Daniel Murphy To Nationals Best Move for Mets?

Now that the Washington Nationals’ signing of Daniel Murphy is official, I have a bold statement: it may turn out to be the best move of the offseason — for the Mets.

I know, I know — if it weren’t for Daniel Murphy turning into Roy Hobbs during that 12-day stretch in October, the Mets probably don’t get the opportunity to lose to the Royals in the 2015 World Series. Heck, it could be argued that Murphy’s hot second half was a major reason the Mets won the NL East. But looking at Murphy’s entire career, rather than a small sample, suggests that the Mets might be better off without him — especially if he’s playing for the only team the Mets need to beat in their division.

We have been discussing the frustrating conundrum of Daniel Murphy here at MetsToday for almost a decade. You may have loved him when he was red-hot at the plate — sheepishly hiding your eyes when he was on the basepaths or in the field — and wanted to strangle him when he was in a 1-for-29 rut. There was never a place to hide him on the field, and it seemed wherever he was placed, he caused chaos and angst — sometimes sooner rather than later (remember the short-lived experiment of Murphy as the starting left fielder? Johan Santana does). Some of you have disagreed with me through the years, but Daniel Murphy — his 2015 postseason heroics notwithstanding — generally provides more harm than good to a team.

There have been statheads who pointed to numbers to prove Murphy’s worth, but I still disagree, not because I don’t believe in advanced stats, but because I believe there can be more to a person’s affect on a game (and a team) than numbers. For example, there is no stat (as far as I know) that washes away Murphy’s contribution to Ruben Tejada‘s broken leg in that catastrophe of a double play attempt (granted, Tejada’s incompetence was just as much at fault, but it’s one glaring example of Murphy’s negative effect on a particular play or a teammate). And I never bought into advanced baserunning stats that somehow portrayed Murphy as an above-average runner; I’m not convinced there’s an accurate way to measure the overall, big-picture impact of running your team out of an inning, or turning a no-out situation into a one-out situation (in which a double play can end the inning). Don’t even get me started on the advanced fielding metrics that once championed Murphy as the top defensive first baseman in the league. Bottom line is that Daniel Murphy rarely hit enough to make up for his defensive, baserunning, and fundamental deficiencies, and often, his presence negatively affected teammates.

Now, the Mets are not only absolved of Murphy’s negative energy, but they will benefit by Murphy’s existence on the squad of their one legitimate threat to the NL East crown. It’s the ultimate addition by subtraction.

Further, how the Mets replaced Murphy amplifies his subtraction (hmm … can a subtraction be amplified?). In Neil Walker, the Mets have someone who is equal to Murphy offensively, bats from both sides, is a better fielder, and, perhaps most importantly, the diametric opposite of Murphy in terms of “baseball intelligence” and fundamentals. Yes, on paper it looks like Walker is not an upgrade defensively, and it’s true he won’t be confused with Brandon Phillips in the field. But what isn’t included in UZR, DRS, or whatever advanced defensive statistic to which you subscribe are the “little things” that can win or lose ballgames, such as being in the right spot for a cutoff, covering first base on a bunt, or making a proper feed to the shortstop to start a double play. Neil Walker isn’t a perfect ballplayer, but he makes up for his inadequacies by doing the right thing at the right time — quite the opposite of what Mets fans experienced with Daniel Murphy most of the time.

Speaking of Phillips, the Nationals’ signing of Murphy underscores their troubled state — which is more good news for the Mets. Daniel Murphy was not the Nats’ first choice at second base, and signing him to a three-year deal looks desperate. Like the Mets, Ben Zobrist was first on Washington’s list, and when he opted for Chicago, it seemed as though it was a blessing in disguise when DC had a deal in place for Brandon Phillips. Yes, blessing in disguise, at least from a financial standpoint. Phillips is due $27M over the next two years, compared to the four-year, $56M deal given to Zobrist. You could argue that Zobrist will outperform Phillips in 2016 and ’17 but I’m not so sure. Going purely by offensive stats, Zobrist has the advantage, but looking at both players overall as second basemen (which is where Zobrist likely would have seen most of his action in DC), I would tend to think the two would be very close. I also am always guarded in projecting veteran players who change leagues for the first time — for many, there has been an adjustment period due (I suppose?) to unfamiliarity with the new league’s pitchers and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Zobrist struggle a bit in his first year in the senior circuit.

But all that is moot, because Phillips chose to stay in Cincinnati, forcing the Nats to make a move they may not have preferred — signing Daniel Murphy. That’s key to why I believe they’re troubled: they HAD TO make a move, and desperate teams make poor decisions. DC already lost Jordan Zimmerman, walked away from Doug Fister and Ian Desmond, traded Yunel Escobar, seem to have cut ties with Denard Span, and similarly appear disinterested in having Matt Thornton, Nate McLouth, and Casey Janssen return. That’s a large piece of the puzzle that was supposed to dominate all of the NL per prognosticators last spring. Prior to signing Murphy, they spent most of the winter rebuilding the bullpen but striking out in all other areas that needed to be addressed. After signing Murphy, they quickly snapped up Stephen Drew to be Murphy’s good-field, no-hit alter ego (another problem with Murphy — having him requires an extra roster spot for a glove man). The Nats still have other position-player needs, and there’s the elephant that won’t leave the room known as Drew Storen / Jonathon Papelbon. After missing on Zobrist and Phillips, it was urgent to get the second base question out of the way so the front office could focus on equally pressing matters.

