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Passing Through Pinstripes: Steve Kemp

The signing of Steve Kemp in 1983 was the correct move, but it didn’t work out. Some external factors played into this short Yankees tenure flaring out.

Steve Kemp Running into Rick Dempsey

Rick Peterson, the former New York Mets pitching coach, once told me about a conversation he had with Pedro Martinez about the difference between pitching in New York and elsewhere. Martinez told him that in other places you played one, 162-game season. In New York, you play 162, one-game seasons.

Yankees fans pride themselves about being astute, but intense. They dissect each game, each at bat. Every game feels like a big game. They’ll call players out if they’re not going all out. They won’t accept poor performances. And, if you don’t get off to a quick start, it is awfully difficult for that player to get back into the good graces of the Bronx faithful. Most of the times, the fans are correct; it’s easy to see a player who just can’t cut it in the intensely scrutinized New York baseball environment. Pedro may have been on to something.

There have been so many times in Yankees history where, on paper, a move made sense and simply didn’t work out. In recent history, acquiring Sonny Gray made perfect sense. In the 1980s, bringing in someone like Ed Whitson seemed like a good idea. Yet, for some reason or another, the move simply doesn’t work. The player doesn’t perform or injuries take over. As fans, we are trained to move on to the next guy. After all, it’s all about winning championships and if a player isn’t a part of that, they are expendable.

One of the most maligned position players of the ‘80s Yankees was Steve Kemp. Kemp spent two seasons in the Bronx before moving on and was widely panned as a failure during his two seasons. Signed to be the next star right fielder, Kemp was merely a platoon player on two disappointing Yankees teams that both finished in third place in the American League East.

Yet, his disappointing time in New York was marked with some interesting circumstances, poor handling, and a gruesome injury. His exit was just as interesting as it was the prelude to one of George Steinbrenner’s worst and most infamous trades. In retrospect, Kemp was never truly given a chance in New York.

Steve Kemp made his major league debut for the Detroit Tigers in 1977 at the age of 22. He played in 151 games during his rookie season and would hit .257/.343/.422 with 29 doubles, four triples, 18 home runs, and 88 RBI with a .342 wOBA and a 108 wRC+. For the next four seasons, he averaged 133 games played with a .292/.385/.459 line with 21 doubles, four triples, 18 home runs and a 134 wRC+. From 1978 through 1981, Kemp’s 134 wRC+ was 21st in the major leagues. His .379 wOBA was 18th. In other words, he was one of the better hitters in Major League Baseball during that time and about to enter his prime years.

The Tigers would trade him to the Chicago White Sox in 1982, the year before Kemp became a free agent. Kemp produced another above average season (.362 wOBA and 122 wRC+) before hitting the free agent market in the winter of ‘82.

The Yankees were coming off their first losing season since 1973 with the 1982 team that went 79-83 and had three different managers throughout the season in Bob Lemon, Gene Michael, and Clyde King. That season, if you recall, was the year the Yankees tried to rebrand as the Bronx Burners by signing players such as Dave Collins. Losing wasn’t an option for George Steinbrenner so he did what he always did; he re-hired Billy Martin for the 1983 season and then he spent some money to become the Bronx Bombers again.

The Yankees had already signed designated hitter Don Baylor to a four-year, $4.5 million deal, but wanted to add more to the lineup. Kemp was one of the premier free agents on the market so Steinbrenner signed him to a five-year, $5.45 million deal. With the re-tooled lineup, Martin back on the bench, and even a 22-year-old Don Mattingly to play three positions in a reserve role, the Yankees looked set to compete. While they won 91 games, they finished seven games behind the Baltimore Orioles.

Signing Steve Kemp was the right move. He was a 28-year-old outfielder who was an above average hitter. The lefty hitter should’ve taken to Yankee Stadium well. It is one of those cases where we will never know what could’ve been if there hadn’t been some of the most bizarre circumstances.

