Daniel Murphy Finally Got to the Rockies

When last year’s Nationals got around to giving in, one of the players they moved was Daniel Murphy. Near the end of August, Murphy was flipped to the Cubs, who’d put in a claim on Murphy off waivers. It made plenty of sense that the Cubs would’ve had interest. It made less sense that the Rockies didn’t have interest. The Rockies were getting nothing from first base and left field, and compared to the Cubs, they had the higher waiver priority. But Murphy got by, and the rest was history. By which I mean, neither the Cubs nor the Rockies won the World Series. So it goes.

Just a few months ago, then, the Rockies decided Daniel Murphy wasn’t their man. And yet in this month, the Rockies have changed their mind. Yes, I get that circumstances now are different. But anyway, the Rockies have agreed to terms with Murphy on a two-year contract worth $24 million. Somewhat importantly, it sounds like Murphy is going to play first base, instead of second. Ian Desmond will get bumped to the outfield. Earlier, one could only dream of Murphy batting half the time in Coors. Now we’ll all get to see it in reality.

The Rockies’ reasoning isn’t difficult to suss. In 2016, Murphy was an incredibly good hitter. In 2017, he was only a little bit worse. In 2018, he was considerably worse, but then, he got a late start to the year after major knee surgery. His numbers picked up down the stretch, as he got himself up to speed. And, all things considered, for the third year in a row, Murphy kept on hitting balls in the air. And he made contact with 88% of his swings, right in line with his previous averages. The Rockies figure Murphy has more gas in the tank. Even while diminished, he didn’t lose his bat-to-ball skills, and now he’ll have a normal offseason to rest.

As for the move to first, it’s overdue. As a second baseman, Murphy never posted a positive DRS. Three years ago, he finished at -9. Two years ago, he finished at -15. This past year, he finished at -18, in half the innings. Murphy’s mobility was never one of his strengths, and it’s been compromised by age and injury. I don’t know how much is going to come back. First basemen still need to be nimble, but it’s a better positional fit, and Murphy does have substantial experience.

What I like is that Murphy still makes contact. I like that he still hits the ball in the air, and I like that the Rockies won’t ask him to play the middle infield. Coors Field seems like a perfect environment, because there’s all that extra territory for Murphy’s many batted balls to find. On top of that, his middling power should be sufficient to drive the ball out of the yard. If Murphy is declining, Coors can help to hide it. But we should talk about that decline. This has all happened pretty fast.

All I can address is Murphy’s hitting. It’s reasonable to wonder about his defense, too. First basemen do need to move around, and Murphy has also never been known for his hands. There’s far from any guarantee Murphy will look comfortable handling his new corner. Let’s focus, though, on the bat. Let’s look beyond just the extraordinary rate of contact.

It was in 2015 that Murphy began to change as a hitter. He began to better understand how he could tap into his pull-side power. Here are Murphy’s year-to-year rates of air balls that he hit to right field:

  • 2015: 31% pulled air balls
  • 2016: 33%
  • 2017: 33%
  • 2018: 23%

Between the last two years, Murphy lost ten percentage points, and his rate didn’t recover after the most recent All-Star break. Between 2015 – 2017, in terms of pulling air balls, Murphy ranked in the 70th percentile. This past year, he ranked in the 20th percentile. Murphy doesn’t have enough power to punish the ball with regularity in other directions.

Now let’s make some use of Statcast data from Baseball Savant. Here are simple year-to-year expected wOBAs:

  • 2015: .342 xwOBA
  • 2016: .399
  • 2017: .370
  • 2018: .344

Murphy fell back to where he was in 2015, and most of 2015 took place before Murphy’s well-known metamorphosis. While Murphy’s surface numbers picked up last year in the final few months, his pre-break xwOBA was actually a bit higher than his post-break xwOBA. I have no doubt that he felt better down the stretch, but he still didn’t quite look like his peak self.

Speaking of peaks — here are Murphy’s year-to-year single top exit velocities:

  • 2015: 113.3 miles per hour
  • 2016: 113.5
  • 2017: 108.4
  • 2018: 106.9

This isn’t something we look at very often, because I’m not sure it’s all that well understood, but just at first glance, those numbers are startling. And to increase the sizes of the samples a little bit, we can look at something similar. Here are Murphy’s year-to-year top 5% of exit velocities:

  • 2015: 107.7 miles per hour
  • 2016: 108.1
  • 2017: 106.1
  • 2018: 103.5

Again, we see something, and the most recent season stands out. Looking at everything together, it would appear that, this past year, Daniel Murphy wasn’t able to drive the ball the way he used to. It would make sense that would be related to his knee surgery during the offseason. An optimist might suggest that Murphy will recover what he lost after a healthy winter, but that’s in no way a given. Murphy just might not be able to swing the same way, after what his body has been through. He can still get the bat to the ball, but he might not generate the same amount of bat speed.

The good news is that, if you have a contact hitter whose power is compromised, Colorado makes for a forgiving destination. I don’t need to tell you the ball carries a little bit further, so at least half the time, even a diminished Daniel Murphy could stand as a dinger threat. He’s a clear upgrade for the Rockies, and the chance that he bounces back isn’t zero percent. Murphy might get his old swing back. You can understand if a recent knee-surgery patient might act a little tentative.

But even given what Murphy was in the recent past, this is still a gamble. He’s not a very good runner. He’s not a good defender, and he hasn’t played first base regularly in a very long time. That’s not an easy job. And the bat has trended in a worrying direction. It might not improve, and it could even get worse. Murphy is intriguing because of his peak, and because of his rebound potential, but there exists a very good chance the Rockies have given $24 million to an older, left-handed Wilmer Flores. Not that that wouldn’t still be an upgrade for them, but they set the bar awfully low.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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4 years ago

Good for them to have finally found the money for him. As a Cubs fan I’m thankful he won’t be roaming our infield with his glove. Very interested to see how he’ll do in Colorado with so much more time to recover with his knee, I think he’ll be huge this year.

4 years ago
Reply to  Alfrs

If you want to believe that it takes 9 months to recover from knee surgery, he was almost ‘huge’ last year:

Surgery 10/20/17; he came back to MLB 8 months later.

Setting aside that first month as too soon/rushed himself back/shaking off rust/however you care to describe it, he was .315/.346/.498 after 7/17/18.

.328 BABIP (vs. career .320)
5% BB rate (vs. career 6%)
13% K rate (career 12%)
.183 ISO (career .159)

Obviously the ‘career’ numbers conflate pre- and post swing changes, so aren’t exactly what you want to know.

And I think Jeff makes a compelling case about with the exit velocity, etc data that he probably has taken a further step down than I might have thought.

But at $12M per, the bar is not terribly high. (And even lower when you contemplate the bodies COL has been running out there at 1B.)

4 years ago
Reply to  DBA455

I injured myself playing soccer in my early 30s and had the same microfracture procedure done to repair the damage. While I was able to get back out on the field within 8-9 months of the surgery, it took another 6 months or so before it began to feel close to normal again.

4 years ago
Reply to  DBA455

Can’t quite see which way you were regarding the 9 months for knee surgery (Probably more to do with my reading skills than the way you wrote it), but I do think 9 months is nowhere near long enough to perform at their high/current level.
With how important your lower half is, I think it’s pretty crazy how good he was with the Nats in the second half, and the first 2ish week tear with the Cubs. A whole offseason to resume regularity and feel normal should be a major blessing for him. (No matter what though I didn’t want to see him man second for the Cubs again, and unfortunately there was no room for him at first).