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It's No Miracle, Daniel Murphy Is For Real

How a few small adjustments—and some familiar feats of belief—helped Daniel Murphy carry his October heroics all the way through to the regular season.

by Rian Watt
Jul 27 2016, 12:55pm

Photo by Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

I first met Daniel Murphy last year on the field at Wrigley, late in October and just a few minutes after his then-ballclub, the New York Mets, had defeated the Cubs to advance to their first World Series since 2000. His eyes were wide, shining with the bright glow of the true believer, and he moved through the space around him with the easy self-assurance of a man who knows for sure that he is, finally, in exactly the place he's meant to be. Granted, it's relatively easy to feel this way when you have suddenly and shockingly become an immortal and all-destroying offensive force. But belief has always been a big part of Daniel Murphy's life, and last October he clearly believed that he had finally become the player he was always meant to be.

Murphy hit .328/.391/.724 that postseason, with seven home runs in just 64 plate appearances, and although his Mets didn't quite reach the promised land—his dazzling ride, too, ran out of gas in the World Series—that fact is that Murphy himself hasn't really left that zone since. This year, for a new club in the nation's capital, Murphy is hitting .355/.392/.620—only marginally off the pace of that magical postseason, except this time over six times as many plate appearances. He is somehow, some way, leading the league in hitting at age 31. All of which leads to this: while down the stretch last year, he seemed to be an especially vivid example of the baseball's wild and thrilling randomness, Daniel Murphy now seems to be the real thing.

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At first glance, there doesn't seem to be an obvious reason why this perfectly serviceable big league hitter has become something so much greater than he had been before. Murphy is swinging at pitches for the Washington Nationals in 2016 at about the same rate he did in previous years—about 47 percent of the time—and making contact no more often. In fact, while he's always been preternaturally good at putting the bat on pitches in the zone, and that hasn't changed in 2016, he's actually been about eight percent less likely to make contact on pitches outside of the zone this year than last. And Murphy hasn't really changed the types of pitches he's chasing, either.

So forget the numbers. Look at the man. In particular, look at how he stands. In years past, Murphy stood fairly straight up-and-down at the plate, and made an effort—a reasonable and even selfless one—to use his knack for contact to spray the ball to all fields. He hit ground balls everywhere, didn't pull the ball all that much, and kept his team in inning after inning by doing so. And it wasn't a bad strategy, as strategies go. It played to his biggest strength, which was his truly elite bat-to-ball ability, and made him into a solid everyday regular on a number of reasonably good Mets teams, and the best player on some bad ones.

When life is good. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

But that didn't make Murphy what he is now. It didn't make him one of the best hitters in the league. Something else did that. And that something? As with any sudden adjustment, there are a lot of answers here. Success has many parents. But one adjustment stands out: Murphy started crouching a lot more, and standing a lot closer to the plate. By doing so, he achieved two things. First, he allowed himself to explode upwards into the ball as he swung, significantly increasing the number of line drives he hit, at the expense of some ground balls the opposite way. Second, he forced pitchers into the outer third of the strike zone, where he could extend his arms and get the ball into the air every now and then. Oh, and he started pulling the ball a lot more. When Murphy mentioned that he'd worked with Mets hitting coach Kevin Long on just this sort of thing last season, it seemed like an attempt to impose reason on October magic. It's hard to dismiss it as such now.

This Murphy is a very different hitter than the previous edition. He wasn't playing to his strengths quite as much—not any more, not really, not when he gave up on using the whole field as he did—but that doesn't mean he wasn't using them. In fact, he was using them exceptionally well. At some point in the last two years, it appears, Murphy sat down and decided to trade in some of his elite contact ability for the ability to hit the shit out of the baseball. And then he did it. And ever since, he has been, wait for it, hitting the shit out of baseballs. Adjustment is nearly everything in Major League Baseball, but you don't very often see hitters decide to move away from their areas of elite strength—in Murphy's case, his contact ability—much less be rewarded for it. And yet, Murphy has. It almost beggars belief.

Ah yes, belief. So where does belief come into all of this, exactly? Only in the meta, but perhaps it's worth mentioning. Murphy is famously and deeply serious about his Christian faith, and when I met him last October he was quick to credit the man upstairs for his success. It was all so new, after all, and the man on the field still seemed in a rather thankful daze. At the time, and given his history, I assumed he meant his thanks for God literally: that he literally believed that a higher power had reached down, touched him with grace, and made him into a better hitter. It's not something you hear about every day, to be sure, but it's also not something Murphy definitely wouldn't believe. Honestly, watching him rake his way through October, it was something even an atheist would give a moment's consideration.

I wonder, now, if I didn't miss something about Murphy then. Amid the gratitude that rang from him loud and clear, and in with the clear humility that joined it, there was also a slightly different note. In October, Murphy couldn't bring himself to admit some portion of responsibility for the changes he had wrought in himself; that would be pride, and pride is a sin. In the here and now, as it becomes increasingly clear that his success is not unmerited, perhaps Murphy should indulge himself. Daniel Murphy has figured something out. It's not all him. No success ever is. But it's no miracle, either.

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