Barry Gutierrez/Associated Press file photo
Barry Gutierrez/Associated Press file photo
DENVER – Matt Kemp strolled over to the stereo system, plugged in his iPod and shuffled through an array of songs.
Settling on a selection from rapper Lil Wayne, the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger gave the volume a big boost as he began singing and bounding along.
All right, so maybe he’s not the world’s best singer. And maybe he won’t be appearing on the stage of “American Idol” anytime soon.
But once he steps into the batter’s box, he’s in perfect harmony, as he’s steadily become one of the game’s top hitters.
Kemp is crushing pitchers again this season, leading the majors in hitting (.411) and homers (12), along with ranking second in RBIs (25). He’s simply picking up right where he left off in 2011, when he made a bona fide run at a Triple Crown.
Easy: study, study, study.
Kemp has been watching more video than ever to learn the tendencies of opposing pitchers. The revelation came after a tip from coach Davey Lopes, who basically told Kemp that he could go from All-Star to elite by just spending more time looking at footage.
Boy, was Lopes ever right.
“I listened,” said Kemp, who has the Dodgers off to a torrid start as they opened a three-game series in Chicago against the Cubs on Friday. “I became more of a student of the game and took my game to another level.”
Kemp turned in an opening month that put him in the Dodgers’ record books. His 12 homers in April set a new team mark, as did his total bases (75) and slugging percentage (.893).
For all of that – surprise, surprise – he was picked the NL player of the month.
“He’s gone to that next level of being a superstar ballplayer,” infielder Mark Ellis said.
This year, the contrast is even more dramatic because of the star slugger playing a bit down the freeway. Three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols did not hit a single home run in April during his first month with the Los Angeles Angels.
Pujols attracts attention wherever he goes, and there were billboards featuring him around his new home.
Kemp, meanwhile, is far less recognized outside of LA.
On the road, Kemp easily can float in and out of restaurants without fans so much as batting an eye. Maybe there’s a little hint of recognition, but not enough to approach him and say, “Hey, you’re Matt Kemp.”
“I like to walk on the street and just have my moment to myself where nobody knows who I am,” the 27-year-old said.
Once he settles in at the plate, he’s hard to miss.
All it took was getting accustomed to some lofty expectations. After a prodigious career in the minors, Kemp was regarded as the next big thing for the Dodgers.
He was off to a stellar start in his career, but in 2010 took a step back and hit only .249. Sure, he showed his power potential – launching 28 homers – but his average and 170 strikeouts were concerns.
Turns out, there really was nothing to fear.
Last season, he was back in rhythm at the plate and led the NL in homers (39) and RBIs (126). He also wound up third in hitting (.324) as he finished second in the NL MVP voting behind Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun.
This year, he’s only gotten better, which begs the question: So what exactly happened in 2010?
“I don’t even talk about 2010 no more,” Kemp said. “I guess you call it growing pains – something I learned from. I turned the page from that. We don’t even need to talk about that.
“As long as I’m hitting the ball good and having good at bats, I’m going to be successful.”
Kemp is a creature of habit, following the same basic routine each day. He begins with some light stretching, then rides the stationary bike. A quick round of weights, some swings in the cage, a sneak peek at video, and he’s ready to face any ace of any staff.
“You’re going to know Matt,” manager Don Mattingly said of his outfielder’s burgeoning star status. “It’s going to keep growing.
“A lot of guys have had good seasons. You start to put them together over a long period of time is when it really turns into a great career. You can’t go, ‘I’m going to put a year together.’ You’ve just got to put a day together. If he continues like that, the sky’s the limit. You’ll end up seeing this guy somewhere special.”
This may come as a little bit of a surprise, but Kemp patterns his game in part after former Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. Although they have different body types, Thomas was Kemp’s boyhood hero, along with Gary Sheffield and Ken Griffey Jr.
“Not a bad list to try to be like when you’re growing up playing baseball,” chuckled Kemp, who’s from Oklahoma and actually was recruited by the Sooners to play hoops.
Watch Kemp carefully, and this is clear: He takes bits and pieces from all three of his idols:
From Thomas, he took patience at the plate.
From Sheffield, he learned how to be aggressive.
From Griffey, he saw how to be a complete player.
“Ballers,” Kemp said. “To be a power hitter and hit for average and to be successful in this game, you have to learn to be patient at the plate.”
It doesn’t hurt to have Andre Ethier hitting behind him, either.
With Ethier protecting him, teams can’t afford to walk Kemp. Until Wednesday, Kemp hadn’t been issued an intentional pass all season, because Ethier is hitting .287 and has knocked in a league-leading 27 runs.
“There’s no doubt Andre swinging the bat the way he has been is helping Matt,” Mattingly said. “It seems like every run that Matt hasn’t driven in, Andre has.”
About the only thing missing from Kemp’s repertoire this season are stolen bases. He had 40 of them last season but has been held in check this season.
So far – and maybe it’s because he’s hitting so many homers – he has just two steals this season.
Kemp drew some raised eyebrows before the season when he claimed he could be a 50-homer and 50-stolen base caliber of player.
Still have those aspirations?
“I have my aspirations set on making it to the playoffs and winning a World Series,” Kemp said. “That’s my main goal. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press file photo