On the flip side, maybe the Nationals won’t do much more prior to spring training. Perhaps GM Mike Rizzo learned from his mistake last year of assembling a kick-ass roster on paper, only to find out that ownership would refuse to budge on the budget when a rash of injuries and underperformance called for mid-season additions. Maybe Rizzo will go into 2016 as-is, saving his cash and bullets for in-season moves — should they become necessary. Regardless, it appears they’ll have Daniel Murphy causing chaos, and that’s good for the Mets. Just don’t get all bent out of shape when “the Murph” comes up with a clutch hit to beat the Mets. When it occurs — and it will at some point in the 19 games vs. the Nats — take a deep breath and console yourself knowing that over the course of 162 games, Daniel Murphy will help the Nationals lose more, and his absence will help the Mets win more.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. DaveSchneck January 6, 2016 at 9:00 pm
    Happy New Year, Joe. Glad to see you are the same old JJ, and your first effort of 2016 is spot on, IMHO.

    Murph has the allure of the everyman, complete with emotion, and his playoff streak will forever hold its own spot in my Met memories. But, the bottom line is, the Mets are better with Walker/draft pick than with Murphy/Niese, and especially Murph on a 3 year deal.

    I am not as anti-advanced stats as you appear, but I agree totally the the negatives of Murph’s on field misadventures are both hard to quantify and very damaging to producing winning baseball at the professional level.

    I won’t like seeing Murph in a Natjerset 19 times a year, and he may put up a 20 HR .300+ season, but consistent profession-caliber fielding and baserunning from 2B will better serve the ball club.

    • Joe Janish January 8, 2016 at 11:06 pm
      Thank you, Dave, it’s appreciated.

      I’m not so much “anti-advanced stats” as much as I feel that there needs to be a balance of stats and old school evaluation. One does not rule out the other, and it takes both to fully understand a player’s value (IMHO).

  2. argonbunnies January 7, 2016 at 6:44 am
    Yay! Good to hear from you, Joe. I basically agree with what you wrote, though I think you might be short-changing the value of putting a warm body out at second base who provides above-league-average offense. In the end, though, I am happy to see Murph gone. Rooting against him in a Nats uniform will feel weird, though — it’ll probably make it harder for me to “just remember the good times”. Oh well…

    Re: baserunning stats, I agree that WAR’s “baserunning runs” doesn’t do a great job accounting for baserunning’s actual impact on games. As with many things, I like Win Probability Added better. When Murphy makes the third out at third base, WPA describes just how much likelihood-of-winning-that-game was just lost. Whether that number goes next to Murphy’s name in the advanced stat line… well, looking at how baseball-reference relates all its WPA numbers to “batting runs”, I guess probably not. Perhaps there’s some difficulty assigning credit/blame on fielder’s choice plays so they just punted baserunning entirely. That’s a shame! I’d love to see how many games Vince Coleman won with his legs in ’85-’87, and it’d be satisfying to have a number to point to for Murph’s ineptitude with the Mets. Oh well. I guess we’ll have to wait until the Baseball Info Solutions people who are out there watching games and noting Good/Bad Fielding Plays start noting Good/Bad Baserunning Plays too.

    Hey, Mets might want some more bullpen options, and you just mentioned two: Jansen and Thornton. Despite being old, Thornton is one of the more consistent lefties in the game, and I believe someone called out his excellent mechanics for contributing to his longevity and lasting velocity. Jansen’s the opposite, a high-upside guy who’s a buy-low candidate coming off a bad year.

  3. Andy January 7, 2016 at 2:04 pm
    It’s mystifying to me that Murph’s highest bidder was not an American League team. One would think his greatest value would be as a DH most games, with availability as an emergency/backup infielder.
    • Joe Janish January 8, 2016 at 11:08 pm
      Good point, Andy. Then again, maybe he did have AL offers but didn’t want to be a DH.
  4. Andy January 7, 2016 at 2:20 pm
  5. Murder Slim January 7, 2016 at 6:24 pm
    I’m very “bah humbug” over the Ho, Ho, Hot Stove, but the Mets upgrading at 2B was a nice move. Couldn’t agree more with the addition via subtraction argument. I sweated out the Qualifying Offer for Murphy, fearful he might even accept the thing. It was like playing a game of chicken and hoping he swerved first. Over $15m for essentially a replacement level player? Urgh. His Nats salary is ludicrous for the quality of play it will return, and the Mets have got a quality player in Walker. Bravo Metsies!
  6. Ninemoreouts January 8, 2016 at 3:17 pm
    Interesting article. I agree with the overall thesis. I do think, however, that Murphy has a great baseball mind, just that he locks up in the heat of battle. It was most evident during post-game interviews during the playoffs. Murphy had a picture perfect memory of every pitch and situation. I think he’ll make an excellent coach one day.

