It seems like every year there are a couple of home grown, mostly unknown, young minor leaguers who come up through the system and have success in the Major Leagues, at least for a little while. The newspapers and fans traditionally laud the success of these players because of their heart, scrap, and grittiness -- the holy trinity of intangibles (In the name of the Jeter, and the Eckstein, and the Pedroia Amen. Let us play). Every once in a while these players are actually good players and they have continued success and they blossom into excellent ballplayers. Other players are small sample size wonders who get abused and beaten once legitimate pitchers figure out their weaknesses. These players rarely recover and become utilitymen, career minor leaguers, or they are out of baseball entirely.
After watching the 2009 season it appears that Daniel Murphy is a member of the second, much less illustrious club.
Drafted in the 13th round from Jacksonville University in 2006, Murphy was brought up to the major leagues in 2008 after Marlon Anderson was put on the disabled list. He then went on an absolute tear, batting .313/.397 with an OPS of .871, an impressive little 131 at bat season. The New York sports radio was abuzz with the sounds of excited Mets fans. Murphy was praised for his gritty play, his intangibles. He drew comparisons to Don Mattingly and other great players. For all intents and purposes Daniel Murphy was someone to be excited about.
During Spring Training, it looked like his success would carry into this season. Murphy worked on his hitting with 3rd base coach Razor Shines, spending hours hitting balls. Reports were stated that he looked great hitting, making good contact and driving the ball. Comparisons once again flew in, this time saying that he looked like the best home grown hitter since David Wright. Could this be true? Could the 13th round pick from a tiny Division I school really become something great?
The answer quite simply is no. Murphy has completely fallen off the map this season. He has had almost triple the at-bats compared to last season and his batting average and OPS have both significantly dropped (batting average dropped nearly 60 points while his OPS has dived 171 points south). This is a much more significant sample compared to what the Mets saw last season and more accurately reflects the production that Murphy is capable of.
Murphy's platoon splits are off the chart. Against right handed batters, Murphy is merely okay this season with .263/.324/.387 (compared to last season: .306/.391/.455). Murphy is completely lost against left handed pitching, only hitting .233/.269/.384. While his slugging is the same, he cannot hit nor walk against left handed pitchers. His offensive production is actually hurting the team, since both his WAR (wins above replacement, a statistic that measures how many wins better a player is compared to a replacement, league average player) and RAR (runs above replacement, the amount of runs Murphy will score more than a replacement player) are both in the negative. His poor hitting is actually costing the Mets runs.
So why did Daniel Murphy fall off a cliff so quickly? He looked so promising last season and now statistically obsessed bloggers are writing about how useless he is. What caused this change?
The secret to Daniel Murphy's great 2008 season was his inflated BABIP. His BABIP in 2008 was .386 almost one hundred points above average. He was, plain and simple, insanely lucky at the plate. Once his sample size increased and his BABIP normalized (at .285 this season) he fell back down to earth. Also, he is hitting more fly balls than last season and his line drive percentage is down. Line drives have a higher chance of falling in for hits rather than pop flies so that could explain why his BABIP has normalized. In fact after analyzing his peripheral statistics, this season mirrors last season. His K/BB ratio is almost exactly the same and his contact percentages are only off a little bit from last season. Luck had almost everything to do with last season's success.
The honeymoon with Murphy should be over. This is who Daniel Murphy is: a decent defensive 1B (UZR 150: 2.0) who can't get on base against southpaws, is merely okay against righties, hits for almost no power, and most importantly isn't using his strength of hitting line drives. Perhaps Daniel Murphy could have success as an off the bench guy or a utility infielder but he should not factor into any plans for the future at first base unless he can figure out his hitting again.
While it's disappointing to realize that Murphy isn't Don Mattingly, his story might become even better if he can somehow improbably put it all back together again and have success in the future. At this point, however, it doesn't look like that's going to happen.