The multiple values of Daniel Murphy

Pending his physical, Washington has inked Daniel Murphy to a three-year, $37.5 million deal. In my research, it became clear to me that by simply adding this one player, Washington has addressed multiple areas of need in a contract that is economically sound.

To more properly spell out exactly how Daniel Murphy is a value “multiplier,” I’ve split this analysis into two parts: his offense and his defense. He’s rightly known for being an above-average hitter, and he’s also rightly known for being a sub-par defensive player. Both of these are simplifications. To wit, Murphy is a fantastic, interesting lefty hitter whose defense isn’t as god-awful as advertised, and who offers Washington more depth and flexibility.

Let’s start with his offensive game. Here’s a comp to open the discussion about the type of run-generation Murphy brings to the table.

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Player A is Ben Zobrist; player B is Murphy. In general, Zobrist is a superior player. He walks more and strikes out less. He generated more FanGraph WAR value in that by a good margin. And he’s been paid accordingly, getting a four-year, $56 million deal from Chicago. He’s also four years older than Murphy. Now let’s look at these players in a slightly different light:

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In players A and B, we have essentially equivalent high-contact-rate hitters. The contact rate metric is self-explanatory – rate of contact made on the ball. The “z-contact” rate shows that both A and B make contact on pitches in the strike zone at huge clips. And we see that neither player swing and miss (hence, “swinging strike rate”) very often. In this table, player A is Zobrist and B is Murphy.

I was going to call Murphy a “poor man’s Zobrist” – a similar-but-worse, low-strikeout, some-pop type of hitter – but I believe that is probably too dismissive of the offensive skill set Murphy brings to the table. He’s not a switch hitter and his on-base numbers aren’t what Zobrist’s are, but he’s no slouch.

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(Courtesy of Baseballsavant.com/Daren Willman)

This is a fascinating spray chart because it shows a player who distributes the ball basically evenly all over the diamond. Murphy’s home run power is almost entirely to the pull side. (Nearly all players show more power when pulling the ball, so this is not a major abnormality.) In general, Murphy has made his living lashing singles and doubles across the field.

A medium-power, contact-scattering machine is something the Nats sorely lacked in 2015. (In fairness: Washington had Clint Robinson, an underrated, medium-contact, ball-scattering lefty, but a guy without an obvious position on defense, and Robinson was also decidedly more pull-pronounced than Murphy.)

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(Courtesy of Baseballsavant.com/Daren Willman)

In 2015, we see a slight uptick in Murphy’s pull tendencies, which actually neatly aligns with his uptick in slugging percentage (remembering that is a relationship between pull and power.) Still, this is a functionally shift-proof hitter. That is a rare and useful trait.

One last aspect to consider on the offensive side of the Murphy equation: he’s a lefty. We’ve heard all offseason that the Nats want to get more balanced, more left-handed. This scarcity of good left-handers is not a mere theoretical problem. The National League East division contains some of the best right-handed pitching in the game. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and (at this point) Jose Fernandez all come to mind. Aaron Nola in Philadelphia is coming on strong, and the Phillies recently added touted prospects Mark Appel and  Vincent Velasquez to their plans – that’s more intra-division righty talent to consider.

The non-Harper left-handed options boil down to the aforementioned Robinson and Matt Den Dekker, both of whom are excellent subs, excellent depth and bench-type players, but not really starters.

The probable starting shortstop, Danny Espinosa, is a premium defensive player who can switch hit with some pop. But generally, Espinosa is just nowhere near Murphy offensively. Murphy’s career OPS (.755) is about sixty points higher than Espinosa’s .692 mark; Murphy draws walks twice as often (a BB/K of 0.495 to Espinosa’s 0.253) and strikes out much less (posting a 12.2% K rate against 27.8% for Espinosa.)

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So Murphy is not only a great ball-spraying contact machine, he’s also a lefty who rakes against righties.

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