Yankee Outfielders Collide With 2nd Baseman Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

On Saturday, April 9th, the fourth game of the season, Kemp was involved in a collision with Jerry Mumphrey and Willie Randolph. In the eighth inning with a 4-2 lead, Martin brought in Goose Gossage who promptly walked a batter and gave up a single to score a run. Two batters later, Gossage gave up a bloop hit to Ernie Whitt. Kemp came racing in as did Mumphrey, Randolph converged as well. The story was that Kemp had cotton balls in his ears because of the 30-mile-per-hour wind in Toronto’s outdoor stadium. The collision resulted in Mumphrey breaking his toe and Kemp hurting his shoulder, something he would have to address a couple of seasons later. Despite not missing time, Kemp was clearly bothered by his shoulder.

It was perhaps the reason why Kemp got off to a slow start, hitting just .233/.307/.407 with seven doubles and five home runs in April and May. He’d rebound in June and July to hit .301/.380/.452 with eight doubles and four home runs. He’d slump badly in August (.151/.213/.301) as Martin gradually started to platoon him rather than let the proven hitter work his way out of a slump. After August 25th, Martin benched him, playing him just three times in early September.

There’s a couple of things that Martin did wrong here. He defaulted to a platoon when Kemp didn’t have a severe split. For his career, Kemp would hit .262/.350/.381 against southpaws. Even in 1983, he hit similar against left-handers as he did right-handers. The move to a platoon role was Martin defaulting to a strategy without much to back it up. In the 1980s, this could fly, but not in today’s data-driven game. Martin was simply wrong — he made the lineup worse by limiting the appearances of the talented Kemp.

That’s not the end of Kemp’s 1983 season. Despite not playing in September, Kemp was injured in a bizarre and gruesome way. On September 8th, Kemp was struck in the face with a line drive from the bat of Omar Moreno during batting practice. His left eye was injured and he lost a few teeth. Kemp was done for the season, but he expressed his frustration towards Martin in a post-injury interview. Evidently, Martin never spoke to Kemp about his role and Kemp was understandably frustrated.

“The injury hurts, but I wasn’t going to play the last month of the season anyway.” Kemp said. “It was driving me nuts, sitting on the bench platooning. I’m not that type of player.”

The injury would definitely hurt the rest of his career as he had vision loss as well as depth perception loss. Because of Billy Martin’s decision, the Yankees’ prize free agent acquisition was limited in his role and disgusted after just one year. Kemp’s final totals for 1983 were 109 games played, a .241/.318/.399 line with .321 wOBA and a 101 wRC+. It was the worst year of Kemp’s career.

Steinbrenner would replace Martin with Yogi Berra for the 1984 season, but Kemp was once again relegated to a platoon role. On the surface it looked like the right move as he rebounded to a .291/.369/.403 line in 94 games played with a .351 wOBA and a 120 wRC+. Of those 94 games, 73 were starts against right-handed pitching. He was given just nine games to start against left-handed pitchers in which he hit .261/.359/.326 in that small sample size. We fans, even my nine-year-old self, looked at him as a disappointment, someone who was overpaid and under-performed. He couldn’t hack it in New York. In hindsight, the Yankees never really gave him a chance.

Kemp’s time with the Yankees was brief and nondescript save for his nice catch during Dave Righetti’s no-hitter. His end, however, indirectly caused the most infamous trade in George Steinbrenner’s career. In December of 1984, Kemp was traded along with Tim Foli for Dale Berra, Alfonso Pulido, and a 19-year-old power-hitting prospect.

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jay Buhner.

Yes, Steve Kemp is how Jay Buhner was brought into the Yankees organization. The rest is history.

Steve Kemp would never be the same player he was before coming to the Yankees. He wound up having major shoulder surgery, missing the 1987 season, and trying to make a comeback in 1988 with the Texas Rangers. However, it was that September day that cost him his career. Kemp never was able to overcome the lost depth perception that came from that batting practice incident.

It was said that Kemp wasn’t a fit for New York, but those middle months of the 1983 season say otherwise. Billy Martin made him a platoon player without any real reason other than he was a left-hander. And, then, the eye injury.

Kemp was a talented player as a young player who was robbed by an emotional, unstable manager and a freak injury. The move to sign Kemp was the correct one — it just didn’t work out. Billy Martin and some bad luck made sure of that.