PITTSBURGH – Daniel Murphy spends much of his offseason in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, where he hits in the batting cages of his alma mater, Jacksonville University. He works out there alongside his brother, who is also an alumnus of the program and who is also a local high-school coach. At the university, with his brother’s high-school team, Murphy will often talk about the craft of hitting with amateur players.
Murphy is, of course, one of a number of hitters who has changed his swing, improved his launch angle, and enjoyed significant success and improvement. He was an early adopter along with the usual names mentioned like Josh Donaldson and J.D. Martinez. But as Murphy talks to players at the grassroots level about swing concepts, he notices there are often curious looks when he discusses the idea of hitting fly-balls.
“They kind of look they give you is ‘What? You want me to hit fly balls?” Murphy said. “When they hear ‘fly balls’ they think 35 degrees, so we are getting too close to pop ups.”
Because he’s run across skeptics at all levels of the game, Murphy believes the idea of fly-ball revolution needs to be re-branded.
“I like to think ‘air balls.’ I never want the infielder to catch my ball,” Murphy said. “A line drive is still Position A. And it’s in the air. I think fly balls can be misconstrued as pop ups, as high fly balls. The place you want to be is still line drives. That’s still where you have the most success, where the batting average is highest, where most of the damage is done. That kind of 10-20 degrees, there. That’s the sweet spot. That’s not the Kris Bryant, launched, 45-degree homer that are majestic to watch. So Position A is still a line drive, which to me is more of an air ball than a fly ball.”
I asked Murphy if he considers himself the Johnny Appleseed of swing plane, of the air ball. After all, there are a significant number of Mets position players — like Jay Bruce, Yoenis Cespedes, and Neil Walker — who have begun to lift more balls into the air. Have they followed his path? His example?
The same is true in Washington, where Ryan Zimmerman has increased his launch angle this season and is enjoying tremendous results after conversations with Murphy this spring — even if Zimmerman doesn’t believe he’s made dramatic adjustments.
Murphy is now sharing his philosophies at the grassroots level. When asked about how much credit he deserves for the movement, Murphy quickly redirects and credits New York Mets hitting coach Kevin Long with spreading the philosophy. Long worked with Murphy on better incorporating the lower half into his swing in New York, thinking about pulling the ball to the right-center gap, and “getting on plane” which the pitch.
Long was talking about these ideas before anyone was talking about exit velocity or launch angle.
But even if Murphy doesn’t want to take credit for being an innovating early adopter, he’s the type of communicator from which all major-league clubhouses could benefit, especially in the data age. No one can influence like a peer. As documented earlier in this post, he articulated how he thinks the fly-ball revolution is being branded incorrectly, that there are still many skeptics. But he will not proselytize. Rather, he’ll typically wait for curious teammates to come to him with questions, which is perhaps the best way to create interest. “Not everything you say is going to work for someone else. I will talk hitting,” Murphy said. “I will talk approach. I will talk plan at the plate.” He investigates Statcast data and can relate what he thinks are meaningful insights in simple and relatable ways. Full disclosure: he’s a reader of FanGraphs.
He’s also familiar with his radial chart at Baseball Savant.
“I know 10 degrees is about the point where infielders cannot catch it. So I’ve gone on Baseball Savant just to get an idea of what does this look like,” Murphy said. “Get to 9, 10 degrees and an infielder cannot catch it. And then 25, 27 [degrees] is the sweet spot for home runs.
“The numbers interest me, but it is still an athletic event. I’m trying to the ball as hard as I can.”
Since 2015, according to Baseball Savant, Murphy’s average launch angle is 14.8 degrees. This season, it’s 16.5. A year ago, it was 16.9. In 2015, it was 12.1 degrees.
He cares about the game. While many of teammates were engaged in card games or scrolling through their smart phones at their locker, Murphy was excited to watch Clayton Kershaw pitch an afternoon game that was being televised in the road clubhouse at PNC Park. Only Murphy seemed to be watching the broadcast.
Does Murphy see the idea he helped spearhead accelerating across the game?
“It’s tough for me to speak [about] anyone else specifically,” Murphy said. “I know what I am trying to do with my game. I see someone like Freddy Galvis last year hit 20 [homers last season]. We just came from Philadelphia, and Cesar Hernandez with the Phillies, it looks like he’s driving the ball more.”
When Murphy presents his beliefs, they’re convincing and easily digestible. You could understand how he could sell the idea to teammates. Exhibit A: “For me, it’s easier to try and beat three guys covering more ground in the outfield than it is to beat five guys covering [less ground] in the infield,” Murphy said. “My goal is to hit every single ball so that it cannot be caught by an infielder.”
With regard to crediting the air-ball idea to a key actor or actors, Murphy said there might not be any one person responsible for it. He certainly doesn’t believe it’s himself. And his impact is difficult to quantify. But Murphy is the type of communicator and researcher who would be an asset in a major-league clubhouse, and who can — and likely has — influenced peers. After all, players spend more time around teammates than family. Murphy’s value goes beyond his on-field production. Murphy is the kind of clubhouse presence from which all teams could benefit, not just with the air-ball revolution, but with any concept that might be beneficial to adopt from an individual and club perspective.
Murphy is evidence that in the data age there is more benefit to having smart, curious players in the clubhouse. Zimmerman might be evidence of that; perhaps some Mets are following his message, too. And perhaps there are amateur players in Jacksonville, Fla., who will benefit, as well.