WASHINGTON – In a year in which 2015 MVP Bryce Harper has struggled, second baseman Daniel Murphy has proved indispensable to the Washington Nationals with his newfound power.
Now Washington must hope Murphy’s recent buttocks strain can heal in time for the National League East division champion team’s playoff matchup with the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
Murphy missed 12 games at the end of the season before manager Dusty Baker summoned him to pinch hit in the season finale, an attempt for Murphy to swipe the batting title from Rockies second baseman D.J. LeMahieu.
General manager Mike Rizzo said he felt “confident” Murphy would be ready for Game 1 of the NLDS Friday, but Murphy is still trying to get comfortable running and Baker isn’t as sure he’ll play, the Washington Post reported.
With All-Stars Wilson Ramos out with an ACL injury and Stephen Strasburg shelved until the NLCS at the earliest, the loss of the Nats’ second baseman could be overwhelming.
The 31-year-old free agent pickup authored one of the biggest breakouts in baseball this year, working his way into the MVP conversation. His unexpected ability to pulverize pitches for power while avoiding strikeouts is at the heart of Murphy’s surge.
Murphy led the National League with 47 doubles, a .595 slugging percentage and a .985 on-base plus slugging percentage. He is the first second baseman to lead his league in slugging since the Angels’ Bobby Grich in 1981 and the first to lead in OPS since the Reds’ Joe Morgan in 1976.
Murphy bashed 25 home runs this year and drove in 104 runs, lapping his previous career highs of 14 and 78, respectively.
“I’ve never really set out to be a home run hitter,” Murphy told Matt Snyder of CBS Sports in July. “I know it’s cliche, I’m just trying to find my pitch and some of them are going over the fence.”
Interestingly, his power increase has not come with a price tag of extra strikeouts.
A stereotype exists in baseball of the “all-or-nothing” slugger, a player who either homers or strikes out as a result of his aggressive swings and approach.
Reggie Jackson, a 500-home run club member who doubles as the all-time leader in whiffs, is a forefather of the role, which lives on with players like the Orioles’ Chris Davis and the Brewers’ Chris Carter today.
Murphy defies that archetype. He had the third-lowest strikeout percentage (9.8 percent) in the league, trailing only low-power contact hitters Joe Panik of the Giants and Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias.
At the same time, he is in the top 20 in the majors in isolated power, which ignores singles and walks and boils down to the number of extra bases a hitter averages per at-bat.
Boston’s David Ortiz led the league with an ISO of .305, while Murphy averages .249 extra bases per at-bat.
Ortiz also strikes out in 13.2 percent of plate appearances though. Who offers the most consistent combination of high power and low strikeouts?
That would be Murphy.
The Nationals’ second baseman is 2.32 times more likely to get an extra base in an at-bat than strike out, while Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre is second, being 1.95 times more likely to do the same. The league wide average is 0.69 times.
In other words, hitters are 1.46 times more likely to strike out than to get extra bases. Mariners centerfielder Leonys Martin is 2.2 times more likely to strike out than deliver extra bases, the worst among qualified hitters.
This under-the-radar statistic is perhaps the only one in the world’s wealth of baseball data that could have foreseen Murphy’s breakout.
Even with his low “traditional” power numbers in the realm of home runs and RBIs, Murphy led the majors in this likelihood ratio last year as well, thanks to his propensity for contact.
Murphy struck out just 7.1 percent of the time in 2015, infrequent enough for him to be 2.21 times more likely to take extra bases than go down on strikes.
For first place that year, he beat out Angels first baseman Albert Pujols, who spent his heyday perpetually atop the leaderboard in this department. As a Cardinal, Pujols led the majors in extra-bases versus strikeout likelihood five straight years from 2006 to 2010 and again in 2012 with Los Angeles.
Of course, it’s hard to strike out if you swing and end at-bats quickly. Murphy waits around for only 3.57 pitches per at-bat, tied for 12th-fewest in the league. The swing-early approach could backfire if he were a less talented hitter giving up quick outs that conserve the pitcher’s energy.
Instead, Murphy’s .347 average is better than everyone’s but LeMahieu’s .348, as the Nationals star is hitting the ball much harder than ever before in his career.
Fangraphs data says that more than 38 percent of Murphy’s balls put in play are hit hard, compared to 31 percent last year and 29.5 for his career. Hitting pitches harder often translates to a higher batting average, as fielders have less time to react to and reach the ball in play.
Murphy said he doesn’t value the batting title he competed for as much as the Nationals’ team success this year, according to Byron Kerr of MASN Sports.
“We accomplished one of our goals, actually two of our goals, I’d say,” Murphy told reporters. “We won the NL East, and we’re hosting a division series as well. So no, the batting title is not something I gave a lot of thought to.”
The Nationals would love to have Murphy in their lineup to take on the Dodgers, a team whose pitching the second baseman crushed with the New York Mets in last year’s postseason. Murphy batted .333 and homered off Clayton Kershaw twice and Zack Greinke once. Both pitchers finished in the top three for the NL Cy Young award that season behind the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta.
Kershaw will take the mound for the Dodgers in Game 1. Soon the Nationals will know whether Murphy will square up against the ace in the batter’s box.