The Rockies signed second baseman Daniel Murphy to a two-year, $24 million contract last offseason, with the expectation he’d primarily play first base. He entered 2018 coming off two career-years in which he cumulatively slashed .334/.387/.569 and totaled 48 home runs, good for a 145 OPS+. Over those two seasons, he accumulated ten wins.
2018 got off a tumultuous start for both Murphy and the Nationals. Murphy started the season on the 60-day disabled list as he recovered from offseason micro-fracture surgery in his knee. He rejoined the team June 21st, with the Nationals in second place by three games, with a respectable 49-33 record. 12 game later, the Nats were 42-43, and it did not take long before they surrendered the division and traded pieces away to contenders.
Murphy ended up only playing in 56 games for the Nationals, who traded him to the Cubs in late-August. In 35 games in the North Side, Chicago got from him what they expected: a .297 average, a typical 4.8 percent walk rate, and six home runs.
The Cubs chose not to re-sign Murphy at the end of the season, an expected event given their depth and strong second-base starter Javier Baez. The Cubs loss turned out to be the Rockies gain, as Colorado inked Murphy to a two-year deal, figuring his bat would play well in Coors, and he’d give them some mid-lineup power.
Once again, the injury bug hit Murphy, who broke his finger on March 29th. He missed nearly a month, and has yet to find his groove. Murphy has played in nearly every Rockies’ May game, though he’s vacillated between starting at second base and pinch hitting. So far in 69 plate appearances, he is slashing .194/.261/.371, with just two home runs.
Though those numbers look anemic and have raised some considerable concern in Denver, looking beyond the results, Murphy looks like he should be well-suited to soon be the player the Rockies hoped he would be this season. His nine percent walk rate is the best rate since his rookie year, and his near-12 percent strikeout rate is pretty much in line with the most recent seasons.
Although this small sample size yields a pathetic 56 wRC+, Murphy is suffering from a .196 batting average on balls in play, a far-cry from his career .319 BABIP. Adding 100 points of batting average suddenly makes that line much, much better. His 7.7 percent fly ball to home run ratio is not too far off his 8.3 percent career average, but there is likely room for improvement there as well.
Looking at his batted ball profile, Murphy is hitting the ball hard nearly as often as he did in 2018, though less hard than he hit it in his best years of 2016 and 2017. It’s to be expected for a 34-year-old middle infielder, but the ceiling to hit as one of the best second basemen in the league is still there.
ZiPS projects Murphy for a .305/.357/.502 and 12 homers the rest of the way. That type of production is pretty much in-line with what Colorado expected over the course of an entire season. Colorado expected Murphy to play at first base more than second base season, but far this year, many of the reps at second have gone to Garrett Hampson, who has been nothing short of disastrous. Hampson has been a complete detriment to the Rockies lineup; with a strikeout rate over 26 percent, a walk rate of only 4.0 percent, and an isolated slugging of .075 (yup, that zero is in the correct spot), even a below-100-percent Murphy would be a major improvement, but that still leaves a hole at first, as Mark Reynolds has not been good, though he’s been much better than Hampson (79 wRC+ compared to Hampson’s 14). If the Rox chose to start Murphy at second and put Mark Reynolds at first it’s really just a modest improvement.
The Rockies are hovering around .500, which is how FanGraph’s Projected Standings expects the rest of the season to go (the Rox are projected for an 81-81 record). Colorado is unlikely to win the NL West with the juggernaut Dodgers expected to run away with the division, but a true-talent .500 team that is healthy during the summer, and sneaks a few one-run wins here and there is well-positioned for a wild card spot. They won’t be able to do it with Daniel Murphy starting most games and performing as his old self, which is the entire reason they signed him in the first place.
*Ed’s Note: the last paragraph has been adjusted to accurately reflect the position expectation.