For all that Matt Kemp is doing right now – crushing baseballs, running like a sprinter, carrying a moribund franchise, spinning the earth on its axis to reverse time – let us remember: He is no Chris Shelton.
Never is there a better time to remember Shelton than two weeks into the season. What Tuffy Rhodes is to opening day Chris Shelton is to the first two weeks. In 2006, when Shelton was a fairly anonymous 25-year-old first baseman, he went on the tear of all first-two-weeks tears. As staggering as Kemp's line was after another home run Sunday – .487/.523/1.026 with six homers and 16 RBIs – Shelton went .512/.535/1.293 over his first 10 games with the Detroit Tigers in '06. And then, for good measure, he hit bombs in games No. 12 and 13.
By the end of July, Shelton was back in the minor leagues, mustering a .246/.319/.371 line after playing Barry Ruth for a fortnight. Hitting a baseball might be the toughest thing in sports, but it doesn't make Herculean feats an impossibility for even those without the blessing of otherworldly talent.
Which, as it turns out, Matt Kemp has. It makes his spurt here no less impressive, of course. The scariest thing about Kemp is that at 27 years old, he finally understands who he is as a baseball player and what he can do. Not one of Kemp's six home runs this year has gone to his pull side. Two to dead center field and four, including Sunday's, to right-center. It takes scary raw power to consistently punch home runs to the opposite field. It takes even more discipline for a player to understand his swing works in such a fashion.
What we're seeing, then, is the self-actualization of a player like Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, born with gifts that the rest of us without only hope to see materialize. We saw it last season, and even more this year …
1. Matt Kemp is wowing us on a nightly basis. And for as much as the San Diego Padres' pitching staff is to blame – or, in Kemp's case, thank – all of his home runs have come in Petco Park and Dodger Stadium, two of the five worst hitters' parks in the major leagues. The power and performance are very, very real.
It didn't take Ted Williams vision to notice that after last season, when Kemp should've won the National League MVP – and not because Ryan Braun ostensibly used synthetic testosterone but because Kemp simply was a better player. Kemp told Yahoo! Sports' Tim Brown he wanted to go 50-50 this year, and it seemed all hubris and chest-thumping and machismo, but damn if the first 50 seems well within reach, if not altogether likely.
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The second 50 – well, Kemp is 1 for 3 on stolen-base attempts, and he set his career high with 40 last season, and his legs are getting no younger, and the most home runs anybody has hit while stealing 50-plus bags is Eric Davis with 37, and the most for anybody Kemp's age or older is Rickey Henderson with 28, so how about we leave the base-stealing portion of this program to …
2. Jacoby Ellsbury once he returns from a shoulder subluxation, which sounds far more exotic – it's the most lux injury there is – than its reality. A subluxation is a partial dislocation. It is a nasty sort of hurt, the kind that happens when a 190-pound man lands all 190 pounds right on a joint, as Reid Brignac did when Ellsbury tried to break up a double play.
Gone is the Boston Red Sox's leadoff hitter, center fielder and sparkplug for at least two months, and shoulder injuries have a way of haunting hitters for much longer. In the meantime, the Red Sox are left hoping for the returns of Carl Crawford (from injury) and Kevin Youkilis (from ineffectiveness) to buttress the AL's best offense, which carries a starting rotation crooked with question marks, which fronts the Voldemort of bullpens, those who must not be named.
If the first week was an airing of the Red Sox's sins, their current three-game winning streak against Tampa Bay has highlighted the explosiveness of their offense and the vulnerability of even good pitching staffs against it. And that's without Ellsbury. Sort of like the injury to …
3. Brian Wilson
really not fazing the San Francisco Giants. We must not forget, Sergio Romo has been a better pitcher than Wilson for more than a year, and you could argue Romo was almost Wilson's equal even as the Giants romped to the 2010 championship. If Bruce Bochy wants his best pitcher going in the ninth, he'll use Romo instead of a committee, but then if Bochy wanted his best lineup every day, he'd play Brandon Belt.
Still, Wilson's second Tommy John surgery – his first came in college at LSU – makes him the second closer this season to twice tear a UCL. Joakim Soria's out the rest of the year, and Joey Devine's elbow gave again, too, and it again reminds us: The team that finally figures out how to keep pitchers' arms healthy will revolutionize the sport.
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Think about it: Teenagers are on minuscule pitch counts, and young starters in the major leagues are on strict innings limits, all to mitigate arm damage. And here are guys who throw at most 80 innings a year blowing out with frequency that rivals starters. If it's not innings, it's got to be mechanics, and while plenty of theories exist – from the Inverted W to excessive scapular loading to some arms simply being more blessed than others – nobody knows. Nobody. Because if any pitching guru truly did, he or she would be stinking rich.
Until then, arms will break down and falter and we'll wonder what happened. Down in Miami, they're doing that very thing as …
4. Heath Bell – healthy but awful – has the Marlins fretting about flushing $27 million of that profit they kept all those years down the toilet on a lemon reliever. At least he'd be the second most overpriced thing in Marlins Park behind the $3 million acid trip in center field.
And Bell's not there yet, either, not after two blown saves that were indeed spectacular sandwiched around an appearance in which he walked the bases loaded. Bell himself is questioning whether the Marlins should use him as closer, a stunning admission this early in the season (and one that speaks to Bell's humility as a player who had been chewed up and spit out by the sport until he found God, which, to pitchers, goes by the name of Petco Park).
