Sometime between mid June and late July of 2015, something clicked for Daniel Murphy. He transformed from a career singles hitter into a monster at the plate. He now threatens the defense with elite contact skill, pull power, gap to gap line drives, and an uncanny knack for slap hits. He’s an all around threat at the plate, capable of out thinking some of the best pitchers in the game, breaking defensive shifts with slap hits, and pulling even great pitches for home runs. Murphy is difficult to pitch to or defend against, and as a result he’s been one of the best hitters in the game for the past year and a half. This is a remarkable transformation, and very few people could have predicted just how great he has become.
There are a few things you need to know about this guy. For one, he’s a bit weird. I’ve watched just about every game he’s played since his rookie season back in 2008, and I feel like after watching this guy for a few years you see a little bit of everything. Some of the most bizarre displays I’ve seen on a baseball field have included this guy in some manner or another. I vividly remember the first defensive play he made in the major leagues, and I’m sure you can guess what happened, judging by his defensive reputation. He whiffed a routine ground ball, slammed his glove on his knee, and then faked a throw to first base. Just kidding. You might want that to have been his first play, because it’s fitting, but in reality he made a miracle leaping grab in left field that left most of the fans and broadcasters speechless. Oh, and he turned it into a double play, because of course he would. Clearly, that sort of defensive play did not become his norm.
Through all of the ups and downs of Murph’s defensive woes, between the miracle spin-o-ramas, throwing to the wrong base, blind behind the back tosses and balls rolling through the wickets. Through everything fans have marveled and endured while watching him play, one thing has remained constant: his elite ability to put bat to ball.
This is not the story of a player who got lucky or significantly changed his skill set at a relatively advanced stage in his career. It is very tempting to paint that picture if you only casually watched his performance through the years. Yes, he used to be a high average, no power guy. Now he is an even higher average guy with power. It’s weird. Daniel Murphy is weird. But this isn’t about a change of skill set, this is about neuroticism. In order to understand his story you need to thoroughly understand his oddities, because they play a big part in his career trajectory.
Daniel Murphy has always thought of himself as an offense first player. To him, offense means putting the ball in play. Every single at bat you put the ball in play, somewhere, and hope it gets past the defense. He tirelessly worked on his hand eye coordination, bat control, and recognizing pitches. Murphy mastered the ability to flick his wrists to smack a ground ball over the third base bag. He could hit one through the 5.5 hole, or over the shortstop’s head. He could pull one into the right field corner, or hit a gapper. He’s always been a high average guy, because, to him, high average is the pinnacle of offensive success.
Murphy, like many fans, sees players around the league selling out for power. You know the type, batters who swing for the fences every time they get up to bat. Murphy felt those sorts of swings were counter productive and actively worked to eliminate them from his game. He didn’t always succeed in doing so, like any player he would fall into the rut of hitting too many fly balls. Everyone identified this flaw, it was a common talking point amongst fans, coaches, and broadcasters alike, and each time Murphy worked to correct the problem as quickly as possible.
When you look at his career from this mindset, it’s easier to understand what has happened. It’s one of the reasons I love him as a player, I find him to be one of the most relatable players in the major leagues. I, too, hate seeing players swinging out of their shoes on 0-2 counts. I scream at the TV, why can’t you shorten your swing?! Put the bat on the ball! Daniel Murphy is screaming those things, too. Maybe not out loud, but internally. He doesn’t want to be ‘that guy’ swinging for the fences when the team needs a single.
This sort of mindset is limiting in this day and age. Singles are okay, but power ultimately wins games. If you can hit for power, you’re going to help your team win, and Murphy desperately wants to help his team win. At the end of the day, becoming an offensive force, the image Murph internalized from an early age, required learning how to hit for power. Murphy had to make an adjustment in order to become the person he wanted to be. He didn’t want to lose himself in the transition. He identifies as a guy with great contact skills, and any move towards power can’t sacrifice that.
