Patrick Creighton: Will Tony Kemp finally get a real shot with Astros?
Back in 2014, the Astros has a 22 year old prospect they drafted in the 5th round the year before who was slicing and sprinting his way through the team’s minor league system.
Tony Kemp was a small 2B out of Vanderbilt, who managed to go from Low-A Tri-City in the New York Penn League to Double-A Corpus Christi in a season and a half. While not a home run hitter, his blazing speed and bat control showed him to be a player who hit for a strong average while generating extra-base hits, and he also displayed a keen eye at the plate.
His final stat line at age 22 between High-A Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi:
.316 AVG .411 OBP .859 OPS
8 HR 58 RBI 121 Runs Scored 30 Doubles 8 Triples 41 Stolen Bases
For those of you wondering – that’s one hell of a year. Kemp was a player.
The Astros, to their credit, knew Kemp could play, but they had a dilemma. They already had a small second baseman that could hit like a champ for high averages, get extra base hits and steal bases. They certainly weren’t about to ask him to change positions. So they began experimenting with Kemp.
As 2015 evolved, Kemp advanced his way from Double-A Corpus to Triple-A Fresno. He also began to see more time in the outfield. Kemp has incredible speed but an average at best arm. However, his ability to go get it defensively saw him make a career high 27 starts in center field, as well as five more in left. Kemp continued to hit, blowing up at Corpus to hit .358 in 50 games before his promotion and a solid .273 at Fresno afterwards.
To be fair, Kemp doesn’t have a great arm for the outfield. However, he rarely makes mental mistakes, rarely commits errors, and is noted for his hard work and hustle.
In 2016, Kemp continued to hit at Fresno, slashing a .306/.389/.396 line with a .785 OPS. Those solid numbers got him a call up as a bench player to the big league team, where he didn’t hit well but did display his eye at the plate.
In 2017, Kemp was a player to watch for the team. Kemp tore up Fresno to the tune of .329/.375/.470 with an .845 OPS while having his best power season in the minors with 10 HRs, 23 doubles and 9 triples. He also stole 24 bases. Kemp had proven everything he needed to prove at the minor league level, but the Astros lineup was so strong in 2017, he was merely a September call up, receiving only 39 sporadic ABs with the big league club.
Before being called up May 16, Kemp was again tearing up triple-A pitching, hitting .335/.407/.435 with an .841 OPS in 38 games with the Grizzlies. He also scored 33 runs while banging out six doubles and five triples in 161 ABs. Kemp has also stolen 13 bases a month and a half while only being caught twice.
So what is left for Kemp to prove? Well, nothing. That’s the problem.
As baseball, and particularly the Astros, shift to a more analytical model of evaluation, players like Kemp get devalued. Analytics favor power hitters, and downplay the value of the stolen base. Speed is less desirable than homers in that model. Kemp has speed in spades but not much power. He’s exactly the kind of player analytics minded executives discount.
However, Kemp is a proven commodity in the minors. He has hit and fielded at every level, he’s been a model citizen, is recognized for his terrific work ethic and leadership. He has earned his shot.
With Jake Marisnick being optioned (he is back now due to Josh Reddick's injury) due to poor performance and Derek Fisher struggling badly at the plate (batting .176 with 37 Ks in 74 ABs), it’s time for A.J. Hinch and the Astros to give Tony Kemp his long overdue shot at regular playing time.
High average/high on base hitters are often undervalued. On a team like the Astros with four top hitters, a player like Kemp should be welcomed. He gives them a guy to drive in. So far, in his first 15 at-bats, he is hitting .400 with 6 RBI and a stolen base.
Sometimes the analytics can be overrated. A blend of analytical data, traditional evaluation and common sense will always work best. Tony Kemp can play. Here’s hoping he gets a real shot and makes the most of it.
Patrick Creighton hosts “Late Hits” weeknights 7-9p on ESPN 97.5 Houston; “Straight Heat” weeknights 9p-12a CT & “Nate & Creight” Sundays 12-5p CT on SB Nation Radio/SportsMap 94.1 Houston. Follow him on Twitter: @pcreighton1