Ted Williams, the greatest hitter that ever lived, preached to hitters in his book The Science of Hitting "Get a good pitch to hit." What does that mean? That means to use one's discipline to recognize better pitches to get the bat on. We've seen free-swingers in MLB who enjoyed long-term success. However, many of the best hitters indeed had plate discipline to get better pitches to hit or draw walks. I don't think that's even a question. This season, Daniel Murphy has shown a different kind of plate approach, and that may be helping his big offensive production so far.
For most of his career, Daniel Murphy was a fine, but not spectacular, hitter. In his first seven MLB seasons (2008~2015), he's hit for a cumulative .288/.331/.424, good for a 109 OPS+. Even though he played questionable infield defense for most of it, it seemed like he would get suitors in free agency for his bat. His value exploded in the postseason when he went flat-out bonkers for the Mets, hitting seven home runs in nine games in the NLDS and NLCS. It was debatable whether that performance was a sign for things to come. The Washington Nationals, who had a vacancy in the infield after letting Ian Desmond go to free agency, signed Murphy to a three-year, $37 million deal. So far, it's looking like one of the better signings of the offseason.
Through May 31, Murphy has been hitting out of his mind. After yet another multi-hit performance versus the Phillies, Murphy has hit .397/.428/.634 with nine homers. Not only is he hitting better than he ever has overall, he's also hitting for much more power. After seven seasons of producing an ISO in the low to mid .100s, his current ISO is .237.
Looking at his approach, it seems like he is swinging less. No, I'm not talking about chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone. Looking at his O-Swing% from FanGraphs, he's swinging at about the same rate of pitches out of the zone (33.3%) as he did in previous two years (33.2% and 33.6%). His Z-Swing% (the rate that measures how often hitters swing at pitches in the zone) is a bit different. Take a look:
His 61.9 percent Z-Swing is the lowest by far since his first full season in 2009 and almost a 10 percentage point knockoff from last year's rate. Looking at his plate discipline data, other numbers such as Swing%, SwStr%, Contact%, Z-Contact%, etc. seem to fall in line with career rates. Another thing that's different for him this season? He's making hard contact more often than ever.
I can't say with 100% confidence that his O-Swing% is directly correlated to hard contact rate - it would be foolish to declare it now. However, it's possible to theorize that Murphy has gotten pickier at which pitches he swings inside the zone. By looking for better pitches that he can drive, he is able to hit balls harder, which leads to a higher likelihood of batted balls resulting as hits.
Did Murphy change how he attacked certain zones? Let's look at his Brooks Baseball profile. Here is his swing rate in different zones from 2015:
and here is one from this season:
The only area where he increased swinging is the bottom middle part of the strike zone - not by much either. What jumps out to me is that he significantly decreased his swing frequency on the inner half of the zone. That *could* be explained by this, his batting average in different parts of the zone from last year.
As you can see, he wasn't great with the inner middle part of the strike zone, where he hit a robust .328 for career before 2016. I'm inclined to think that it's a small sample size thing, but something else also happened. He's suddenly hitting very, very well against pitches on the outer part of the zone and even the ones off the plate. Just take a look:
Whatever adjustment he made to hit outer pitches better has paid off. Throughout his career, pitchers have pitched more away from him, which hasn't changed in 2016. Dave Cameron and Mike Petriello detailed Murphy's batting stance adjustment to stand closer to the plate, which looks like it has allowed him to reach and clobber the outside part of the plate. Pitchers may adjust to Murphy's change, but he's been doing this for more than just this season. For now, enjoy the Murphy show going strong in the nation's capital.
Sung-Min Kim is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score.