2023 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Dale Murphy

© Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the 2023 Contemporary Baseball Era Committee ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election at SI.com, it has been expanded and updated. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, use the tool above. An introduction to JAWS can be found here.

It took four position changes — from catcher to first base, then left field, right field, and finally center field — and parts of five major league seasons for the Braves to figure out where the 6-foot-4 Dale Murphy fit. Once they did, they had themselves a franchise centerpiece, a wholesome, milk-drinking superstar whom Sports Illustrated profiled for its July 4, 1983 cover story by proclaiming, “Murphy’s Law is Nice Guys Finish First.”

The title was a reference to the slugger helping the Braves to an NL West title the previous year, their lone playoff appearance during the 1970-90 stretch. “Here’s a guy who doesn’t drink, smoke, chew or cuss,” wrote SI’s Steve Wulf. “Here’s a guy who has time for everyone, a guy who’s slow to anger and eager to please, a guy whose agent’s name is Church. His favorite movie is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s a wonderful ballplayer.” Let the record show that Wulf did unearth some dirt on Murphy, noting that he once got a speeding ticket for doing 35 in a 25-mph zone… while running late to speak to a church group.

Murphy won the first of his back-to-back MVP awards in 1982 as well as the first of his five consecutive Gold Gloves, and made his second of seven All-Star teams. He would spend most of the 1980s as one of the game’s best players. Alas, knee problems turned him into a shadow of the player he once was while he was still in his early 30s, and he played his final game in the majors at age 37.

That early decline didn’t bode well for Murphy’s Hall of Fame chances. He debuted with 19.3% on the 1999 ballot, peaked at 23.2% the next year, and spent the next 13 years mostly in the low teens, even dipping into single digits twice. Like his ballot-mate Don Mattingly, he was included on the 2018 and ’20 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballots but failed to meet the minimum to have his actual share of the vote reported; all that we know from the Hall’s press releases is that he received fewer than seven of the 16 votes in 2018 and three or fewer in ’20. That doesn’t bode well for this vote either and — stop me if you’ve heard this one — again raises the question of why he’s on this ballot while those who outperformed him on the 2020 one (Dwight Evans and Lou Whitaker, specifically) are not. Having said that, in the context of my coverage of this ballot’s various miscreants, some of whose misdeeds I’ve been cataloguing for over a decade, I do think it’s worth appreciating Murphy’s virtues.

2023 Contemporary Baseball Candidate: Dale Murphy
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Dale Murphy 46.5 41.2 43.8
Avg. HOF CF 71.6 44.7 58.1
2,111 398 .265/.346/.469 121
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Murphy was born on March 3, 1956 in Portland, Oregon, to parents Charles and Betty Murphy. Save for the family’s brief relocation to California to accommodate his father’s career as a sales executive for Westinghouse, he grew up in Portland, and starred as a catcher at Woodrow Wilson High School, where he earned All-City and All-State honors and often drew 20 or more scouts to games. His high school and American Legion coach, Jack Dunn, believed his arm was second to none.

Murphy signed a letter of intent to play at Arizona State University, but when the Braves made him the fifth pick of the 1974 draft, he chose to go the pro route, and signed for a $43,750 bonus. Touted as the next Johnny Bench thanks to his powerful bat and his arm strength, he rose quickly through the minors, debuting in the majors on September 13, 1976, when he was just 20 years old. He hit singles off the Dodgers’ Rick Rhoden and Charlie Hough in his debut.

Unfortunately, by the spring of 1977, Murphy had developed a mental block about throwing to second base, either hitting the mound or the pitcher, or throwing the ball into center field. In one spring training game, the Yankees twice pulled off delayed double steals when Murphy double-pumped but didn’t throw, and he later threw the ball down the left field line on a steal of third base. A post-game dressing-down from manager Dave Bristol didn’t help his confidence, either.

Murphy spent most of 1977 in the minors, but made another September cameo, during which he hit .316/.316/.526 in 76 plate appearances; he didn’t walk once, but he homered twice in a September 15 game against the Padres, once off 1976 NL Cy Young winner Randy Jones, and once off ace reliever Rollie Fingers (himself a future Cy Young winner). Alas, he also made six errors in 18 games behind the plate, and teams stole 25 bases in 30 attempts against him.

In 1978, manager Bobby Cox made the 22-year-old Murphy the team’s starting first baseman, with occasional backup catching duties behind Biff Pocoroba. He did hit 23 homers, just two short of the total that Cox predicted in the spring, but mostly he struggled in that role, striking out a league-high 145 times while hitting .226/.284/.394 (80 OPS+). Back at catcher to start the 1979 season, he opened the season on a tear before missing two months due to in-season arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He never spent another inning behind the plate, but he turned in a much-improved .276/.340/.469 line with 21 homers in 104 games, good for a 113 OPS+.

