-The K Zone-
February 10, 2017
From League Average Second Baseman to Babe Ruth, by Mojo Hill
Daniel Murphy played for the New York Mets for about six and a half years, playing mostly second base, although he occasionally spent time in the outfield, first base, or third base. Over this time he accumulated 13.6 WAR while hitting slightly above league average with a .288/.331/.424 line and a 109 OPS+ (where 100 is league average). He did this while playing less than stellar defense, making him about an average player. He was an All-Star backup once in 2015. He was a valuable piece and one of the most consistent hitters on a mediocre Mets team, but was never seen as much more than just a slap-hitting second baseman with mediocre on-base skills and not much power who played mediocre defense.
But in 2015, after six straight sub-.500 seasons, the Mets overcame some difficulties while utilizing their young pitching and trading for some clutch hitters en route to a 90-win season. The Mets were headed to the postseason. Their first obstacle was the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had two of the best pitchers in baseball in Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
Murphy came to the plate against the best pitcher on the planet, Kershaw, in his second at-bat after striking out in his first one. Murphy was a left-handed hitter who didn’t hit many home runs, especially not against lefties. Kershaw was a superstar pitcher who didn’t give up many home runs, especially not to lefties.
So, naturally, Murphy took him deep and the Mets won 3-1.
Murphy collected a hit in the next two games, at which point the Mets led the series 2-1. They had to face Kershaw again, and this time with the young lefty Steven Matz taking the mound. The Mets lost 3-1, but the one run came on, you guessed it, a home run, by Daniel Murphy, off of the best pitcher in the game.
So it came down to game five, with All-Star Jacob deGrom facing the ERA leader Zack Greinke. The Mets squeaked out the win, 3-2, as Murphy hit another home run, this time off of Greinke. Murphy was possibly the deciding factor in this nail-biting series, hitting three home runs off of arguably the best two pitchers in baseball that year.
But Murphy would not stop there. He continued his success into the NLCS against the Cubs. In his first at-bat, against another one of the best lefties in baseball, Jon Lester, he hit yet another home run in a 4-2 Mets win. He hit a home run in the next three games as the Mets swept the championship-hungry Cubs.
Murphy came back to Earth in the World Series as the Mets lost to the Royals 4-1. He made a costly error in the final game of that series, but none of this took away any of what he did prior to the World Series, when he suddenly became a slugging second baseman.
Due to the uncharacteristic and short-lived nature of Murphy’s surge, most people assumed that it was a fluke and that in 2016 Murphy would go back to being Murphy. He was a free agent after the 2015 season, and was eventually picked up the Mets’ rival team, the Washington Nationals.
Now in a different part of the NL East, Murphy set out to prove that his surge was no fluke. His bat was magma hot through the first stretch of the season. On June 1, he led the Majors with a .397 AVG and 77 hits and was in second in SLG (.634), and third in OBP (.428).
These were absurd numbers, especially for a league-average second baseman on the wrong side of 30. His stats up until this point compared with hitters like Mike Trout and David Ortiz.
As the season went on, Murphy came back to Earth a little bit, as could be expected. But his overall numbers at the end of the season were still tremendous. His .347 AVG came in second in the batting title race to Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu’s .348, mostly due to a late-season surge by LeMahieu. While Murphy’s numbers did fall from absurdity, he remained remarkably consistent throughout the year. He finished the season with a superb .347/.390/.595 batting line and tied with Joey Votto for the third best OPS in baseball (.985) behind only Ortiz (1.021) and Trout (.991). He also annihilated his former team, batting .413/.444/.773 against them, collecting a hit in all nineteen games against them. He also hit 25 home runs, shattering his career high of 14.
Obviously, Murphy shattered the expectations that anyone had for him. On the surface of it, it looks he had to have completely changed his approach to one like that of legendary Yankees slugger Babe Ruth, for instance. When Babe Ruth came to the plate, he wasn’t looking to bloop a single into right and jog to first. He was looking to hit the ball hard and far. Through Murphy’s career, he had always been a contact-first hitter, which helped him hit for average in light of his lack of power.
Here’s a graph of Murphy’s K% throughout his career relative to league average.
You can see here that he didn’t make all these improvements to the expense of putting the ball in play. Unlike Ruth, he has a contact-first approach. His goal when at the plate is to make solid contact with the ball, put in play and see what happens. While a lot of times these types of huge surges are a result of a change in approach, Murphy kept the same mentality into the 2016 season.
Now, here’s a graph of Murphy’s ISO (SLG-AVG) throughout his career, again relative to league average.
Before 2016, his overall power had been well below league average, but he started putting the ball in play with more authority and posted an ISO ahead of sluggers such as Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis. The Nationals’ 2016 home run leader was not 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper or Ryan Zimmerman; it was Daniel Murphy.
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