Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp hits a solo home run against the Atlanta… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
From the steps of the dugout, the balls Matt Kemp hits for home runs look different from those that other players hit over the stadium fence.
"They take off like fly balls and they just get small quick," Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said. "You can tell when he gets them. They get really small really quick."
So quickly that they don't even look like baseballs from the third base coach's box.
"It looks more like a golf ball," third base coach Tim Wallach said. "It really does. It's amazing. It keeps going. It's real small and it keeps going."
What's even more surprising to Mattingly and Wallach is where these balls are landing.
Of Kemp's 12 home runs, which lead the major leagues, only one has been to left field. The right-handed-batting Kemp has hit four home runs to center and seven to right.
Former manager Joe Torre, who was the first prominent baseball figure to point out similarities between Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax, recently noted that he was also the first to compare Kemp's power to that of another rare player.
"If you remember … I said he was a lot like Alex Rodriguez," said Torre, who managed Kemp with the Dodgers and Rodriguez with the New York Yankees.
"The ability to hit it straightaway means you can wait this much longer without committing," Torre said, holding his index finger and thumb a few inches apart to illustrate his point. "You're going to put the ball in play more."
Kemp leads the majors with a .411 batting average.
Torre isn't the only one comparing Kemp to Rodriguez. So is Mattingly, a former Yankees coach.
Of the way Kemp hits balls, Mattingly said, "A-Rod's like that too. He hits balls into right-center. You think it's a fly ball and it's like 20 rows up. Center field, the same way."
Kemp said he models himself after Frank Thomas, his childhood idol. Mattingly sees the resemblance to Thomas, who hit 521 home runs over a 19-year career.
"Frank was a opposite-field power guy," Mattingly said.
Kemp makes a conscious effort not to hit the ball to left field.
"I'm thinking up the middle, not trying to pull the ball too much," he said. "If I start looking in there too much, I get off track, my bat doesn't stay in the zone too long."
Kemp said that he isn't looking to hit home runs, and Mattingly believes him.
"Home runs just come out of his swing," Mattingly said.
Andre Ethier was once considered Kemp's equal, if not superior. But he recently laughed as he recalled how a heckler shouted at him during a game: "You stink! Kemp's better!"
Ethier's reaction: "Well, duh."
Mattingly noted that Kemp has hit a number of home runs in such pitcher-friendly environments as Petco Park in San Diego and Dodger Stadium at night. The ball is said not to travel as far at Dodger Stadium after sunset.
Kemp hit two home runs in the Dodgers' four games at Petco Park. He has hit six at Dodger Stadium, including five at night.
"Matt, he makes parks look small," Mattingly said. "Some of them we play in are small. But when you do it in San Diego and L.A. at night, you have to hit them. You don't get cheap ones there."
Colorado Rockies Manager Jim Tracy saw Kemp hit an opposite-field home run against his team at Coors Field on Monday. Shaking his head and laughing, he said Kemp hits the ball to right field "like a left-handed pull hitter hits them."
Tracy said the last player he saw exhibit that kind of power was Adrian Beltre, who hit 48 home runs in 2004. Tracy managed Beltre with the Dodgers that season.
Tracy credited Beltre's home run explosion on learning to hit the other way. He said Beltre was a pull-oriented hitter until he started working extensively with teammate Shawn Green and Wallach, who was the hitting coach at the time.
"Beltre had pretty good power the other way, but I think Matt's is even better," Wallach said.
That kind of power gets into the opposition's head.
"If you're on the defensive side and the pitcher says, 'I'm going to make him hit it to the big part of the ballpark,' that works with 98% of the people," Torre said. "With Matt Kemp, it doesn't work. There is no bigger side of the ballpark because he's so strong. He uses the middle of the field; it's a helpless feeling for the catcher back there."
Tracy knows the feeling.
"Where do you go?" he asked.
By the end of the series against the Dodgers, Tracy found an answer. In the series finale Wednesday, Tracy ordered his pitcher to intentionally walk Kemp — twice.
Mattingly is considering measures to safeguard against that.
The intentional walks Wednesday were Kemp's first of the season, and they came when the left-handed-hitting Ethier was batting fifth instead of fourth because the Dodgers were facing a left-handed starting pitcher in Drew Pomeranz.
Mattingly thinks opponents had previously avoided intentionally walking Kemp because Ethier was hitting behind him. Ethier, whose 27 runs batted in led the majors entering play Thursday, may now start hitting cleanup every day, regardless of who is on the mound.
Ethier is batting .294 against left-handers this season, a considerable improvement from past years.
Of Kemp, Mattingly said, "You can't pitch to him, but it's hard not to pitch to him when Andre's sitting there driving in more runs."