Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Interview with Astros OF Jon Kemmer

After a somewhat lackluster freshman season in 2013, Jon Kemmer broke out in a big way in 2014, finishing the season with a .291/.345/.523 slashline in 91 games. He collected 25 doubles, two triples, 16 home runs and 50 RBI and had the third highest slugging percentage in the organization for full season teams, right behind Teoscar Hernandez and Brett Phillips and just ahead of Carlos Correa. Not shabby company! I spoke with Jon at length last week and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.

Jon Kemmer - June 2014
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Kemmer's 2014 season was cut short in August when he suffered a broken ankle. Of the injury he told me, "It was a hit and run ... that didn't go as planned. It was a tough pitch to hit and run on and I couldn't decide whether I wanted to slide head first or feet first. I decided feet first way too late and I just hit the bag wrong to where I couldn't stop myself and I just kind of rolled over my ankle." But Kemmer assured me that the ankle was "absolutely, definitely 100% right now."

Another part of Kemmer's eventful season included his being pulled out of the outfield in Quad Cities and sent back to Extended Spring Training to work on playing first base, a position which he played rather adeptly when he returned to Quad Cities. He embraced the chance to become more versatile, "It was definitely fun to learn. That's for sure. Just kind of keeps you in the action a little more than the outfield does so it was fun being in the action on almost every play." After Kemmer's promotion to Lancaster, though, he ended up mostly back in the outfield and has been playing corner outfield and DH-ing during Spring Training as well. But he always carries his first baseman's glove with him, just in case.

When I asked Kemmer to characterize himself defensively, he said, "I'd just say a solid all-around player. I'm not going to make a ton of spectacular plays, but I'll make the routine plays and just do whatever it takes to help the team."

As to Kemmer's offense, I spoke with 2014 Quad Cities Manager Omar Lopez about Kemmer last season and Lopez told me that Kemmer is a very aggressive hitter, sometimes too aggressive. Kemmer agreed, "I'm going to have to agree with him 100%. That's probably the biggest part of my game that I'm going to have to fix. I'm an extremely aggressive hitter. I swing at pitches that probably aren't my best pitches, but I feel like I can still hit them. But I'm starting to became a bit more of a disciplined hitter. Like Omar said, just stay a little more disciplined at the plate and not get myself out."

One of the biggest changes for Kemmer between 2013 and 2014 was that he expanded the field for himself. Kemmer said, "My first year I got myself out a lot by trying to pull the ball too much, trying to hit home runs. Last year, I worked with all the hitting coaches working gap to gap a lot more, just kind of opening my game up a little bit more because my first year I was very much dead pull." And Kemmer recognizes that expanding the field is the most efficient way to beat the shift.

After Kemmer's July promotion to Lancaster, he admittedly hit better in the hitter-friendly home environs of The Hangar (.339/.349/.774) than he did on the road (.264/.292/.495), but he still managed to hit five of his 12 California League home runs on the road. When asked about the 'Lancaster effect,' Kemmer said, "I'd be lying if I said a couple of the home runs weren't 'Lancaster' home runs, but a lot of those home runs I don't think I got cheated on. There's just something that clicked up there that this is what I needed to do. The wind factor gives you a little more confidence maybe, but something clicked and something just made me move forward."

What does Kemmer think he accomplished in 2014? "I think I proved that I do deserve to be here. I proved that to myself. My first year definitely wasn't a very good year for me. I didn't put up great numbers. I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder to kind of prove to myself and to other people that I deserve to be here. I think I might have been able to do that this past year and hopefully keep it moving forward," said Kemmer.

As to what he needs to do to keep that forward momentum, Kemmer told me, "Probably the little things like we talked about earlier. Plate discipline. I know my walk to strikeout ratio was not very good at all at Lancaster and that's definitely a part of my game I wanted to work on this offseason." Kemmer's goal is to be productive at both corner outfield positions and first base in order to offer the versatility that can help a team.

When asked what Astros minor league pitcher he'd least like to face in the batter's box, Kemmer replied, "I'd have to say [LHP] Josh Hader, just him from the left side, that three-quarters (delivery), the way he's been looking at Spring Training." Kemmer wants to face Hader because he wants to face the best, but emphasized that Hader had been looking 'unreal' in Spring Training. Kemmer went on to single out LHP Tommy Shirley and RHP Kyle Westwood as pitchers who have been looking very good this Spring.

What teammate makes Kemmer laugh? Not surprisingly, he singled out Brett Phillips. "It would have to be Brett Phillips, just being around that kid. Goofy, funny, hilarious, everything. Once you see his laugh ... there's no other laugh in the world like his laugh. He's a good teammate to play with. Everything about him is real."

Kemmer didn't particularly like the next question. What would he do if he couldn't play baseball? "That's kind of scary to think about, but I definitely would try to coach or do something like that. Just kind of give back. I got to do hitting lessons this offseason. I absolutely loved working with younger kids, watching them grow. Maybe do something outdoors ... hunting, guiding, something like that."

Asked to name a guilty pleasure, Kemmer mentioned his taste in movies which he said could sometimes be a little embarrassing, citing "Mean Girls" as one of his favorites. But his favorite movie of all time was "Fox and the Hound." According to Kemmer, "I watched that movie so many times on VHS that it actually came undone."

As a final question, I always ask players if they can tell me something about themselves that most people don't know and might be surprised to hear. Occasionally I get an interesting answer, but often the responses are completely unusable and end up in the scrap heap. Not this time. Kemmer came through for me in a big way. He responded, "I 100% believe in ghosts. When I was about seven or eight years old, I am 100% positive that I saw a ghost and I am 100% a believer in ghosts. It was a ghost of a leprechaun. Seven or eight years old and you see the ghost of a leprechaun? You never forget that! It was at my house. I just happened to wake up one night and my door's always shut, but my door was open which was really weird. And I just sat up and I saw a leprechaun standing there and he tipped his hat to me and went around the corner and he was gone."

Thank you for your time, Jon, and best of luck in the coming season. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with you and I hope your leprechaun spirit leads you to a pot of baseball gold!

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