Murphy’s throwing was still a problem, and after the Braves acquired first baseman Chris Chambliss from the Blue Jays in December 1979, they resolved to keep the young slugger’s bat in the lineup by moving him to the outfield. After experimenting with him at both outfield corners, Cox moved Murphy to center field for the first time on May 13, 1980. Everything clicked into place, and he flourished on both sides of the ball, batting .281/.349/.510 with 33 homers (third in the league) and a 135 OPS+ (seventh), and making his first All-Star team. Defensively, he was 11 runs above average at his new position, and his 6.6 WAR was good for fourth in the league.

The Braves appeared to have themselves a star. Though Murphy scuffled during the strike-torn 1981 season, he homered four times in the team’s first seven games in ’82 while the team jumped out to a 13-0 start under new manager Joe Torre, and edged the Dodgers by a game to claim their first NL West title since ’69 (yes, MLB had a strange understanding of geography at the time). Murphy not only won his first Gold Glove, he beat out the Cardinals’ Lonnie Smith (chosen two picks before him by the Phillies in 1974) for NL MVP honors thanks to his 36 homers (second in the league) and 109 RBI (first); he also ranked fourth in walks (93), seventh in WAR (6.1), and eighth in OPS+ (142).

That was the first year of a six-year stretch across which Murphy hit a combined .289/.352/.531 (145 OPS+) while averaging 36 homers, 18 steals, 105 RBI, and 5.7 WAR; for that span, his 218 homers led the majors, while his 34.1 WAR ranked eighth on a list whose top 10 players aside from Murphy are now in the Hall of Fame. Murphy signed a five-year, $8 million extension with the Braves in February 1983, and re-upped for three years at $2 million a year after the ’87 season, but he never made it back to the playoffs. His 88-win Braves lost out to the Dodgers in the NL West race in 1983, but he set a career high with 7.1 WAR (second in the NL) while again hitting 36 homers and slugging a league-best .540, numbers that helped him claim his second MVP award; at 27, he was the youngest two-time winner to that point.

Murphy led the NL in homers in both 1984 and ’85 (36 and 37, respectively), and again in slugging percentage in the former year (.547). In the homer-happy season of 1987 — a season that previewed the higher offensive levels of the next decade — he hit a career-high 44, including the 300th of his career on August 21 off the Pirates’ Brian Fisher.

Murphy accompanied that home run total with other personal bests: 115 walks (29 intentional), a .417 on-base percentage, .580 slugging percentage, 157 OPS+, and 7.7 WAR. He had moved to right field that year, after his defense deteriorated in center; via Total Zone, he was 38 runs below average in 1985-86, but 11 above in ’87. For as strong a season as he had, he received scant MVP consideration; the award went to Andre Dawson, who hit 49 homers but had a much lower OPS+ (130) and WAR (4.0) while toiling for another sub-.500 team, the 76-win Cubs (the Braves won 69 games). That winter, he was one of eight men and women who shared Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year award. “Athletes Who Care: A Salute to Eight of the Many Who Honor Sport by Helping Others,” read the cover, while the accompanying article on Murphy by Peter Gammons detailed the time he devoted to numerous causes. “To go to hospitals and see people fight and overcome cystic fibrosis or cancer or any number of illnesses is to see courage that is humbling. And athletes constantly need to be humbled,” Murphy told Gammons.

Thanks to regular exposure on the Braves’ TBS superstation, Murphy was a full-blown superstar, and a wholesome one at that; a devout convert to Mormonism, he didn’t drink, smoke, chew tobacco, or curse. At that juncture, he looked Cooperstown-bound. He owned a career .279/.362/.500 line, 310 homers, five 30-homer seasons and six top-three finishes in the category from 1980-87, a span during which only Mike Schmidt out-homered him, and only six players exceeded his 42.4 WAR: Rickey Henderson, Schmidt, Gary Carter, Wade Boggs, Robin Yount and Alan Trammell.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there, performance-wise. Murphy hit a combined .238/.311/.403 (99 OPS+) with an average of 22 homers and a total of just 6.4 WAR from 1988-91, with knee problems at the center of his woes. Despite undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove torn cartilage in his right knee in January 1989, he declined from a 106 OPS+ to an 89, and his strikeout rate (21.9%) was his highest since his ’78 rookie season. He rebounded only slightly the following year, and on August 3 was traded to the Phillies as part of a five-player deal. Though he hit for a 103 OPS+ — his best mark since 1988 — with 18 homers in 153 games, subpar defense limited him to 0.8 WAR. Adding insult to injury, the Murphy-less Braves, who had lost 97 games in 1990, won 94 games and the NL pennant in ’91, the dawn of their decade-and-a-half stretch as a powerhouse.

Things went from bad to worse for Murphy in 1992, as he underwent another surgery on his left knee, developed a staph infection, and wound up playing in just 18 games. The Phillies released him two days before the 1993 season opened so that he could sign with the expansion Rockies, which meant that again, he missed out on playing for a pennant winner. He played just 26 games and failed to homer in 49 plate appearances before deciding it was time to go home to wife Nancy, who was pregnant with the couple’s eighth child. He was just 37 years old, and two home runs short of 400. “I figured that if I couldn’t hit home runs in Denver, I couldn’t hit home runs, period,” he later said.

