Daniel Murphy can rake. Since breaking into the big leagues in 2008, the 33-year-old infielder has slashed .299/.344/.458. Moreover, he’s become a better hitter — a more dangerous hitter — in recent seasons. While a knee injury limited him last year, Murphy’s left-handed stroke produced 146 extra-base hits and a 144 wRC+ between 2016-2017. And now he’ll get to play his home games in Coors Field. The Colorado Rockies signed him to a free agent deal back in December.
Murphy, who could accurately be described as a hitting nerd, talked about the art and science of his craft this past weekend at Colorado’s spring training facility in Scottsdale, Arizona.
David Laurila: Hitting analytics are becoming an important part of the game. To what extent can they translate into improved performance? I’m referring primarily to the swing.
Daniel Murphy: “I think we were doing that even before there was a measure for it. If you talk to any hitting coach, he’s going to say, ‘I want you to get a good pitch to hit. I want you to hit it hard.’ — that’s exit velocity — ‘and I want you to impact it in the gap.’ — that’s measurable by launch angle. What’s really changed is that we can quantify, and measure, exactly what hitting coaches have always been telling us to do: Hit the ball hard, in the gap.”
Laurila: Basically, what Ted Williams was preaching 50 years ago.
Murphy: “That, and it’s measurable. If you talked to Ted, he would probably say, ‘I don’t want the infielders to catch my batted balls.’ Maybe I’d be putting words in his mouth, but that’s something I strive to do. I don’t ever want the infielders to catch my batted balls. No strikeouts, no popups, no ground balls. I want to hit line drives and fly balls. Line drives would be Position A, and if I miss, I want to miss in the air, over the infielders’ heads.
“That’s all quantifiable now. We have a device called Rapsodo, that measures how much you impact the ball, and at what angle. When you’re hitting in the cage, it can give you verification of, like, ’OK, that was 14 degrees.’ If I’m pretty certain that 10 degrees gets me over the infielders’ heads, and I hit that at 14, at 95 [mph], then I should get rewarded for that swing.
“For a long time, we trained ourselves to hit low line drives to the back of the net — this is in the cage — when in reality those were probably one-hop, ground-ball outs. Knowing things like that definitely helps. Even so, you have to understand that this is an athletic event. It’s just information. What you’re doing is taking in formation, and deciding what works for you.
“I’ve spoken to guys who don’t want to know their exit velocity or their launch angle. At the same time, they’re trying to drive the ball into the gap and do damage. We’re trying to do the same things, there are just different ways of going about it.”
Laurila: How much has your swing changed?
Murphy: “It’s significantly different, although I think it’s more about the intent of what I’m trying to do to the baseball. In my terminology, I had a steep entry point early in my career. I wanted to hit down on the ball, cut it in half, and backspin it. Now I want to get on plane with the pitch.
“Against certain pitchers … when you get one with a higher spin rate, or a really good spin axis — a true spin axis to the ball — a steep entry point is necessary, because that’s going to match the plane of the pitch. Conversely, if I get someone with a lower spin rate — more side-to-side spin axis — my entry point needs to be different. Not every fastball is created equal.
“What I’m trying to do — I stole this from Justin Turner, because I think ‘Swaggy’ is an absolute treat to talk to — is always match the plane of the pitch. As baseball players … golfers have multiple swings they can call upon. Because not every fastball, and not every pitch, is created equal, I feel that I should have multiple entry points into the zone.”
Laurila: In essence, you have multiple swings.
Murphy: “I guess you could call it swings. But it’s really multiple entry points, based around the same foundation. If I get someone who’s got what I’d describe as a ‘skip fastball’ — spin rate, a spin-axis fastball — I’m going to look to enter in a little bit higher, as opposed to how someone who has a lower spin rate is going to try to sink it and get below my barrel. Then I’m going to enter in a little lower.
Laurila: Knowing the pitcher you’re facing is important.
Murphy: “Yes, and you can quantify that with measurables. You can also do it with the eyeball test. We have enough video for that. Personally, I go home and watch the opposing starting pitcher for the next day. I paint a picture: OK, here is where the ball needs to start, here is where my entry point needs to be, here is where I’m trying to hit it. Then I kind of play that out as I go to bed. Hopefully I can go out and execute that plan the next day.
Laurila: What about the execution itself? Hitters only have a fraction of a second to react.
Murphy: “The word you used there is ‘react.’ There should be nothing reactionary about what we do. It should all be anticipatory. I like to try to tunnel. I split the plate up into seven balls. It’s seven balls wide, so I pick a tunnel. Depending on the shape of the pitch, I can pick the trajectory, the height I need it to be.
“If I’m facing Brandon Morrow, I probably don’t want to look for a pitch up, because he’s going to get above my barrel. I’ll try to push him down in the zone. I’ll pick a place on the plate, and if it starts in that tunnel, I go. I swing. There’s no, ‘Ooh, I think that’s the one I want.’
“If it’s a sinkerballer, or somebody who throws a cutter, you may have to move your tunnel and basically anticipate. It’s more, ‘OK, I need it to start here to end here.’”
Laurila: Pitchers talk about tunneling all the time. It’s not a term I’m used to hearing from hitters.
Murphy: “This is how it was introduced to me: ‘If you think you can hit seven balls wide, 10 balls high, at four different speeds and four different shapes; if you think you can hit a seven ball at the knees away, the same way you can hit a one ball at the top of the zone,’ you’re incorrect.’ It just doesn’t work that way. You have to shrink the strike zone in order to do damage.”
Laurila: Should a hitter try to master every zone, or should he focus on the area where he best executes his ‘A swing’?
Murphy: “I think it’s different for each hitter, but I don’t think you ever want to get too far away from what it is that you do well. You want to master what you do well. Then, when you get a pitch in the zone you’re looking for, you can hopefully put your A swing on it and do damage. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be rewarded, but you’ve executed your plan.
“We’re human beings. Pitchers make mistakes, and we miss them. They’re human beings. They make mistakes as well, so I think it would be counterproductive for me to go and look at a weakness, because my weakness is probably going to be marginal pitches that I can’t do damage with. That could come at the expense of missing a mistake in the middle of the plate.”
Laurila: Hitters talk about having both an ‘A swing’ and a ‘B swing.’ Is it possible to have more than one A swing?
Murphy: “I think your A swing is your A swing. What may alter is where you enter into the hitting zone with it. Your A swing is your best bolt. It’s the same intent. For me, it’s where am I entering into the zone to get my A swing off?”
Laurila: Is hitting more of an art, or more of a science?
Murphy: “Why can’t it be both? Why can’t you use the information and have it be a dance? When I watch Robbie Cano hit, it looks like he’s doing a two-step. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.