The Mother of All Prospect Smackdowns: Hunter Pence vs. Matt Kemp
BACKGROUND and INTANGIBLES
Pence: Hunter Pence was drafted in the second round by the Houston Astros in 2004, out of the University of Texas-Arlington. He was very successful in college, hitting .395 his junior year to win his conference batting crown, but questions about his swing (more below) and defense kept him out of the first round. Some clubs felt he was an overdraft even in the second round, but he has set these doubts aside. He has been little short of stellar as a pro, entering 2006 with a career mark of .317/.394/.574 with 39 homers in 171 games. Pence has carried this forward to Double-A, and is currently battering the ball in the Texas League.
Kemp: Matt Kemp was drafted in the sixth round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003, out of high school in Midwest City, Oklahoma. A classic "raw tools" pick, he was better-known as a basketball player in high school, and it was unclear how he would transition to the diamond game. He struggled with the strike zone in rookie ball, but showed signs of coming to life in '04, then had a fine season in '05. He came into this year with a career mark of .295/.336/.506, and is currently battering the ball in the Southern League.
Advantage: Pence had a higher profile and a lot more baseball experience as an amateur. Neither player has a negative personality flag, and both have worked to improve their game. Slight advantage for Pence due to greater amateur experience.
PHYSICALITY and TOOLS
Pence: Pence was born April 13, 1983. He is a righthanded hitter and thrower, standing 6-5, 210 pounds. He is a good overall athlete, with good speed for his size though he isn't a big stealer. His swing looks funny: his mechanics are unusual, and some scouts have doubted how he would handle outside pitches. But this hasn't proven to be an actual problem in games. He kills inside fastballs, will take outside fastballs to the opposite field, and will lay off unhittable breaking pitches or changeups. His strike zone judgment is fairly good, and he shows above average power to all fields. Defensively, his athleticism helps, but his arm is mediocre and not particularly accurate. He needs more work on reading fly balls, but with more experience he will be at least adequate defensively.
Kemp: Kemp was born September 23, 1984. He is a righthanded hitter and thrower, listed at 6-4, 215 pounds. He is an exceptional athlete, a perfect representation of the "raw tools" player, owning power, speed, and a very good arm. He has had problems with his swing mechanics, though they have smoothed out considerably over the last year and a half. His strike zone judgment is below average. While he will kill fastballs, he has trouble laying off breaking stuff, though he has made improvements in this regard. He is dangerous on the bases and is improving his baserunning. His speed and arm strength make him an asset defensively, and with more experience he can be an excellent fielder.
Advantage: Pence is no slouch as an athlete, but Kemp's overall tools are superior and he has more defensive value. Advantage: Kemp.
PERFORMANCE and POLISH
Pence: .317/.394/.574 entering the year, currently .343/.395/.701 in the Texas League. As stated above, despite his unusual swing, Pence is a relatively polished hitter with a good feel for his profession.
Kemp .295/.336/.506 entering the year, currently .345/.419/.592 with nine steals in the Southern League.
Advantage: So far, to this point in their careers, Pence has been a bit better, notably in the plate discipline department, but it is very close and Pence has had better parks and leagues to hit in. Overall I will give a slight edge to Pence due to better strike zone judgment. Note that the difference in age/competition is factored into the next category.
Pence: Pence looks like a .275/.300 hitter to me, with 20+ homers in a full season. Possible outcome: A healthy Mike Sweeney with the ability to play outfield?
Kemp: I can see Kemp being anything from a .250 to a .300 hitter, depending on how his strike zone judgment develops. He should be good for double digits in both powers and steals. Possible outcome: Raul Mondesi, circa 1997?
Advantage: Kemp is younger and has better physical projection for the future.
Pence for background. Kemp for tools. Pence (narrowly) for performance. Kemp for projection. Can it be closer??
I'd say that Kemp has a chance to be a more complete player, in the sense of offering more defensive ability and speed to go with his batting average and home runs. Pence will probably be more reliable in OBP terms, and in general has less of a chance to flame out on us due to his better polish. But you cannot overlook the progress that Kemp has made refining his game over the last year. He may have higher risk, but I like his trend line of improvement.