You could be forgiven, heading into last season, for thinking that Daniel Murphy would fail to carry over the magic of his 2015 playoff performance into the 2016 campaign. Many teams seem to have had similar suspicions: a free agent, Murphy received just $37.5 million over three years to sign with Washington. The Nationals were immediately rewarded: Murphy recorded nearly six wins for the club, basically providing a full return on Washington’s investment in just the first year of the contract.
Despite the wild success of Murphy’s 2016 campaign, it’s possible you had your doubts going into the current season, as well. Murphy was entering his age-32 season. His success last season was built in part on a very high BABIP. He doesn’t walk a ton. The projections were pegging him for just short of three wins this year. There was plenty of reason to expect some regression.
Early in the 2017 season, however, Daniel Murphy’s play is dispelling whatever doubts remained about the legitimacy of last year’s breakout.
After just eight games, Murphy already has 17 hits, seven for extra bases. He’s gotten at least one hit in every game, gotten at least two hits in six of eight games — including a three-hit game and last night’s four-hit game. With two doubles and a homer yesterday, Murphy is hitting .472/.486/.778 with a wRC+ of 230. It’s easy to say that it’s only eight games, but if Murphy gets another 550 plate appearances on the season and hits “only” his projected 118 wRC+ over the course of it, he’ll still record a 125 wRC+ overall. Over his last 200 games dating back to August 1, 2015, Murphy has a 153 wRC+ and that doesn’t even include another 86 postseason plate appearances where that number was close to 200. Murphy has been a really good hitter for quite some time, and it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down.
If you recall, Murphy did this exact same thing at the beginning of last season, hitting .480/.581/.880 with a 277 wRC+ after eight games. There were still skeptics at that point, and there were still skeptics a month later when Dave Cameron asked everyone to buy into Daniel Murphy. Over the winter, Jeff Sullivan looked at Murphy’s unique skillset, which includes a whole lot of power and a whole lot of contact. Sullivan noted that, in recent history, only Victor Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra have had seasons like Murphy’s 2016. Going further back into the past we find Hall of Famers like George Brett and Tris Speaker.
In terms of strikeouts and power, the only player in the last 10 seasons to put up a season with better numbers than Murphy’s .249 ISO and 9.8% strikeout rate is Albert Pujols, who did it four times. Pujols has done it eight times in his career. Since the strike, it’s only been done 27 times, with Barry Bonds, Garciaparra, Vladimir Guerrero, Pujols, and Gary Sheffield representing the only players to accomplish the feat more than once. In the last 100 years, the only players to do it with a lower walk rate than Murphy’s 6% were Walker Cooper, Joe DiMaggio, Garciaparra, Al Simmons, and Hal Trosky.
In addition to marking an unusually strong season for contact and power, Murphy’s 2016 campaign was also unusual for the age at which he produced it. Such breakouts rarely occur at age 31. Drilling down pretty specifically, we find that, since World War II, only 52 players between 30 and 32 years old have put up seasons between 5 and 6 WAR while recording a 140 wRC+ or better. That same group of players, while in their 20s, averaged 30 WAR. Murphy, on the other hand, put up just 11.1 WAR during that same period.
Players who had Murphy-like seasons in their 30s were mostly players who excelled in their 20s first. Of that sample of 52 players, only Sid Gordon, Phil Nevin, Greg Vaughn, and Harry Walker had less production in their 20s, and only 16 players produced less than 20 WAR during their 20s.
Of the players in close proximity to Murphy in terms of WAR in their 20s, most showed some inklings of a potential breakout — either by way of a really good season the year before or a year or two mixed in with a good hitting season. Maybe a couple seasons of more than three or four wins. Players in this mix include Julio Franco,David Ortiz, Mickey Tettleton, Jayson Werth, and Kevin Youkilis. In terms of comparables, Julio Franco probably most resembles Murphy, given the combination of hitting profile and rough “shape” of the breakout season.
Franco made his debut with the Phillies in 1982, but then spent the next six seasons in Cleveland. He generally served as the club’s starting shortstop. After the 1988 season, Franco had completed seven seasons. This is how Murphy’s stats in his first seven seasons compare.
That’s pretty close, right? In terms of age, the two are slightly different — Franco was a year younger than Murphy — but things align pretty well. After the 1988 season, Franco was traded to the Texas Rangers. He didn’t see quite the power spike that Murphy experienced last season, but he bumped his ISO up to .146 en route to a 5.5 WAR season. In his first three years in Texas, Franco exceeded five wins in each year, totaling 17.3 WAR with a 135 wRC+. Franco injured his knee in 1992 and wasn’t the same player afterward, but he did manage to play in the majors in 23 seasons over a career that spanned 25 years, remaining in the league until he was 49 years old. The same shouldn’t be expected of Murphy, but Franco might be the best example of a player with a similar profile who had a breakout and sustained it over several seasons.
Daniel Murphy is playing extremely well right now, but he is hardly alone on the Nationals. Bryce Harper and Matt Wieters have been safe more than they’ve been out. The bats of Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth have shown some life, and Adam Eaton has hit well thus far. Anthony Rendon hasn’t done much and Trea Turner is out right now, but an offense led by Harper and Murphy could be one of the best in baseball. The National League certainly looks like it’ll be led by the Dodgers, Cubs, and Nationals. Washington still has to contend with the challenges of a stars-and-scrubs roster, but Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy might be underrated by projections, and if the scrubs — not that Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are scrubs, they just aren’t projected to perform well — are better than expected, the Nationals should be right there at the top of the National League.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.