Dodgers first base coach Davey Lopes has been working with Matt Kemp to improve… (Kirby Lee / U.S. Presswire )
Reporting from Phoenix — They say you can't choose your family. But that's not always true, as Matt Kemp is about to explain.
Kemp says he considers his agent, Dave Stewart, to be a family member. And Stewart, a former All-Star pitcher, says he thinks of Dodgers first base coach Davey Lopes as an older brother.
Application of the transitive property leads Kemp to this conclusion: "Since Stew's my family, Davey's my family too."
He says Lopes will help him steal more bases. The player who used to be extremely thin-skinned about his shortcomings sounds almost proud recalling how his new coach made him recognize the mistakes he used to make. He even goes out of his way to reveal that the dignified former Dodgers infielder has a sense of humor.
"We're having fun and getting work done at the same time," Kemp says.
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Conversations with Kemp about coaches weren't always like this. Asked last season about his coaches, Kemp often turned defensive. He said he had no problem with Bob Schaefer, the since-departed bench coach with whom he had an in-game blowup. He said the same about the also-exiled Larry Bowa, whom Stewart called out for making critical comments directed at his client.
But Kemp never said he liked Schaefer or Bowa, either.
Based on what Stewart told him, Kemp says he knew a lot about his new coach before Lopes was hired by the Dodgers.
Lopes was the second baseman in the Dodgers' famed infield quartet of the 1970s, and he mentored Stewart when the pitcher was new to the club's Vero Beach, Fla., spring training camp.
They've been close ever since, and when Stewart visited Arizona this month, he stayed at Lopes' apartment.
"I had always heard that Davey was a good guy," Kemp says.
The Dodgers are hoping the Stewart-Lopes connection will result in Kemp's being more open to instruction, in turn helping the former Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner rebound from a disappointing 2010 season and make the most of his five-tool talent.
It can't hurt, says Lopes.
"It does create the opportunity for the communication level to be open a lot easier," Lopes says. "When you put people in position where they feel confident and they feel people are supporting them, you have a greater opportunity for them to become successful. So communication at this level is huge."
So far, so good.
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Kemp has stolen three bases in four attempts this spring and on Wednesday he hit his team-leading fifth home run in the Dodgers' 6-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox. His exhibition batting average is .320.
As a player, Lopes was a prodigious base stealer, swiping 557 bags in a 16-year career. Later in life, he developed a knack for teaching that aspect of the game. With Lopes as their first base coach, the Philadelphia Phillies led the league in stolen-base percentage in each of the last four seasons.
Kemp stole 35 bases in 2008 and 34 in 2009 but ran into trouble on the basepaths last season. He was thrown out in 15 of his 34 stolen-base attempts.
So, as soon as spring training opened, even while most position players were still at their off-season homes, Kemp and Lopes got to work on the back fields of the team's Camelback Ranch training facility.
Standing near first base, Lopes asked Kemp to show him how he took leads and broke to second base, or how he retreated to first base on a pickoff attempt.
Lopes noticed something: wasted motion.
"Whichever direction you're going, whether it be attempting to steal a base or getting back on a pickoff attempt, your first move should be in that direction," Lopes says. "So if the guy tries to pick you off, your first motion should be going toward first base. If you're attempting to steal, your first motion should be toward second base."
That's not what Kemp was doing.
"He would set up and the first thing he would do is raise up," Lopes says. "So you've already made a movement, the pitcher's already made a move and you're in the same place. What I would try to do is to instead of raise up, lean toward second base. "
Kemp, who lost 15 pounds while working out with professional sprinters over the winter, says he absorbed what Lopes taught him.
"Maybe I need to hit some singles so I can work on stealing some more bases," he jokes.
Also in charge of preparing the Dodgers' outfield, Lopes offered Kemp similar advice on playing defense.
Instead of leaning forward with hands on knees in center field, Lopes wants Kemp to stay a little more upright.
"When you set down and rise up, the ball's already on you," Lopes says.
What makes the information easily digestible, according to Kemp, is how it's delivered.
"He keeps it real," Kemp says. "He's definitely very respectful. He wants to get his point across, but he has fun with it."
Stewart says something as simple as that can alter the course of a career, and he would know. That's what happened to him.
Stewart points out that he was a sub-.500 pitcher when he was released by the Philadelphia Phillies in the middle of the 1986 season and picked up by Oakland Athletics. In Oakland, he became a four-time 20-game winner.
Stewart says that was in large part because of Dave Duncan, the pitching coach.
"He spoke to me in a way that made sense to me," Stewart says.
Kemp says Lopes could be to him what Duncan was to Stewart.
If that happens, what kind of player can Kemp be?
Lopes doesn't want to say.
But Lopes says that early in spring training he saw a television program that ranked baseball's top players. Kemp was ranked 65th.
"I would say he could do a lot better than that," Lopes says. "Let's leave it at that."