With a roster short on big league experience, the A’s were counting on Tony Kemp to provide a spark on offense this season. It’s a role he’s shown more than capable of performing throughout his career.
That’s what makes his struggles to this point in the 2023 campaign so tough to grasp.
“It’s been difficult,” Kemp said. “I just want to do whatever I can to help the team. When you’re losing and not helping the team, it’s a double whammy.”
There’s no sugarcoating it: Kemp is statistically one of the worst hitters in baseball. Entering Saturday’s game against the Astros, he carried a .161/.247/.219 slash line, which puts him at a .466 OPS that ranks last among all Major League hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. He ranks in the fourth percentile of Major League hitters in barrel rate and first percentile in hard-hit rate. Over his last 13 games, he’s 2-for-32 (.063) with no RBIs.
Of course, Kemp is not the only hitter scuffling on the A’s, whose .221 team batting average is lowest in the Majors. But his lacking on-base skills are to the point where he can’t help but feel like he’s bringing the club down. Kemp referenced Wednesday’s loss in Seattle against the Mariners as an example. Leading off the sixth inning against Bryce Miller, Kemp worked a 3-1 count, fouled off a pitch that would have been ball four, and grounded out to first base.
“I lost some sleep over that,” Kemp said. “In the past, normal me would have taken that pitch with ease and jogged down to first base. But when you’re trying too hard, you get outside of yourself and swing at pitches outside the zone. I’ve always taken pride in my plate discipline and what I do well, which is getting on base with walks and spraying the ball around the field. That’s really what helps the team win.”
Kemp has long been searching for the fix to get him going again. Locking himself in the film room for deep examinations of his swing and practicing several different hitting drills has come to little avail. When it comes down to it, Kemp believes the answer exists upstairs.
“This might sound crazy, but I feel like I’ve actually been trying too hard,” Kemp said. “Just being able to go in the cage and simplify everything and clear my mind has already brought more positive results. The biggest thing is being able to simplify everything in the game right now. Go out there and let my emotions play on my sleeve and have fun.”
Kemp is also dealing with the pressure of a contract year, going through his final year of arbitration before hitting free agency for the first time in his career.
“You get to a point where you can finally take care of your family in an even bigger way with a nice free agent deal. Those are things you don’t want to think about, but we’re human and you do think about it,” Kemp said. “Toughest part is putting that to the side and focusing on small victories within the game that I can control. Not worrying about the future. Just going out and being myself, which is playing with a chip on my shoulder and doing it for my teammates. I just have to continue to do that.
“The harder part is how our team, literally no other team has gone through what we’ve gone through. We try to limit as many distractions as we can.”
There is a track record for Kemp to lean on. Last season, he went through what he called the worst first half of his career, entering the All-Star break hitting .203 over 85 games. That was followed by arguably his best-ever second half, batting .278 with five home runs and 32 RBIs in 62 games after the break.
“Maybe I’m just a start-slow guy,” Kemp said. “I’ve never been like that in the Minor Leagues. But maybe in the big leagues I just start slow. … You always come to the field hopeful each day that good things can happen. I’m hanging on to that. It’s going to turn. I’ve got to believe it will.”