Matt Kemp pushes aside rough year for one night with historic cycle
After 47 years and 7,443 games, the Padres finally have a cycle. On Friday night, Matt Kemp ticked off all four boxes on the checklist, collecting a single, double, triple and homer in San Diego's 9–5 win over the Rockies at Coors Field. It's the fourth cycle of the season and the first in Padres franchise history, with Kemp finishing it in style by picking up the ever-elusive triple in his final at-bat of the game.
Kemp started his night with a bang, launching a two-run home run to centerfield off lefty Yohan Flande in the first inning to give San Diego an early 2–0 lead. Kemp led off the third with a base hit up the middle off Flande to collect his single, though he didn’t come around to score. His third at-bat resulted in his only out of the game, as he grounded out to first base in the fifth, but he made his last two at-bats count. With one on, two out and facing reliever Rafael Betancourt in the seventh, he laced a double to centerfield to score Yangervis Solarte and break a 4–4 tie. Kemp scored on Jedd Gyorko’s three-run homer two batters later, then came to the plate one final time in the top of the ninth with a man on and one out.
Against right-handed reliever Justin Miller, Kemp took a breaking pitch low and away for ball one, then got an 87-mph slider down and in and belted it to right-centerfield. With Colorado centerfielder Charlie Blackmon in pursuit, the ball came within inches of going out but instead ricocheted off the wall just in front of the Rockies’ bullpen and over Blackmon's head, rolling back into center. As Kemp flew around second, Blackmon gathered the ball and fired into the infield, but second baseman DJ LeMahieu made no attempt to get Kemp at third, where he slid in with the RBI triple and the first cycle of his career. You can check out the video (and the incredibly excited exhortations of Padres color commentator Mark Grant) below:
Kemp’s four-hit night, which included four runs driven in and two runs scored, gave him the fourth cycle of the season; he joins the Red Sox’ Brock Holt and two Rangers, Shin-soo Choo and Adrian Beltre, with the latter picking up the most recent (and record-tying third of his career) on Aug. 3. It’s the first time four or more cycles have been hit in a season since 2012, when Beltre, Scott Hairston and Aaron Hill (twice) all did the deed; the major league record is eight, set two times, first in 1933 and then again in 2009. For Kemp, it's the 16th four-hit game of his career. He has one five-hit day, that coming back on Aug. 2, 2010. He’s come within one hit of a cycle several times before, having missed out by a homer twice, by a single once, by a double once and by a triple 12 times. The 10 total bases, meanwhile, tie a career high set twice before, with Kemp last doing it on Sept. 22, 2011 against the Giants with three doubles and a homer, though he’s nowhere close to Adrian Gonzalez’s season-best 13 from his three-homer game for the Dodgers back on April 8.
With the cycle, Kemp ended a near half-century of futility for the Padres. They and the Marlins were the only two teams in baseball that had never collected a cycle, but San Diego hadn't missed out for want of opportunities. Via Baseball-Reference's Play Index, 73 Padres hitters have come within a home run of the cycle, with Seth Smith as the most recent: He went 3 for 5 with a single, double and triple on May 9, 2014 against Miami. Only 11 hitters were stymied by lack of a single, with Tommy Medica the last Padre to get within a base hit of the cycle (May 28, 2014 against the Diamondbacks), and 19 have finished a double shy, with Will Venable just missing out on May 8 of this year, also versus Arizona. It’s the triple, though, that has proved the hardest obstacle: 259 San Diego hitters have come up a three-bagger short of the cycle. Venable was the last to do so just two months ago, when he failed to pick up a triple on June 9 against the Braves.
That the triple should be the undefeatable final boss for so many cycle attempts should come as no surprise (especially to anyone who has the MLB At Bat app and has seen approximately 400 “Player X is a triple away from the cycle” push notifications pop up on their phone each night). The rarest type of hit in baseball by far, only 2% of all hits last season were triples, a rate that's held steady over the last two decades. And for all the online declarations of 2015 as the “#yearofthetriple,” there's nothing to suggest that 2015 is any different: Through 3,420 games as of Aug. 14, 635 triples had been hit, or one every 5.4 games—slightly higher than last year's rate of one triple every 5.7 games. By percentage of hits, it's no different either: 2.2% of hits this year have been triples, compared to 2014's 2.0%.
Amusingly enough, Kemp for his career is about as proficient a triples hitter as the rest of MLB is. Friday night's three-bagger, his third of the season, was the 36th of his career out of 1,304 hits, or 2.7%. Among active players, he's now 36th all time, breaking a tie with Rajai Davis. But he's a far cry from former teammate Carl Crawford's league-leading 121, and an even longer way away from all-time triples champion Sam Crawford, who hit 309 over a Hall-of-Fame career for the Reds and Tigers from 1899 to 1917. That a player from baseball's sepia-toned days should be the major league leader in career triples is no oddity. The rate of triples was far higher in the first quarter of the 20th century, peaking in the Dead Ball era; from 1901 to 1929, according to the SABR Research Journal, 5.3% of all hits were triples. Among the top-10 career leaders for triples, meanwhile, only Paul Waner (191) began his career after World War I, debuting in 1926.
While Kemp won't be putting his name alongside any long-dead Hall of Famers, he will at least get to be in the history books (and likely get a small space in Cooperstown) as the owner of the Padres’ first cycle. The four-hit night also marks another strong second-half outing for the veteran outfielder. Coming into Friday night’s game, Kemp was hitting a solid .278/.350/.456 since the All-Star Game, a big improvement over his .250/.291/.382 first-half line. Not that that’s helped San Diego any. Despite beating Colorado on Friday, the Padres are still six games under .500 at 55–61 and just 5–8 in the month of August. They're buried in the NL West, 9 1/2 games behind the Dodgers for first place, and doing no better in the wild-card race, where they trail the Cubs by a whopping 12 games for the second spot.
Cycle aside, it's been an equally lost year for Kemp, whose 98 OPS+ before Friday's game is the lowest mark of his career since his 52-game rookie season for the Dodgers in 2006. Couple that with his brutal defense in rightfield, and Baseball-Reference has Kemp as worth just 0.5 Wins Above Replacement on the season. That's a poor return on Kemp's gargantuan contract, which stretches on for four more years and $87 million—albeit with the Dodgers covering $18 million of the $21.25 million owed to him this year and another $14 million over the rest of the deal—as well as on the talent surrendered to acquire him, including All-Star catcher Yasmani Grandal. Set to turn 31 in September, Kemp has this season at least avoided the nagging and debilitating injuries that ruined his final years in Los Angeles, but it's hard to imagine him rebounding to be anything more than a slightly-above-league-average player going forward.
Nonetheless, all of that can be put aside for one night at least, as Kemp gave Padres fans something they’d never seen one of their players accomplish. Next up on that list? The franchise's first no-hitter, a streak that added one more game to its running tally of 7,444 on Friday night.