Murphy thriving with new approach at plate
Mets infielder posted lowest strikeout rate among big leaguers this season
Before Daniel Murphy became the hero of NLDS Game 5, he was known mostly for his tremendous consistency. Whether you prefer a traditional stat like batting average (.291-.286-.289-.281 from 2012-2015) or a more advanced one like Weighted Runs Created Plus (103-107-110-110, where league average is pinned to 100), the result is that Murphy has seemingly offered more or less the same hitting production each year.
But despite the similar results, this isn't the same old Murphy at all. This Murphy cut his strikeout rate in half while increasing his power by putting up his best full-season slugging percentage, a rare combination. This Murphy was more aggressive, and made more contact, both good and bad. This Murphy was still a valuable player, as we've seen. He's just a very different one.
Let's start with the change in contact rate, because it's impressive. Murphy struck out 13.4 percent of the time in 2012, 13.6 percent in 2013, and 13.4 percent in 2014, which is to say, consistent. A total of 223 players had at least 1,000 plate appearances over those three seasons, and Murphy's strikeout rate was an unremarkable 42nd, similar to Pablo Sandoval and Ben Zobrist.
Now, look at the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 and notice who's got the lowest strikeout rate: Murphy, by a decent amount.
Lowest strikeout percentage, 2015
1) Murphy, 7.1%
2) Andrelton Simmons, 8.2%
3) Buster Posey, 8.3%
4) Michael Brantley, 8.6%
5) Jose Altuve, 9.7%
By itself, that would be merely a curiosity, except that Murphy also had a career-high 14 homers despite having his fewest plate appearances since 2011. (He missed several weeks with a left quad strain.) That's unusual, because for many hitters, cutting down on strikeouts also cuts down on power, or vice versa. For example, St. Louis' Matt Carpenter hit more homers this year (28) than he'd had in his entire career prior to this year (25), but saw his strikeout rate jump from 15.7 percent to 22.7 percent in an effort to do so.
Murphy made a few pretty specific changes to his game that allowed him to look so different. First, after getting off to a brutal start to the season (he hit just .189 with a 62 wRC+ in April), he worked with first-year hitting coach Kevin Long in an effort to stand closer to the plate. That's not just lip service; by comparing a plate appearance against Zack Greinke last August to one from Thursday night, you can very clearly see the difference:
The change was made simply so that pitchers would stop taking advantage of Murphy's inability to get to balls away, as he'd hit just .158 against balls on the outer third of the strike zone in April and .355 on other strikes.
It worked for the remainder of the regular season, and you might say that it worked out well for him in the postseason, too, as this hit chart (from the hitter's perspective) shows -- he feasted on pitches outside. By looking at Murphy's Statcast™ exit velocity, we can also see that outer-third strikes left the bat at 92 mph or more from top to bottom, while inner-third strikes were below 90 mph unless they were particularly low.
In addition, Long played a big part in Curtis Granderson's productive season by helping Granderson be more aggressive, and that's the case here as well. In 2013, Murphy offered at 11.4 percent of first pitches, and last year that was up slightly to 12 percent. This year, it jumped to 13 percent, and it paid off for him, as he hit .389/.389/.578 when swinging at the first pitch.
Those are all positive steps, and you're probably now wondering why, with all of that good work, his overall value didn't really change. That's because while it's of course true that Murphy made more contact, not all contact is good contact. You can see that in his Batting Average on Balls in Play mark, which mirrors his strikeout percentage in that it was very consistent over the previous few years -- .329, .315, .322 -- and then became a complete outlier this year, dropping to .278.
That's because while Murphy didn't expand his zone, swinging at roughly the same amount of non-strikes as usual, he made contact with more pitches of all stripes. That is, he made slightly more contact on strikes (up two percent), but much more contact on non-strikes (up six percent). It tends to be difficult to make good contact on those "pitcher's pitches," and it's no different here, as Murphy hit just .238 on those non-strikes.
Of course, this isn't intended to show that Murphy is a superstar, because he's not, despite Game 5. He's a solidly above-average hitter, just like he's always been. He's just getting to that same place in a very different way. Since the Mets will kick off their first NLCS in nearly a decade tonight at 7:30 ET on TBS, you have to imagine they're more than OK with the new Murphy, even if he feels like the old Murphy.