Sean Murphy’s Offense Has Reached a New Level

Sean Murphy
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Murphy does not get cheated when he swings. No matter the count, he is going to put up his A swing in hopes of barreling up the baseball. His profile is one of my favorites to watch. Although this type of hitter can be more prone to strikeouts than most, Murphy has managed to maintain a respectable strikeout rate in the last few seasons due to solid bat-to-ball skills and above-average plate discipline. Add solid raw strength on top of that, and you have yourself a career 116 wRC+ hitter. But this year, he has blown that mark away with a 182 wRC+ through 119 plate appearances. That’s an incredible jump that warrants some investigative work.

If I were a hitter looking to improve, I would focus on two things. The first is tweaking my mechanics to make myself less prone to exploitation. In other words, I’d make sure my bat path could cover different heights and depths of the zone so that I can be adjustable to different speeds and locations. The other approach would be to learn with what pitches and in which zones I’m already good at making flush contact and adjust my swing decisions to cater to those tendencies better. These two things are often intertwined, but depending on where a hitter is at in their career, they may focus on one more than the other or have an equal split.

For Murphy, it seems the focus has been more on matching his swing decisions to his strengths, and that has worked very well thus far. Below is a table with his swing rates by pitch type in the last few seasons:

Murphy Swing Decisions By Pitch Type
Year Pitch Swing% Chase%
2021 Fastballs 45.4 25.5
2022 Fastballs 48.2 27.5
2023 Fastballs 36.9 15.7
2021 Offspeed 59.5 42.9
2022 Offspeed 49.4 29.5
2023 Offspeed 51.9 28.6
2021 Breaking 47.8 30.5
2022 Breaking 50.9 31.8
2023 Breaking 46.7 26.8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

This year, Murphy is swinging at fewer fastballs and breaking balls than he typically has, leading to an overall Swing% decrease. In 2021 and ’22, he swung at fastballs and breaking balls 47.6% and 49.3% of the time, respectively. This year, that number is down to 43.0%, the lowest since his best offensive year in the shortened 2020 season, where his Swing% was 41.3%.

The bulk of that change comes from not chasing as often. Murphy’s chase rate on fastballs and breakers have both seen notable drops. For somebody who had a chase contact rate of 61.1% in 2022, this is a big improvement. Most hitters aren’t good at finding the barrel outside of the zone, and Murphy is no different. If you chase less frequently, you take away opportunities for more whiffs and barrel suppression.

As a hitter, if you get better at targeting locations where you know you have more room for error in terms of getting your barrel to the ball, then you can move your batted ball profile towards its optimal form. And that is exactly what Murphy has seen happen so far this season. For the first time since his cup of coffee debut in 2019, he is pulling half of his batted balls (50.7%). In the previous two full seasons, he pulled the ball 39.7–41.5% of the time. Pulling the ball isn’t always the right prescription for every hitter; for some, it risks too much top spin that can drag down your batted balls in the air, or it can mean not making contact when your bat path is in an upward trajectory (rolling over). But Murphy’s best contact has always come when he pulls the ball. Below is a table of all of Murphy’s batted balls greater than or equal to 95 mph and between an 8–32 degree launch angle; the former is Statcast’s definition of hard hit, and the latter is its definition of the sweet spot:

Murphy Hard Hit and Sweet Spot By Direction
Year Direction Percentage
2021 Pull 47.4
2022 Pull 38.7
2023 Pull 50.0
2021 Straight 38.6
2022 Straight 45.2
2023 Straight 37.5
2021 Oppo 14.0
2022 Oppo 16.1
2023 Oppo 12.5
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The most ideal way to display this data would be bucketing by spray angle, rather than using Statcast’s directional definitions, but that data is not publicly available. If this were separated by spray angle, it’d be easier to see that batted balls to the left side of the field are most ideal for Murphy. Either way, the percentages clearly show that he doesn’t have the kind of opposite field power that would justify trying to make that a main part of his game. His best chances of hitting the ball hard in the air is by hitting it to the left side. The following spray chart shows you what this group of batted balls looks like on the field. (The venue chosen for the dimensions is Truist Park.)

If you couldn’t see it on the table, you can definitely see it here: Murphy’s home run power is from the pull side gap to the left field foul pole. Unfortunately for him, this wasn’t ideal for a right-handed hitter in Oakland. According to Statcast’s park factors, Oakland Coliseum has been the third-least hitter-friendly park for right-handed hitters in the last three seasons in terms of wOBACON, whereas Truist ranks seventh. And while home/road splits analysis doesn’t always tell the entire story of a hitter, Murphy’s 106 wRC+ at Oakland compared to 126 elsewhere during his tenure there is notable. Perhaps he feels more comfortable with this approach in his new home, but no matter what, it’s clear this is something that should be a permanent change.

Typically, this is the point in a piece where I introduce mechanical changes as a complement to the swing decision and batted ball analysis. But when I was watching Murphy’s tapes from this year and last year, he didn’t look all that different. See for yourself: The first three swings are from his final month in Oakland last year, and the other three are from his first month in Atlanta, all on fastballs in the heart of the plate:

2022 Swing 1

2022 Swing 2

2022 Swing 3

2023 Swing 1

2023 Swing 2

2023 Swing 3

The setup and finish are both very similar, the leg kick hasn’t undergone any significant changes, and the stride direction is almost identical. All I can say is that things look smoother and more connected. There might be slightly different timing mechanisms going on with the leg kick that has led to a more connected swing between the upper and lower body, but again, there haven’t ben any significant changes. That tells me that the change in swing decision is the leading factor in this early hot streak.

As hitters get older, they often better understand who they are and what their swing can do. There are multiple variables at play with Murphy, but it seems as if he has gotten to the point where he understands the exact approach he needs to have to be the best version of himself. We’ve seen this happen with hitters in Atlanta before, and he is most likely another example. Will pitchers adjust to his changed approach? Probably; that’s just life in the big leagues. But from his perspective, it can take years to get to this point where you know your recipe for success. Even when he sees his inevitable regression from his exorbitant .340 ISO, he will still know what his blueprint is to optimize his profile, and that is huge for himself and his team.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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9 months ago

This trade looked great for the Braves at the time but with Murphy’s improvements, it’s looking more lopsided by the day for A’s.

9 months ago
Reply to  bobulated

Add in the fact that whatever Catcher defensive development voodoo that the Brewers practice has given them really impressive early returns with Contreras, and the A’s are the one team that isn’t making out well in this trade.

9 months ago
Reply to  v2micca

Contreras has caught 7/12 base stealers, which would be amazing in 2023 regardless, but is especially so compared to his previous work.

9 months ago
Reply to  v2micca

I remember being really hard on the Brewers when they traded for Omar Narvaez. They shouldn’t have traded for a catcher who couldn’t catch! Well, it turns out he could and his last two teams just couldn’t unlock it. You know who else suddenly became good at catching after they joined the Brewers? Victor Caratini. And Manny Pina (although he was pretty young when he joined the Brewers, so he could have been like that all along). I have no idea what they’re doing with their catchers but this is clearly a trend.

9 months ago
Reply to  bobulated

Well yes he was always more likely to improve to these levels than Esteury Ruiz