Despite his two MVP awards, Murphy’s early retirement left him with career totals that didn’t stand out as Hall-caliber as far as late-20th century voters were concerned. He had just missed becoming the 26th player to reach 400 homers, and due in part to his penchant for strikeouts (1,748, seventh all-time to that point), his career .265 batting average was lower than all but six players enshrined at the time, including sluggers Reggie Jackson (.262) and Harmon Killebrew (.256), who finished with 563 and 573 career homers, respectively.

As noted above, Murphy debuted with just 19.3% of the vote in 1999, and peaked after adding about four percentage points the next year. While he spent his full 15 years of eligibility on the ballot, he never again broke 20%, twice slipped below 10%, and finished at 18.6% on the 2013 ballot. When he was included on the 2018 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, his share of the vote was lumped in among the half-dozen candidates who received fewer than seven of the 16 votes; even that vague description distorts the reality that a maximum of 19 votes were shared between six candidates besides those with the reported totals, namely the elected Jack Morris (14 of 16 votes) and Trammell (13), the near-miss Ted Simmons (11), and Marvin Miller (7). On the 2020 ballot, when Simmons (13) and Miller (12) were elected and four other candidates received six to eight votes, Murphy, Mattingly, Tommy John and Thurman Munson were described as receiving three or fewer votes.

Advanced statistics don’t make a particularly strong case for Murphy, either. His 46.5 career WAR ranks 37th in career WAR among center fielders, and while he finished among the NL’s top 10 five times, his peak score of 41.2 ranks a modest 18th, better than nine of the 19 enshrined at the position, two of whom (Larry Doby and Kirby Puckett) nonetheless have higher JAWS despite much shorter careers. Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltrán, Kenny Lofton, and Jim Edmonds, none of whom are enshrined yet, all have higher peak scores and outrank him in JAWS, where he’s 27th, ahead of only four non-Negro Leagues honorees.

By just about every measure, Murphy would be a substandard pick if he were to be elected. Yet I’ll admit that in the wake of Harold Baines‘ rather shocking election on the 2019 Today’s Game ballot, he’s been the candidate I thought of most. Baines ranks 76th in JAWS among right fielders and had longevity in his favor but a peak score (21.4) that’s barely half of Murphy’s, and a career WAR (38.7) that doesn’t even match the center fielder’s peak. “Why battle over Dale Murphy or Fred McGriff if Harold Baines is the standard?” I wrote while venting my frustration over Baines’ election.

What’s more, as Hall of Fame discussions have come to include more information about players’ character and off-field behavior — much of it negative, unfortunately, particularly when it comes to incidents of domestic violence — I’ve come to appreciate Murphy even more. His final year on the writers’ ballot coincided with my first year covering the election cycle for SI.com after doing so from 2004-12 for Baseball Prospectus. That 2013 ballot brought forth the candidacies of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa, not to mention Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza and Lofton. Nobody was elected that year, as the issue of performance-enhancing drugs became front and center. In contrast, several of Murphy’s eight children mounted a public relations campaign on his behalf, one that included an open letter to the BBWAA (with callouts of “statistics nerds” as well as JAWS and other fancy stats, all of which absurdly enough came from a PhD candidate in organizational behavior), a Change.org petition, a wonderfully endearing cartoon, and more. While mostly tasteful, at one point, a couple of the Murphy kids even took their shots at me on Twitter, which wasn’t fun.

Still, having spent the past decade endlessly cataloging the misdeeds of Bonds, Clemens, Schilling and Sosa — PEDs, domestic violence, bigotry and hatred, and other inappropriate behavior, all too much of which I’ve kept the receipts for — and others, I find it refreshing the extent to which Murphy’s decency stands out. It’s not only because he steered clear of that ugly stuff, which is a pretty low bar to appreciate someone for, but because he actually did stand up for things that continue to resonate, both within baseball’s ongoing culture war and matters even bigger than that. I might not have thought twice about him beyond his candidacy had my wife, Emma Span, not edited pieces he wrote for The Athletic on unwritten rules, celebration and emotion within the game and more, but what impressed me most was his thread highlighting systemic racism and violence against Black people in the wake of one of his sons being injured in a George Floyd-related protest in 2020, an action for which he endured backlash. On a Hall of Fame ballot that’s full of heels, Murphy stands out as a true mensch, and that feels particularly worth noting in this context.

I’m not suggesting that an extremely positive invocation of the Hall’s notorious character clause — which has almost uniformly been used to justify refusing to vote for somebody — should result in Murphy’s election. Nor am I suggesting that a better-than-Baines standard should be grounds for electing him; if that’s the case, we’re going to need a bigger boat, one that has room for dozens if not hundreds of players. While I wouldn’t use one of my three ballot spaces on Murphy, I can tell you that I would not have it in me to protest the election of a two-time MVP who for a few years had a claim as one of the game’s best and most respected players, and who continues to live up to high standards. Que sera sera.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Nick Smithmember
1 year ago

For what it’s worth, I think Murphy was juuuust great enough for juuuust long enough to be a perfectly cromulent candidate.
Plus, it would be nice to see the character clause used as something other than a cudgel to punish candidates with.