Fantasy Focus: Daniel Murphy – First Baseman of the Future?

There’s a big hole in the Mets lineup left by the absence of Carlos Delgado.  Which is surprising considering that sparkplug/leadoff man and all star SS – Jose Reyes has also been missing – however his replacement – Alex Cora has actually played reasonably well.

The big dropoff in production has been our platoon of Tatis/Murphy at 1B who are hitting .259/.239 respectively so far this season – with little power production.  While Tatis has been a surprisingly valuable player, with his positional versatility and surprising offensive production in 2008 – he is basically a bench player at this point in his (second) career.

Murphy meanwhile, a player that caused a lot of excitement in 2008 after coming up at the end of the year and immediately getting hot (hitting .313 in 131 ABs) – created great expectations for his 2009 campaign.  While the LF experiment appears to be over for the time being – it was thought that Delgado’s injury though extremely unfortunate, might have the silver lining of giving Danny Murphy a chance to play regularly at an infield position he is more comfortable with.

GM Omar Minaya – even went so far as to state that no trade was imminent and that Murphy was the franchise’s future at first base in any case.

So let’s take a closer look at Daniel Murphy’s disappointing 2009 season – are there any indications for optimism, or have we all just been expecting too much out of this 24 year old player – who has been thrust into the spotlight?

Here’s Danny Murphy’s basic statline so far in 2009:

.234 BA   22 R   5 2B   1 3B   4 HR   20 RBI   22BB   19 SO   .318 OBP   .347 SLG   .665 OPS

Obviously the batting average jumps out of you when you think of Danny Murphy.  He’s a contact hitter who strikes out rarely – even at the MLB level.  So what seems to be the issue so far this year?

“Two Thirds of the Earth is covered by water.  The rest is covered by Gary Maddox…”

– Ralph Kiner

In 2008 – Danny Murphy sported a 33% LD rate on balls he put in play.  Obviously he was locked in and hitting the ball squarely in his brief time up with the big club.  In 2009 that LD rate is down to 19% well below his past season.  Also Murphy’s FB rate has jumped to almost 40% (up from 25.5% in 2008) and of that 40% – he’s popped up to the infield 12% of the time.

Clearly Murphy is pressing, not getting good wood – and specifically getting under the ball.  While Murphy does not possess a speedsters legs – hitting a few more sharply hit ground balls instead of flying out – would help his average quite a bit.  His current approach might be suited for Ryan Howard – but it certainly doesn’t make sense for Danny Murphy.

Hopefully HoJo is in the cage with Murphy working on keeping his swing level and staying on top and through the ball rather than lifting it in the air.

“Slump???  I ain’t in no slump!  I just ain’t hitting…”

-Yogi Berra

Looking a little closer there’s a few good signs with our Danny boy.  First of all he has more walks than strikeouts.  There are only 19 other ML players who can make this boast.  In general BB/K ratio or Batting Eye is a very good indicator of a player who will hit for a higher average.  The conventional wisdom is of course that a more selective hitter waits for better pitches to hit and therefore has more success on his swings.

Secondly Murphy also sports a top 20 contact rate – putting the ball in play roughly 89% of the time.  (Luis Castillo leads all MLB hitters in this category with a 94% contact rate).  While the previous paragraph may imply that Murphy is not making good contact – he is at least not completely overmatched by MLB pitchers.  To me it appears that a small tweak to his swing (and perhaps some more regular playing time – Jerry?) – may resolve the issue.

A final piece to the puzzle is Murphy’s miserable .243 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls put In Play).  The league average hovers around .300 – and while again some of this is due to his increased penchant for flyouts and popups – this is typically a stat that normalizes from extremes during the course of a season.

“Definition of Statistics: The science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures”

– unknown

“I never keep a scorecard or batting averages.  I hate statistics!  What I got to know I keep in my head”

-Dizzy Dean

So what’s a Met fan to make of all this?  First off – the bottom line is that Danny Murphy has shown in 2009 that he has the skills to be a major league hitter.  He displays an advanced knowledge of the strike zone and shows the ability to put the ball in play.  So far he’s been unfortunate with those balls put in play – “hitting them where they is” – but it’s not something that can’t be turned around if he continues to get consistent at bats and make a few small adjustments.  (perhaps being selectively aggressive early in counts – as pitchers may try to get ahead of him more often knowing he is patient at the plate and not a power threat)

It does not appear that anything more that 15 HR power is within his reach – however we DO need to see him hit more doubles – driving the ball into the gaps from time to time in addition to rapping out singles.  (neither of which he’s done so far this year)

I don’t think sending Murphy down makes any sense – as there’s no indication that he is overmatched at this level (at the plate).  While he may not be an optimum long term solution at first because of his lack of power – I think that Murphy will be a legitimate .300 hitter in the major leagues.  Dave Magadan is a very good comparison to Murphy at this stage in his career.  But remember – Murphy is neither as slow a foot as Mags was – and he’s only 24 years old – potentially he has room to improve – and even add a power aspect (hopefully in a legitimate fashion) to his game in the next few years.

*(a small aside – but let’s say you were Danny Murphy in the steroid era – would you take them?  It’d be extremely tempting as 30 HR power would make Murphy a star – whereas his hitting ability only rates him as a potentially good player.  Just goes to show you the quandary/paradox – I think we need to think about this kind of difficult question and how we ourselves would answer before we get too critical of the players that used…)

As in all (most?) things – patience is a virtue.  If Met fans and more importantly management can ride out some of Danny Murphy’s 2009 struggles – we will be rewarded.  Perhaps not as quickly as we would like – but make no mistake about it – Danny Murphy can and will hit.