Now, I can’t tell you exactly how his transition started, I can only point to the overarching storyline. Maybe something inside Murph clicked, maybe it was something Kevin Long, the Mets hitting coach, said to him. Perhaps it was a combination of lots of different pressures. Maybe becoming a father helped him. I don’t know. Murphy claims Kevin Long made the difference, but then again, he always acts to shift praise onto others.
However it may have happened, Murphy began to pull the ball in mid to late 2015. You can see the obvious shift in his spray charts. In 2014 and the early part of 2015, Murphy had a pretty equal distribution of hits around the field, with a slight bias towards left field. You see this same pattern in each of his prior seasons as well. He had the ability to hit to all fields, but tried to hit the ball to left center when possible. In 2016, you see a very different pattern. There is a distinct bias towards right field. This isn’t to say he became a pull hitter, he hasn’t at all, but there are more balls hit to right than left. When I see his spray charts, I imagine each of those dots are marbles, and someone tipped the table to the right. Everything rolled a little. They are also, as a group, a tiny bit deeper.
Murphy is still, at heart, that pure contact hitter, but he has discovered that it is possible to both pull the ball and maintain his contact approach. That is the real key here. In my opinion, Daniel Murphy was his own biggest enemy in the beginning of his career. He stubbornly struggled to maintain the image of himself that he created, that of a pure contact hitter, with bat to ball skill as the primary determining factor of offensive success. Put the ball in play and good things happen. The occasions in which he became pull happy were notable low points, and he developed a natural aversion. That aversion has been tempered, whether it be by coaching, mentoring, success, a change of mindset, or a new perspective on life I do not know. But I do know it has worked.
The success we’ve seen with Murphy is real. He has had 900 PA since he’s made these changes in which he has produced a .322/.363/.551 slash line, .380 wOBA, 140 wRC+, and 8.8% K%. His line drives are hit more up the middle, which increases BABIP, while his fly balls are more down the line, which increases home runs and extra base hits. His vertical exit velocity on line drives has gone from 16 degrees to 18 degrees, which make extra bases more likely. His expected BABIP based upon similarly hit balls in 2016 is .336, versus the .348 he had in game. He still possesses the ability to slap hits down the line and through the 5.5 hole making it impossible to employ defensive shifts. Daniel Murphy has become the ideal hitter: he can slap hit, hit gap to gap line drives, and pull for power. He is a legitimate all around hitter.
Daniel Murphy is a weird dude. He’s eccentric, he says weird things and makes funny faces. He will make defensive mistakes that make you want to tear your hair out, and moments later he’ll make a miraculous highlight reel play. This weirdness is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. For so long he held himself back by refusing to allow himself to pull- he only knew himself as a contact hitter. He’s Daniel Murphy, he bats third and he hits the ball to left center. This obsession with bat to ball skill honed his natural gifts into an elite MLB skill. Albeit, a skill that MLB doesn’t favor as much as a few others, namely power. However, Murphy never lacked power. Rather, he held himself from unlocking it. Once he found the key and opened that door, he transformed into one of the greatest offensive threats in the game.
If Murphy were more like other players, he may have attempted to unlock his power too early in his career, prior to learning how to control his bat. Both of these skills are necessary, and, for too many, the temptation to learn power first can often hinder the development of bat control. Murphy did the hard thing first, he learned to hit. Then he learned to pull. This is the old school approach we have all heard from our childhood. It’s what so many of us yell at our TV about when we watch guys strike out. Murphy is a call back to a baseball ideal we all grew up with. He isn’t a perfect player, he isn’t the fastest, strongest, or the most talented. Murphy makes a lot of mistakes, and he readily owns up to each and every one of them. However, through hard work, dedication, and perhaps some personality quirks he has managed to translate every itty bitty drop of skill he has into success on the field. Real, tangible, repeatable success. I fully expect Murphy to maintain this high level of play for however long his body can physically hold up to the wear and tear of each passing season. Lets not forget, he’s only 31 years old.