Nationals Settle for Daniel Murphy’s Adequacy

One of the many reasons why it’s challenging to evaluate a front office is that it’s hard to know what to do with intent. All the stuff we actually see is results-based observation. This offseason, the Nationals wanted to sign Darren O’Day, but he went somewhere else for similar money. They wanted to sign Jason Heyward, but he went somewhere else for similar money. They wanted to sign Ben Zobrist, but he went somewhere else for similar money. They couldn’t even finish a deal for Brandon Phillips after Phillips wanted too much to waive his no-trade clause. The Nationals have had several plans, but the big thing they’ve actually done is sign Daniel Murphy, pending a physical. According to reports, it’s to be a three-year contract, worth $37.5 million.

You remember Murphy for his whirlwind October. For sure, it was a hell of a story, tracking the rise and fall of an unexpected superstar. If there was a mistake made, it was linking Murphy’s performance to his upcoming free-agent negotiations. When Murphy was white-hot, I remember reading speculation he could land a five-year contract. When he came undone in the World Series, many wondered how much money Murphy had cost himself. The playoffs were never going to be that important, relative to Murphy’s track record. He’s now signing the contract he was pretty much always going to get.

Murphy turns 31 on the first of April. He’s historically been a solid player, but he’s never been a great one for more than a week or two at a time. He’s a middle infielder with heart but objectively mediocre defense, which is to say, he tries his damnedest, but he doesn’t look smooth. The Mets put a qualifying offer on Murphy, meaning he’ll cost the Nationals a mid-round draft pick, and those get evaluated around $10 – 15 million or so. Put it together and the Nationals are paying Murphy to be worth more or less six wins. And that’s basically how he projects. I know this reads like an oversimplification, because every player is unique and every situation is different, but this is what’s at the very core of the agreement. In terms of just money, the Nationals are probably getting a bit of a deal, compared to other free agents. That’s balanced out by the loss of the draft pick.

The Nationals needed a second baseman, because they like Trea Turner as a shortstop, and Danny Espinosa as supportive utility. The Nationals also wanted a left-handed hitter, which is one of the reasons why Yunel Escobar went away. Murphy checks off the boxes, even if the front office might’ve preferred Phillips. On the one hand, Murphy is happening only after the Phillips deal collapsed; on the other hand, Phillips is a righty, so it’s not like Murphy doesn’t have his advantages. The Nationals were already good enough to make it to the playoffs, and now this should make them a little bit stronger.

Because of the Murphy arc, it’s only natural to want to know what to do with his playoffs. It wouldn’t make good sense to suggest that Murphy just suddenly figured something out and reached a new level. He’s not to be considered one of the best power hitters in baseball. By the same token, it would be stupid to pretend like the playoffs just never happened. Murphy deserves credit for all the good he did, in particular because he homered against the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, Zack Greinke, and Jake Arrieta. I think the right thing to do is to just combine Murphy’s overall 2015 performance into one. Here’s what happens — you see Murphy’s regular-season numbers, then his combined numbers below those.

Daniel Murphy, 2015
2015 Season BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Regular 0.281 0.322 0.449 0.325 110
Combined 0.285 0.329 0.478 0.340 120

It’s a minor boost in average, a minor boost in OBP, and a big boost in power. That shows up as a 10-point leap in wRC+, which is not insubstantial. At 110, Murphy would’ve been tied with Dexter Fowler. At 120, he would’ve been tied with Justin Upton. Murphy gets credit for a .193 isolated power, which would be by far the highest mark of his career. The talk a few months ago was about how Kevin Long got Murphy bringing more of his lower body into his swing. Regardless of whether the changes are easily observable, here are hints in the output.

But it’s not just about the power. See, Murphy has always been hard to strike out, but last year he made a leap. A couple years back, Murphy whiffed once per 7.5 trips to the plate. Last year, he whiffed once per 14.2 trips to the plate, and his strikeout rate was the second-lowest in baseball among regulars and semi-regulars. The only player who struck out at a lower rate than Murphy was Nori Aoki, and Aoki didn’t show Murphy’s pop.

Murphy made an unusual transition: he started making more contact while also pulling the ball more. Typically, those are more inversely related, as you can see with, say, Xander Bogaerts or Matt Carpenter. But while Murphy shaved six percentage points off his strikeout rate, he added seven percentage points to his pull rate. The most similar player in that regard: one Bryce Harper, who did the same thing. Less encouragingly, there were A.J. Pierzynski and Ichiro. In general, it feels like it should be a good thing to be able to hit for more power while also hitting for more contact. It’s just a question of how it’ll sustain.

You can see how Murphy concentrated more on one part of the field. His results by location:

Daniel Murphy, wRC+
Season(s) Pull Center Opposite
2012 – 2014 120 126 136
2015 178 82 64

Instead of being an all-fields hitter, Murphy last year was a pull hitter. These numbers don’t include the playoffs, but the bulk of his playoff damage was done to right and right-center. Murphy’s power has always been to the pull side, but he could at least get hits elsewhere. Last year he lost a few of those singles, and this could just be a consequence of the transition. As the power goes up, the BABIP goes down. It’s not like every indicator can be good.

So here’s where we are: the Nationals are getting a contact hitter, fresh off a career-best contact rate. That’s good. The Nationals are also getting a secondary power hitter, fresh off a career-best power rate. That’s good. Because of the contact, and because of the power, the hitter doesn’t walk too much, and he doesn’t spray the ball around. You can accept that, as long as the power is there. The defense is a weak point, but it’s playable. Maybe you end up in a situation where both Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman need to play first base down the road, but that point isn’t here yet. That’s a future issue, not a contend-in-2016-and-then-see-what-happens issue. Murphy’s defense is mediocre, but it’s not embarrassing.

I don’t think it’s a challenge to see how the Nationals could end up quite pleased with this. If Murphy keeps up his blend of contact and power, he’ll be a helpful player for almost all situations. He could look like a first baseman playing second. On the downside, he could look like a first baseman playing second. And he could lose some ground at the plate, since he’s strong, but not notably so. When you have just enough power, it doesn’t take too much of a slip for those long flies to become outs. Murphy found a good balance in 2015. He helped get the Mets to the World Series. Yet as he ages, he might find the power and contact can’t remain so closely linked.

There are questions, as there are with everyone. The Nationals have their own. It’s not like this was their Plan A. But I think just about every question is offset by a selling point. When that’s the case, I feel like you’re looking at a fair deal. Murphy was never going to get $70 million, and he never cost himself half that money with a lousy final series. Murphy was destined to get this kind of deal. Destiny just didn’t know who would be giving it.





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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francis_soyer
Member
francis_soyer

Murphy is completely underrated and will be a pleasant surprise for the Nats.

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Member
Member
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I love it when people make declarative statements like this. Why is he “completely underrated”? Because you said so? The last three years he’s posted a wRC+ between 107-110. He’s post WAR totals between 2.5 and 3.1 in the same time frame. He is what he is, a solidly average to slightly above second baseman.

My Zombie Dust Clone
Member
My Zombie Dust Clone

What will the surprise be? At this point in his career, I think it’s pretty clear what type of player he is.

francis_soyer
Member
francis_soyer

OK. I’ll say he’ll have at least 2 years with a wRC+ above 120, and at least 2 years over a 3 WAR. And one all-star appearance.

Would that qualify as a surprise ?

Jeez.

Johnston
Member
Johnston

No.

wobatus
Member
wobatus

Tough crowd. Slightly more than expected.