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Daniel Murphy's long-awaited breakout

The season is young, but there are signs that improvements the Nationals second baseman made last year may finally be paying dividends.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last October, Daniel Murphy lit the world on fire during the Mets' playoff run. In 64 plate appearances across the Divisional, Championship, and World Series, he clubbed seven home runs, or half as many as he hit in 538 regular season plate appearances. While the Mets eventually fell to the Royals (in part due to a costly Murphy error), his .328/.391/.724 slash line remained one of the most memorable things about the 2015 postseason.

Once the offseason had started, Murphy was a free agent, facing an open market for the first time in his career. The consensus was that his performance in the playoffs was perhaps a good sign but shouldn't change any team's opinion of him substantially. The projection systems weren't convinced, with Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projecting him at a .265 TAv, just above the league average mark of .260 and just below his career average of .273, and FanGraphs' Depth Charts (which use a mix of ZiPS and Steamer) projecting him at a .328 wOBA, again just above the league average of .320 and in-line with his career mark of .327. The three-year, $37.5 million contract he signed in the offseason shows teams mostly agreed with the analysts and projections, seeing him as a subpar fielder (-2.4 runs per 600 PAs over the course of his career, per BP's FRAA) with only moderate offensive upside.

But through the first 10 games of the Nationals' season, Murphy has actually improved on his playoff line, hitting .438/.538/.844 (252 wRC+) over 39 plate appearances. (All stats are through Saturday's games.) Per both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, he's garnered 0.9 WAR, nearly halfway to his FanGraphs preseason projection of 2.0 and 60% to his PECOTA projection of 1.5. If you combine his 2016 with his 2015 postseason, Murphy has hit .367/.466/.767 over his last 104 PAs, a torrential pace over a not-insignificant amount of playing time.

A number of potential explanations were offered for Murphy's postseason explosion. At the start of the offseason, Tony Blengino took a deep dive into Murphy's contact profile and noted that Murphy cut his strikeout rate nearly in half, from 13.0 percent in his career through 2014 to 7.1 percent in 2015. Normally, Blengino said, such a change leads to a vastly improved offensive profile, but Murphy hit a much lower rate of line drives than he had over his career. This led Blengino to hypothesize that Murphy may be in line for some positive regression in 2016, as he sees the benefits of his reduced strikeout rate come to fruition.

Around the same time, Jeff Sullivan also looked to Murphy's strikeout rate, and additionally to his new focus on pulling the ball. An instructive table from that article:

In 2015, Murphy sacrificed hits to center and left in exchange for added power to right. The net result was a line similar to his prior three years, but it's possible this approach started to pay off in the playoffs, as shown in his spray chart from Brooks Baseball:

Five of his seven home runs were clustered near the right field foul line, with the other two going out to right-center. It's plausible that the postseason was the first time Murphy's pull-happy approach paid dividends in full.

Now, the Nationals second baseman is a couple weeks into the new season, and while that's not nearly enough time to conclude whether he's made any permanent changes or not, it is enough time to provide some evidence in support of or against these trends from last year. His line drive rate is at 40 percent, far above the 21.2 percent mark from last year, but that's based on only 25 balls in play. Still, it's far above where it was last year, and it ranks fourth among hitters with at least 20 PAs, so it's a good sign. Murphy is also continuing to pull the ball much more frequently, with a Pull rate of 64.0 percent, up from 32.8 percent in 2008–14 and 40.7 percent in 2015.

Murphy has seen 145 pitches so far, making plate discipline and contact measures substantially more reliable than ball-in-play measures, and those are similarly encouraging. While his 17.9 percent strikeout rate is above both his career and 2015 figure, the underlying process is much more promising. He's continuing to make contact at a very high rate on pitches inside the zone, a trait generally associated with low strikeout rates: he's seen 67 in total, swung at 38, and made contact on all but one of those. On the other hand, of the 78 pitches thrown to Murphy outside the strike zone, he's swung at only 14, good for a 18.4 percent rate (compared to 32.1 percent for his prior career), and made contact on only three of those swings. Swings at pitches outside the zone are a tricky thing; making contact on them can actually be a bad thing, leading to weak balls in play and easy outs, though whiffs admittedly lead to more strikeouts. Fewer swings at pitches outside the zone, however, is unequivocally a good thing, and Murphy has thus far walked seven times in his 39 PAs, good for a walk rate of 17.9 percent, almost exactly triple that of his career through 2015.

Mostly, this seems to be a result of Murphy changing his behavior, not the pitchers he's faced being particularly bad or tentative. As I pointed out during the 2015 postseason, Murphy has traditionally done most of his damage on pitches high and inside, leading pitches to focus on pitching him low-and-away. Thus far, 2016 looks mostly the same as 2015 in that respect:

The five squares that make up the low and away out-of-zone were almost 40 percent of all pitches to Murphy in 2015 and have been about 35 percent of pitches to him in 2016. He's swung at slightly fewer of them this season, 17/57 (29.8 percent) in 2016 versus 294/734 (40.5 percent) in 2015, but swings at these pitches are virtually never productive for Murphy:

In 2015, Murphy had 63 total bases on 181 balls in play (.348) on pitches in this area, and in 2016 thus far, he has one total base on 8 balls in play (.125). Again, this is an absurdly small sample, but it's an indication that some limitations on his offensive output remain.

Still, all this taken together makes Murphy look like a player who has unlocked some real upside between the 2015 and 2016 regular season. He is not who he has been for the last 100 PAs, but neither is he the player he was for the several thousand before that. A Daniel Murphy with this kind of control of the strike zone is one who can make the most of his limited offensive capability and force pitches to choose between walking him or throwing pitches where he can hit them. Again, there's no guarantee this is a real change, but based on how he's looked thus far, the Nationals' choice to spend mildly on Murphy might turn out very well.

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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.