Thursday, November 29, 2012

#260 Steve Kemp - Chicago White Sox

By the time Steve Kemp's 7th Topps card came out he was no longer a member of the White Sox.  When collectors viewed this card for the first time he was the newest toy in Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's toy chest.  Due to the Yankees facial hair restrictions, Kemp had to leave the beard behind.  Unfortunately his best years and health were left behind too.   
Player: Steve Kemp was the first overall pick in 1976 winter draft.  The USC product spent the '76 season playing for the Detroit Tigers AA and AAA teams and hit .328/.429/.557 in 509 plate appearances. 
With nothing more to prove in the minors, the 22 year-old Kemp was tabbed as the Tigers everyday leftfielder in '77.  Although he struggled defensively he showed some power with 18 homers and walked enough (.343 OBP) to compensate for a low batting average (.257 BA).  He improved to hit .277/.379/.399 with a 117 OPS+ in '78 while playing in 159 games.
Kemp found his power and hit 47 dingers over the next two years while batting .318 in '79 and .293 in '80.  Nagging injuries limited him to 134 and 135 games but he was recognized with an All-Star nod and a few MVP votes in '79.  His power dropped in '81 but he was still good for a .277/.389/.419 line.  In what would turn out to be a great trade for the Tigers they sent Kemp to the White Sox in exchange for Chet Lemon on 11/27/81.
Kemp had a decent year in the Windy City batting .286 with 19 HR but elected for free-agency after the season.  He signed a 5-year/$5.45 million deal with the Yankees and was expected to be a force in the middle of the Ynakee lineup.  Instead he struggled badly and was even platooned for a while.  He was batting just .241, when his poor year turned disastrous.  During batting practice on 9/8/83 an Omar Moreno line drive smashed Kemp in the face, fracturing his cheekbone and forever changing his career. 
Damage to Kemp's left eye affected his depth perception and left him with 20-50 vision.  Although he came back in '84 to hit .291 in 313 at bats he was never was the same. The Yankees swapped their damaged slugger and Tim Foli to the Pirates for Dale Berra, Jay Buhner, and Alonso Pulido.  Kemp hit a disappointing .250/.317/.347 in 92 games in '85 and was released after a 3 for 16 start to the '86 season.
Kemp spent the next year and a half in the minors before resurfacing with the Rangers in 1988.  Playing sporadically in April and May, he had just 8 singles in 36 at bats before spending the rest of the year back at AAA.  Kemp retired after the '88 season with a career line of .278/.367/.431, 130 HR, 119 OPS+, and 17.3 WAR.
Flipside:  Kemp had a great start to his career and had comparable stats to Dave Winfiled, Al Oliver, and Gary Matthews through his age 27 season.  Six years later he was more comparable to Willard Marshall and Mel Hall.

Oddball: Not sure what kept the Tigers from calling Kemp up to the majors in '76.  While CF RonLeFlore (128 OPS+), RF Rusty Staub (137), and DH Willie Horton (117) were all productive, LF Alex Johnson (89) was hitting a hollow .268 and playing sub-par defense. Meanwhile Kemp was promoted to AAA for the second half of the season and hit .386/.507/.696 in 217 plate appearances.  At least the Tigers had the sense to dump Johnson and give the job to Kemp in '77.

History:  Kemp came up with the nucleus of young Tigers that went on to form the '84 World Champs, but Kemp never sniffed the postseason.  He had good on base ability and power which helped establish him as a star in Detroit in the late 70's.
Burdened with a mid-career slump, the expectations of a huge contract, and a devastating injury, Kemp's career hit the skids in New York.  He had 16.4 WAR before the trade and just 0.9 afterwards.  (Meanwhile Chet Lemon went on to 28.7 WAR in his nine seasons in Detroit).  Unfortunately for Kemp he is best remembered for what could have been. 


  1. It really is sad how fate decided to add such a terrible injury to the insult of Kemp's slump-ridden 1983 season... As a person who lived and breathed baseball in 1982, I can definitely testify to the validity of your up-to-age-27 comparisons...

    Meanwhile, I've been playing some tabletop baseball with the 1981 Tigers -- Kemp makes a great leadoff man for that team (not that Sparky ever used him that way)

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  3. Yeah Kemp's high OBP makes him a good leadoff guy for the '81 team and since he only hit 9 HR that year he probably doesn't belong in the 3 or 4 spot. Glad to hear from someone also playing tabletop games. My son and I play APBA ('85 and '87 seaosns) from time to time. It is a lot of fun for me to teach him a bit about some of the players of that era.