never again steal more than 30. There's just no chance of 50.

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