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Daniel Murphy is the real deal

Remember 2015, when Daniel Murphy had the postseason of a lifetime, and the question was how real that breakout was? Eighteen months later, we can say with confidence: very real!

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Thirty-one-year-olds don’t often transform themselves. At the end of the 2015 regular season, it seemed like we knew exactly who Daniel Murphy was. His wRC+s over the prior four years: 102, 106, 110, 109. His profile was stable: a fine hitter, with a bit of power (ISO from 2012–15 of .130) masking subpar on-base skills (OBP of .326). A very useful player, but certainly not a star.

And then, in the 2015 playoffs, Murphy exploded, and played a huge role in the Mets’ drive to the World Series. Across 14 games and 64 plate appearances, he hit .328/.391/.724, with seven home runs and two doubles, he looked like a bona-fide star. The question of who Murphy truly was arose as soon as the playoffs ended, when he hit free agency. It wasn’t made any easier to resolve by the fact that it was his fielding error that ended the Mets’ run.

The market of MLB teams answered the question of who they thought Murphy was when he signed with the Nationals for $37.5 million over three years. To put that in context, Josh Reddick signed a contract with the Astros for four years and $52 million in the same offseason this past offseason. Murphy had been tagged with a qualifying offer, and did require the signing team to give up a draft pick, but nonetheless, he ended up with the kind of contract that flawed or one-dimensional players sign.

All that is part of the reason why I wrote an article almost exactly a year ago speculating about whether Murphy was in the midst of a true breakout. At the time, through 10 games and 39 PAs of the 2016 season, the new Nationals second baseman was hitting .438/.538/.844, and it was getting easier and easier to believe that his postseason performance was not a short-sample quirk, but the product of a true step forward.

We’re now over a year removed from his original postseason burst, and it’s time to say it conclusively: Daniel Murphy is a star. He ended last season with a .347/.390/.595 triple slash, 25 dingers, a 156 wRC+, and 5.5 fWAR, all career-bests by substantial margins. And now, like last year, he’s started the new season at a torrential pace, with eighteen hits, including five doubles and two home runs, in his first 41 PAs. We are barely a week into the season, but already Murphy has accumulated 0.8 fWAR, and sits atop the FanGraphs leaderboard.

I speculated last year that the reason for Murphy’s surge was his late development of plate discipline, but it also appears that he’s covering the plate better than he ever did prior to 2016. For a long time, he did almost all of his damage on pitches high or inside:

Unsurprisingly, pitchers focused their efforts on the low-and-away part of the zone:

But Murphy made a couple major changes right before his breakout. He cut his strikeout rate almost in half, a change that actually started in 2015, when it fell from his career rate of 13.0 percent to 7.1 percent. It hasn’t stayed quite that low, but Murphy is still striking out far less than he used to (9.8 percent in 2016, 10.8 percent in the first little bit of 2017), seemingly because he can cover the entire zone much more effectively than he used to be able to. So while pitchers are still predominantly pitching him low and away:

Murphy is much more egalitarian with the damage he can do:

Breakouts tend to happen in one of two ways. A player erases a weakness they used to have — think of Mookie Betts suddenly developing power, for example — or finds a way to hide or minimize that weakness — e.g., late-career Raúl Ibañez dealing with his declining power by selling out on every swing. The latter type of breakout seems much more common for an old player, but Murphy, despite being on the long-in-the-tooth side of 30, appears to have taken his imperfect swing to a whole new level.

Nobody in MLB believed Murphy’s 2015 postseason represented something truly different for him, as evinced by his meager contract, and the level of disbelief/skepticism toward his performance has (understandably) fallen slowly. Baseball fans are trained to be skeptical in almost every situation, and Murphy’s situation — established, past-his-prime player has a sudden break — looked like it called for more skepticism than most.

But after two postseasons and more than a full regular season, he has given us no reason to think that his offensive leap is illusory or rests on unstable ground. Since the start of the 2015 postseason, in 709 PAs, Murphy has hit .343/.399/.611. It’s time we start thinking about the Nationals second baseman as the excellent offensive player his recent results have shown him to be.