Baseball really is something else. Coming into this postseason, there was no shortage of potential playoff narratives. You had the teams with the three best records in baseball, all hailing from the same division. There was the Toronto offensive juggernaut, and the Royals proving they weren’t a one-year phenomenon. There was phoenix-like rise of the Astros, America’s introduction to Rougned Odor, the two-headed Kershaw/Greinke monster from Los Angeles, the Cubs’ young bats, and the Mets’ young arms.
Enter, against this backdrop, Mets’ second baseman Daniel Murphy, who prior to this October drew attention only for arguably being baseball’s most average regular, the game’s equivalent of vanilla ice cream, suddenly deciding to morph into a latter-day version of Babe Ruth.
While the effect of Murphy’s sudden power explosion on the Mets’ postseason run has taken center stage, the near-term future of both player and club has become an enduring secondary plot line. Will the Mets extend a qualifying offer to free-agent-to-be Murphy? Until yesterday, the answer appeared to be no, though the rumor mill is now listing in the opposite direction. Might Murphy accept? The odds of that appear to be declining, in inverse proportion to the possibility that at least one club could lob a lucrative four- or five-year deal in his direction.
Most observers tend to agree on one thing, however: Murphy’s power surge just has to be a fluke. While I’m not going to be the guy suggesting that Murphy has 30-homer seasons in his future, I am going to go out on a limb and state that Murphy is a better player than the 2.5 WAR guy we’ve grown to know and, well, like. It’s just not for the reason playoff observers might guess.
Murphy, 30, was flying under the radar even on his draft day, when the Mets selected the Jacksonville University infielder in the 13th round. Murphy didn’t exactly set himself apart with his performance on the field early in his minor league career. Nothing he did screamed “prospect” until he rolled into the Double-A Eastern League in 2008 and, at age 23, slashed .308/.374/.496 at Binghamton, primarily as a third baseman.
Each year, I compile my own position player prospect rankings, based on performance and age relative to league and level. That 2008 season was the one and only time Murphy qualified for my prospect list, way down at #156. He was a name, someone to be monitored and perhaps targeted in a lesser deal, but far from a sure thing to make a lasting contribution at the major league level.
Later that very same season, Murphy virtually matched his Double-A numbers at the major league level in an 151 at-bat audition. From there, he emerged from 2009 spring training as the Mets’ everyday first baseman. Except for the loss of his 2010 season to a knee injury, Murphy has been a fixture in the Mets’ lineup since. Of course, the club finished below .500 in every season since then before 2015’s fortune. Was Murphy simply destined to be one of those “best player on a bad team” types from which clubs tend to move away once they start winning?
On the positive side, Murphy has been durable, versatile, and has consistently made better than league-average contact. On the negative, there simply haven’t been any “extras,” or particularly exciting aspects to his game. He’s been merely an adequate defender, any baserunning value he brought to the table when he was younger has seemingly dried up, and until last week, he didn’t show material playable in-game home run power. Generally, for players of this ilk, turning 30 only reduces the chances of suddenly stepping up in class.
Very quietly, however, something material changed in Murphy’s stat line this season. While he always posted better than league average contact rates, Murphy made a sudden, dramatic improvement in this area in 2015. In 2014, he posted a 13.4% strikeout (K) rate, which was over one standard deviation better than that of the average NL regular, a feat he accomplished for the fifth straight season. This year, he nearly cut that K rate in half to 7.1%, over two standard deviations better than the average NL regular, and the second lowest among MLB regulars to Nori Aoki. This is a really big deal.
This would be a good time to reintroduce the concept of the “contact score.” It’s a measure I use often for both hitters and pitchers, and it basically measures relative production on all balls in play (BIP). Simply remove the Ks and BBs from a player’s line, and compare production to league average. A position player’s unadjusted contact score, dependent on his relative K and BB rates, has a very direct relationship to a player’s OPS+ or wRC+. Below is some important BIP frequency and production data for Murphy throughout his Mets career:
|POP PCT||LD PCT||C SCORE||OPS +||MULT|
Murphy’s yearly unadjusted contact scores and OPS+ figures appear in the third and fourth columns above, and his annual pop up and line drive frequency percentile ranks appear in the first and second; more on them in a bit. The fifth column contains the OPS+/Contact Score multiplier, which is basically the fourth column divided by the third. In 2009, 2011-12 and 2014, Murphy had a K rate of over one full standard deviation below league average and a BB rate of over one-half standard deviation below league average. NL hitters meeting those criteria had an average multiplier of 106.3 from 2008 to -14. In 2013, he had K and BB rates of over one full standard deviation below league average; NL hitters meeting those criteria had an average multiplier of 101.3 from 2008-14.
