Leaner Kemp drawing rave reviews, Freeman stands to benefit

Matt Kemp of the Atlanta Braves in the MLB is looking in the best shape of his life ahead of the new season.

There is, inevitably, a Weight Watchers element to every spring training. Who lost it? Who gained it? Who is going to make the most of their newly trimmed down or bulked up body?

At Braves camp, the focus of all such conversations is Matt Kemp.

“He looks great,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman upon his arrival. “He kind of looks like he did when he was with the Dodgers and hopefully he plays like that too.”

Added manager Brian Snitker: “He’s in great shape. That’s really good. He’s a big man. And we saw what he can do for a club, what he did for us.”

It’s Kemp that’s the subject of the weight talk, but in terms of who is going to benefit most? Well, that may well be Freeman.

Thursday, Kemp, the 32-year-old left fielder showed what all the buzz is about, resoundingly ending a batting practice duel with Freeman with a blast that went over the 60-foot scoreboard onto the roof of the indoor cages.

The two-time All-Star, and winner of Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers (twice over) looks leaner, but if he’s changed his preparation ahead of his first full season in Atlanta, he isn’t letting it be known. “Nothing special … Just eat right, work out,” he said. “That’s it. I feel great, feel strong.”

Last season, Freeman erupted after the Braves acquired Kemp in a July 30 deal with the Padres and put him behind the first baseman in the line-up. With Kemp at fourth, Freeman hit .340/.456/.665 with 16 homers and 18 doubles.

Kemp produced on his own, with a .280/.336/.519 slash line, 12 homer runs and 15 doubles and drove in 39 runs in 241 plate appearances. His wRC+ over the final month-plus was 159, his single highest period since he had a 193 in September/October 2014.

But it was the line-up protection he provided for Freeman that proved invaluable. Before his arrival, Braves hit a collective .260 in the number four spot with 11 home runs, and the former National League MVP contender outperformed those numbers on his own.

“We saw that when he came here and he hit [12] homers,” Freeman said of Kemp’s power. “We’re going to have that for a full year and it’s going be very nice to see him hitting behind me a lot.”

Kemp’s not saying as much, but there are myriad reasons to believe he’s feeling motivated to recapture the form that, produced a 59.5 offensive WAR in 2011, 23.8 in ’12 and 21.7 in ’13.

It began with the Players’ Tribune ode to his youth as a Braves fan, and then less than a month after Kemp was acquired form the Padres last July 30, general manager John Coppolella noted, “he is not in shape and that’s something we need to work on with him. He’s been told about it… It’s the kind of thing where, for him, you can’t really do that during the season.”

With the late-summer Atlanta humidity taking its toll — “It’s hot. Really hot,” Kemp said on Aug. 3, his second game with the Braves — he was removed for a defensive replacement in nine of the 13 games he started.

“He’s a veteran guy and he came in and obviously he heard the rumblings and he worked hard,” Freeman said.

“It’s only going to pay off for him and for us… I just don’t think he wanted [being replaced late in games] to happen anymore. That’s only going to benefit us, because you never know what’s going to happen in the eighth or ninth and you’ve taken your four-hole hitter out.”

Nor what it means to keep a dangerous player behind the most important bat in Atlanta’s lineup. Freeman, more than anyone, would know that.

Since 2014, his first full season as the number three hitter, only four teams have produced fewer home runs out of the fourth spot in the lineup than the Braves, and that’s with Kemp’s 12 in ’16.

“It’s going to be a good year, I think,” Freeman said.