Escape from New York: Murphy, Turner now slugging stars

Former Mets mates now at heart of Nats, Dodgers lineups

October 4th, 2016

In parts of three seasons together as Mets teammates between 2011-13, and shared the starting lineup together 112 times in eight positional combinations. More than once, they battled for playing time at the same position while attempting to prove themselves as starters. Usually, they were viewed as supporting players around higher-profile infielders , and (at times) and .

Now, to the chagrin of Mets fans left to wonder what might have been, Murphy and Turner are reunited once again -- this time on opposite sides of the field as star-level linchpins of their respective lineups as the Nationals and Dodgers face off in the National League Division Series (Friday, 5:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Murphy has become a stunning Washington power source at second base; Turner is now well into his third strong season manning the hot corner for the Dodgers.

"I played against him in the [Arizona] Fall League," said Turner, referring to the autumn of 2008 when he was coming up through the Baltimore system. "I knew he was a good player… and I knew he could really hit."

By then, Murphy had made a strong debut in 49 games for the 2008 Mets, hitting a very good .313/.397/.473, but he was struggling with an ultimately unsuccessful experiment attempting to learn the outfield. He'd take a step back in 2009, hitting .266/.313/.427 while playing first base and left field, then miss all of '10 with a pair of right knee injuries. Turner, meanwhile, got into 17 games for the 2009-10 Orioles and arrived in New York via waiver claim in May 2010, as Murphy was rehabbing. He'd spend most of the year in the Minors and didn't join the Mets for good until April 19, 2011, when he was recalled largely to serve as a platoon partner for Murphy.

The first time Murphy and Turner shared a lineup together was on May 12, 2011, though it wasn't until the next day in Houston that the quartet of Murphy, Turner, Reyes and Wright would first join up, with Murphy and Turner hitting sixth and seventh. That particular foursome would start together 14 times that year, before Reyes departed for Miami.

"Justin was always a student of the game," Murphy says now. "I always really enjoyed talking baseball with him," which squares pretty well with what Turner said about Murphy: "We just loved him. You understood how much he loved the game of baseball and how much he loved to talk about hitting."

That's a dynamic that hasn't changed even though the two now operate on opposite coasts.

"I text Justin, we'll probably text once a month or so, then get to see him when we play him," said Murphy. "No matter where Justin is, I really enjoy talking baseball with him and so I always shoot him a text, especially if they're playing a night game and I happen to catch it before I go to bed."

Yet while each had their moments in their remaining time together in New York, neither one truly put it together there. Murphy put up a pair of nearly-identical seasons in 2012 and '13, settling in as the primary second baseman (with occasional cameos at first) and hitting a solid-if-unspectacular .288/.325/.409. That bumped Turner out of the semi-regular second-base role he'd enjoyed in 2011 and turned him into a super-utility player, where he put up a pair of identical seasons of his own, hitting .275/.319/.388 while seeing time at all four infield positions. He was non-tendered after the 2013 season, and would sign a Minor league deal with the Dodgers the next February.

Now, both in their age-31 season, they're two of baseball's most unlikely stars. In his three years with Los Angeles, Turner has been the third-best hitting third baseman (according to wRC+), behind only and , and has set himself up for a big free-agent payday this offseason.

Murphy set home run records last postseason against Turner and the Dodgers, then backed it up after signing with Washington by putting up one of the best slugging seasons by a second baseman in 70 years. He's tied with and for the most productive season by any National League hitter this year.

So what happened -- why didn't it come together in New York? Imagine an infield that had the "best versions" of Murphy, Turner, Reyes and Wright?

"The hunger for success was always there," said Turner about Murphy. "I think he was always a good hitter, but he really turned a corner the last month of [2015]. Figured out he can really drive balls, and this season is really a carry over from the last month of the season and the playoffs."

"I know he got on the plate a little bit more, and it looks like he's actually taking more chances to drive the ball. In the past, he was just trying to get hits."

He's not wrong. As we investigated last fall and again this spring, Murphy moved closer to the plate and began pulling the ball in the air more than ever. His percentage of batted balls to his pull side (41.2 percent) and his percentage of flies (41.8 percent) were both career highs, which has worked well for him -- as we've heard often from hitters this year, you can't slug on the ground.

As for Turner, Murphy praised his ability to make his own necessary changes.

"He was very astute, made adjustments very quickly," Murphy said. "I think that is one of the biggest reasons why he's been able to have so much success, especially in Los Angeles... some of the adjustments he's been able to make offensively, I think to tap into some power that he possessed, but just probably as we were playing together didn't quite know how to tap into it."

That fits the timeline, too. During the 2013 season, Turner's last in New York, the Mets' regular right fielder was , and as's Phil Rogers reported last year, Byrd shared with Turner how working with a Southern California hitting coach to rebuild his swing changed his career. After the season, Turner did the same.

"We did it five days a week for four months, trying to fix [my swing] and get to where I can repeat it," Turner told Rogers last June about that offseason. "Went to Spring [Training], had success."

Now, after all that work (and assuming that Murphy's sore backside allows him to play), it's Turner and Murphy who are playing huge roles as their teams hunt for a championship, not supporting ones. Remember, it was Murphy, not or , who was Washington's best hitter this year. And it was Turner who was the Dodgers' best hitter in 2014 and '15, before being surpassed by 's historic debut in an otherwise solid season this year.

"He was a good player," said Murphy about Turner.

"Definitely not a surprise," said Turner on Murphy's breakout.

Perhaps not, though it sure was to the rest of baseball, to say nothing of the Mets. Once role players in Queens, now they're both fueling one of baseball's strongest lineups into the postseason.

With assistance from's Jack Baer [quotes from Turner] and Jamal Collier [Murphy].