Well, in 2015, his BB rate again was over one-half standard deviation below league average, while his K rate dropped to over two full standard deviations below, as mentioned earlier. NL hitters meeting those criteria had an average multiplier of 117.6 from 2008-14. In other words, a hitter with an average contact score gets an 11 basis point upward bump in OPS+ by cutting his K rate as Murphy did in 2015, with all else being equal.
With such a significant improvement in his K rate then, why didn’t Murphy have a breakout 2015 regular season that stands apart from the rest of his eerily congruent career line? First, take a look at his 2015 unadjusted contact score in the table above, a career low 88. Also, look at his 2015 pop up and liner percentile ranks. Very few players have a true talent for hitting line drives; Murphy’s 2011-14 liner percentile ranks of 87, 71, 70 and 96 mark him as one of those players. He had a bit of an off year in that regard in 2015, dropping to a slightly below average 44 liner percentile rank. On the other hand, after four straight seasons of below, and usually well below, average pop-up percentile ranks, he spiked to 77 in that category in 2015.
Now, is Murphy suddenly not a line drive generator? Of course not. Is he suddenly a pop-up machine? Don’t think so. It is very sensible to assume positive regression, possibly significantly so, in both of those line items moving forward. Then there is batted ball authority, which we haven’t mentioned at all as of yet.
From 2009 to -14, Murphy finished in the league average range with respect to average overall BIP velocity. In 2015, his average BIP velocity was over one-half standard deviation above the average NL regular’s. His BIP authority went up, but his unadjusted contact score went down. Now this was partially due to the negative pop up and liner rate trends, but part of it was due to simple bad luck. There were only four other NL regulars with BIP authority of over at least one-half standard deviation above league average, with unadjusted contact scores below 100 in 2015: Anthony Rendon, Gregory Polanco, Juan Lagares and Wilson Ramos. Only Lagares (87) and Ramos (78) had contact scores below Murphy’s, and both were extreme ground ball hitters. Murphy had no extreme BIP frequencies or pull tendencies, nothing tangible to point to except random chance.
Look at the other extreme contact hitters in the game. Of the other 14 MLB regulars with K rates of 10.3% or better in 2015, 10 had average BIP velocity of at least one-half standard deviation below; eight more were at one or more standard deviations below; and two, Jose Iglesias and Ben Revere, checked in at over two full standard deviations below. Four — Buster Posey, Michael Brantley, Yangervis Solarte and Denard Span — exhibited BIP velocity in the average range. Only Murphy’s BIP velocity was at least one-half standard deviation above average.
This is not a guy who should be sporting an 88 unadjusted contact score. Even a humble 100 unadjusted contact score, a bit lower than his 2013-14 marks, would have yielded .294-.335-.472 production, or a 122 OPS+. That’s with a league average liner rate, and league average production on each BIP type. That adds at least another whole win to his 2015 record, and makes the qualifying offer decision that much easier.
By nearly cutting his K rate in half, Murphy has significantly smoothed his aging curve. Eventually, he will go down Omar Infante Highway. His fly balls will slip down from the 95-100 mph extra-base hit zone into the 75-94 mph “donut hole” where careers go to die. He will begin to focus on pulling the ball for distance increasingly more often, gaining a short-term “harvesting” benefit before experiencing long-term decline. His K rate will, at some point, inch into the average range, or even higher.
For now, though, we have a player with a miniscule K rate, a reliable line drive tendency, and measurably above average overall BIP velocity. He’s doing it without excessive pulling on the ground, and the resulting infield overshifts it brings. No, the postseason power spike isn’t real, and he’ll never be even a league average walk rate guy. What he might be is Bill Mueller, who had a similar profile and had a career year, winning a batting title at age 32.
I’m not the biggest proponent of making big splashes on the free agent market; you often wind up paying players for what they have done, rather than what they are going to do. We made what seemingly everyone thought was an astute investment in Chone Figgins when I was in Seattle, and an ill-advised position switch and overall offensive meltdown later, well, there we were. The club who makes a tempered, medium-sized — say, three- to four-year, $40-50 million — investment in Murphy just might get the best years of his career. For once, the guy with the Perfect Attendance Award is the Big Man on Campus.