Yesterday, Daniel Murphy went 4-5, hitting his fourth home run of the season in the process, and driving his batting line for 2016 up to .398/.449/.663. His 192 wRC+ ranks third best in the big leagues, and he’s behind only Manny Machado, Dexter Fowler, and Mike Trout on the WAR leaderboards. In the aftermath of yesterday’s hit barrage, I sent out the following tweet.
Daniel Murphy for 3/$38M now looking like the free agent steal of the winter.
— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) May 4, 2016
Many of the responses argued that Fowler is ahead in that race, which is certainly a reasonable argument given what he’s done for the Cubs thus far. A bunch of other responses were essentially along the “small sample size” lines, though. Like this one, for instance.
@DCameronFG Is there any reason to expect the 25 game sample to trump the 900 game sample that preceded it? We know who Daniel Murphy is.
— Rational Sports (@Rational_Sports) May 4, 2016
In general, the premise of this tweet is mostly correct. When you have a large sample of a player’s career performance, you shouldn’t overreact to a 25 game hot streak, and believe that the most recent performance cancels out the longer history the player has provided for evidence of what he’s capable of doing going forward. In Murphy’s case, though, we’re well past the point of this being a 25 game hot streak. For most of the last year, Daniel Murphy has been one of the best hitters in baseball.
Let’s make use of one of my favorite tools here at FanGraphs: the past calendar year leaderboard. By using this drop-down filter, we can look at how players have performed over the most recent 365 days. And if you sort by wRC+ over that last year, you’ll find Murphy at 135, in a three-way tie for 22nd, right there with Carlos Correa and Shin-Soo Choo. The guys just ahead of him? Kris Bryant and J.D. Martinez, at 137. This is some pretty nice company that Murphy is keeping.
But there’s one flaw with looking at Murphy’s most recent 365 days via the past calendar year leaderboard; it only includes regular season data. But of course Murphy played in the postseason last year, and his playoff power spike was one of the most notable stories of October.
There’s no reason to ignore postseason performance when trying to gather information about a player’s abilities, especially when that performance comes against some of the best pitchers alive; remember that Murphy hit playoff home runs against Clayton Kershaw (twice), Zack Greinke, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Fernando Rodney. With the exception of the last name on that list and the underrated Hendricks, that’s a short list of Cy Young contenders. The fact that he was able to launch the ball against them is useful information.
So let’s take a look at Murphy’s actual line over the last 365 days, once you include the postseason performance as well.
In total, Murphy has played 144 games since May 5th, 2015; during that span he has come to the plate for 608 plate appearances, hit 23 home runs, and struck out just 56 times. That isn’t a guy riding a 25 game hot streak; that’s a player with some of the best contact skills in baseball also hitting for significant power at the same time.
During Murphy’s postseason run last year, Tony Blengino noted Murphy’s elite contact skills, comparing him to a guy like Bill Mueller, who had a terrific second half of his career as a high-average hitter with enough power to be useful, including a 2003 season that looks an awful lot like what Murphy has done over the last year.
Mueller walked and struck out more than Murphy, especially once you adjust for the average strikeout rates of the times they played in, but the comparison has some legs. However, it’s also worth considering that since Tony wrote that piece — and suggested that the power spike wasn’t going to last — that Murphy has just kept crushing the baseball, and there are reasons to believe that Murphy might be even more improved now than he was back in October.
Mike Petriello wrote an excellent breakdown of Murphy over at MLB.com a few weeks ago, so I’m going to just borrow liberally from his piece. To illustrate what Mets batting coach Kevin Long did with Murphy’s stance, Petriello included three images in this tweet.
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) April 4, 2016
It doesn’t take a scout to notice that change; Murphy got closer to the inside edge and no longer stands as upright as he used to, as he’s now focusing on trying to pull pitches in the air to right field instead of spraying the ball around the field. And as Petriello noted, it’s working.
Murphy has regressed back towards a more normal Pull% over the last few weeks — he’s at 47% now — so the right-hand column would be slightly smaller if we made a new chart, but the point is the same; Murphy has gone from a guy who rarely pulled the ball to a guy who is pulling the ball at one of the highest rates in baseball. In 2013, Murphy ranked 138th out of 140 qualified hitters in Pull%; this year, he ranks 29th out of 196.
But Murphy has also added a new change this year; instead of just pulling the ball more, he’s also learning to get under it. For his career, 43.5% of Murphy’s balls in play have been hit on the ground, and even last year, it was 42.8%. To start 2016? 26.7%, tying him with Yoenis Cespedes for the seventh-lowest GB% in baseball so far. And because Murphy doesn’t have Chris Davis‘ power — or even Khris Davis‘ power — he’s elevating line drives instead of just hitting sky-high fly balls. This is basically the ideal outcome for a guy like Murphy, as squaring everything while elevating allows him to rack up extra base hits without having to rely on fly balls to clear the fence. That’s how Murphy is running a .265 ISO without any kind of huge spike in his HR/FB rate; lots of line drive doubles work plenty well too.
Murphy’s postseason home run barrage wasn’t a sign of him turning into a classic slugger, but he’s also very clearly a different kind of hitter than he was earlier in his career. And this isn’t a 25 game hot streak. His 142 wRC+ over the past year makes him the equal of Buster Posey and puts him just a few spots away from Ryan Braun, Anthony Rizzo, and Brandon Belt. For over 600 plate appearances, Murphy has hit at an elite level, and the trend over that time is pointing upwards.
He’s still a 31 year old middle infielder, of course, so there’s some inevitable age-related decline coming. And anyone running a .427 BABIP is due for some natural regression. Murphy probably just had his Bill Mueller in 2003 season, and we should expect something more like above-average production than elite offense going forward. But Murphy has been crushing the ball long enough, and has made clear structural changes to his game, that this no longer qualifies as an example of a guy riding the good waves of fortune in a 25 game stretch. Over the last year, Daniel Murphy has been the best second baseman in baseball; he probably won’t keep that up, but he’s done enough to be recognized as a good player now.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.