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Bell's strikeout rate plummeted last season even as his raw stuff didn't, and he entered the season a test case of those numbers. He is failing, and now he must find himself and figure out who he is before it's too late. Such sentiment is altogether too common this early in the season, so it's no surprise …
5. Yu Darvish
is wielding his four-color pen. Yes, Darvish seems to come from the Ichiro Suzuki school of epic analogies, and as he altered his delivery for the third time already since joining the Texas Rangers – he pitched out of the stretch in spring training, lifted his hands above his head in his first start and stopped them at his chin in his second – he turned to multicolored ink to explain it.
"To me this is not that difficult," Darvish told the Dallas Morning News. "I think of it like a pen that has different ink. You click on one and you get red; click on another and you get black. It's just different clicks."
Neither exactly clicked for Darvish. He has gone 5 2/3 innings in both starts and suffered through bouts of wildness. The rest of the staff – from Matt Harrison with his AL-best 0.64 ERA to Colby Lewis and his 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio to Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland and their righty-lefty power complement – has been unstoppable, and it's why the Rangers are an AL-best 8-2. They allow Darvish time to tinker, whereas …
6. Aroldis Chapman lingers in that curious place between unhittable and misused. The former seems to beget charges of the latter; batters can't touch Chapman in his bullpen role. His 15 strikeouts rank sixth in the major leagues – and he has thrown them in eight innings. With three hits. And no walks.
Fifteen Ks, zero walks. For a pitcher who walked 41 hitters in 50 innings last year. If Chapman hasn't been the best pitcher in baseball, it's only because the Cincinnati Reds are using him two innings at a time. While Homer Bailey tries to prove for a sixth time that he's worthy of a major-league rotation spot, Chapman wastes a special arm in middle relief.
He may not last as a starter, but it's negligence not to at least try Chapman there, especially after teasing him with the role all spring. To move him back to the bullpen because Bill Bray got hurt – because Dusty Baker said he needed another lefty reliever – is intellectually dishonest, especially when he has no problem feeding Chapman to right-handers. And he mows right through them anyway, impressive on the same level as …
7. Stephen Strasburg has been with the Washington Nationals this season. As long as Strasburg is healthy, he should win multiple Cy Young Awards, and that's in a league with Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Cliff Lee, Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke and a handful of others in that realm. He's that good.
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When I called Nats to the World Series this year, a large part of that prediction hinged on Strasburg being pushed beyond Washington's expected 160-inning limit – a possibility GM Mike Rizzo admitted this week to Baseball Prospectus. With a rotation of Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler, the Nats in the postseason are no joke.
That they've started 7-3 without Mike Morse (DL), Drew Storen (DL) and Bryce Harper (minor leagues) gives them even more hope. Perhaps this is a product of Washington's schedule – Cubs, Mets and Reds ain't exactly the '27 Yankees – or maybe it's a sign that this is a team worth watching. Surely there would be a seat for …
8. Roger Clemens
if he wanted to swing by after the first day of his second perjury trial on Monday. The first, you'll remember, ended in a mistrial when an evidence snafu by the prosecution enraged the judge and left the case hanging for nine months.
Clemens' case mirrors Barry Bonds' in almost every way: the great early career, the need to sustain it, the alleged steroid use, the late-age peak, the defiance in denial, the tarnishing of reputation, the numbers that in retrospect seem as inflated as Bonds' musculature. Bonds more or less escaped, getting nailed on a specious obstruction-of-justice charge; Clemens is fighting for the same, what with his standing as one of the five best pitchers ever now vamoose.
Even if Clemens walks free, he will wear the Scarlet S. And accordingly, perhaps the most surefire Hall of Famer of his generation no longer has the no-doubt case of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and …
9. Albert Pujols, who has Koufax'd himself in with just 12 years in the major leagues. You wouldn't know looking at Pujols thus far: his zero home runs and .243 batting average and .324 slugging percentage – which ranks 159th in baseball among the 231 hitters with at least 25 plate appearances.
It's also tied with Jose Bautista's, and, like Pujols, Bautista will be fine. He'll hit plenty of home runs and drive in lots of runs and do his Pujolsian thing. Will he do it $240 million worth over the next 10 years? Probably not, though Arte Moreno gifted him a quarter-billion dollars not as much for 2021 as a championship in '12 or '13. These Angels, after getting beaten around by the Yankees on Sunday night, aren't quite yet blazing toward the former.
And yet by now, whether it's because of Chris Shelton or …
10. Matt Kemp in 2010, we should know: April often is a mirage.
Yeah, we said Kemp. We've seen almost this very performance before. Two years ago, Kemp's numbers over his first 10 games were .333/.385/.756 with five homers and 15 RBIs. And that ended up being the worst year of his career, one plagued by ineffectiveness on offense (a .310 OBP), defense (a dreadful covering of center field) and drama (Rihanna tends to be a nice distraction).
However misleading the performance in 2010, this one is real – a lot more real than the Dodgers' 9-1 record. No, Kemp isn't going to hit 97 home runs and score 259 runs. His slugging percentage won't have a dot in the middle, let alone a 7 or 8 as the first number. For all he can't do, one thing is evident.
Right now, there's no better player in baseball.
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