    Also, I don’t think his teammates would accuse him of contributing “negative energy.” From what I can tell, he was a positive, supportive teammate.

    • argonbunnies January 8, 2016 at 6:28 pm
      Yeah. “Negative energy” wasn’t the best choice of phrase. I think Joe was talking about that feeling on the field when you’re all focused and intent on winning and then there’s a big moment and you’re about to convert and achieve a good position to win the the game, and then your teammate does something dumb and messes it up. Maybe “let down” is a better word choice?
      • Joe Janish January 8, 2016 at 11:25 pm
        Hmm … maybe you’re both correct that “negative energy” wasn’t the best way to describe the way I feel about Murphy. But I felt it was nicer than saying “a poison,” which is truly the first thing that comes to mind.

        My point wasn’t that players felt a negative energy when he was on the field, but rather that he caused negative energy (i.e., was poisonous). For example, maybe Ruben Tejada didn’t feel any negative energy when he was upended by Chase Utley, but a major reason that play went the way it did was because of the way it was started by Daniel Murphy.

        Further, I strongly disagree with the notion that Murphy has a “great baseball mind” — at least in terms of applying whatever “baseball intelligence” he has to execution in the field and on the basepaths (I’m not going to argue whether he’s a student of the game; that’s a different thing). He has consistently made wrong, bad, and sometimes harmful decisions (again, Tejada’s broken leg a glaring example). “Smart” fielders know when to “eat” the baseball, and when to take the extra base. Murphy nearly always attempts to make plays even when they are impossible. Perhaps that is considered by some to be “aggressiveness” but I deem it “reckless abandon” and prefer players who exercise “controlled aggression.”

    • argonbunnies January 8, 2016 at 6:33 pm
      Interesting thought on coaching! Murphy is one of the more engaging “talkers about baseball” I have heard among interviewed players. Whether he has any wisdom, I don’t know, but he certainly is good at putting his thoughts into entertaining words.

      I think perfectly remembering pitches and situations isn’t all that rare for hitters, though. Keith remembers pitches he hit 35 years ago.

      Actually, whoa, you know what Murphy would be great at? Broadcasting. Him and Anthony Recker and Vic Black would make a fantastic color commentary team.

    • argonbunnies January 8, 2016 at 6:35 pm
      Maybe I’ve been spoiled by 12 years of David Wright, but it seems to me that Mets players usually have something sensible to say about baseball plays when asked. The one big exception is Harvey’s defensiveness. I still can’t get over him calling his Ball 4 slider to the leadoff man in the 9th inning of a 2-run game “a good pitch”.
      • DaveSchneck January 8, 2016 at 9:23 pm
        Harvey was right. It was a “good pitch”. For the Royals. It helped them win the WS. Hopefully he reconsiders for the future.

        2016 is a new year. Murph is now the enemy. He is a very tough player to sum up…I have been following MLB for over 4 decades and I can’t recall ever seeing any one player make so many egregious mental mistakes on the field. Vapor lock can explain one or two, but not dozens and dozens.

        • argonbunnies January 9, 2016 at 11:56 pm
          I hope the Mets benefit from some of those mistakes!

          I wonder if they can concoct an approach to maximize those. Murph’s not inattentive, so you don’t want to just try for extra bases or something; what you want to do is force him to make choices, as he often makes the wrong one. So maybe, I dunno, if you pop up a bunt to him, don’t quite run it out (but don’t stand in the box either), because he’ll get caught up thinking about trying to turn two and then botch something?

          Perhaps not. Perhaps just play the game right and then Murphy will do whatever he’s gonna do.

  7. remember1969 January 8, 2016 at 10:10 pm
    Joe, interesting thinking here. I don’t think I can disagree with your premise, but there are three things that scare me. First, my thinking is that the Nats will actually end up with Murphy at third and Rendon at second. I believe I read somewhere that Rendon actually came through the minors as a 2nd baseman and it is his stronger postion. Murph’s stronger position is 3rd (altho I have no backup stats for that statement), but certainly getting him out of the middle of the infield would be a win for Washington. Second, I don’t know how much of a difference a manager has on a player such as Murphy, but I consider Dusty Baker to be a much better manager than Collins, and may actually be able to minimize some of the issues you have had with Murphy. Lastly, I actually believe that Murphy’s second half of 2015 was not really an outlier – his new found power is here to stay – certainly not every game, but in Washington’s neutral to hitter friendly park, I can see Murphy hitting 25 to 30 homers, although it will depend on where he is hitting in the lineup. I suspect he’ll be hitting 2nd which would be his optimal spot, but if they have him behind Harper at all (meaning he would probably be hitting 6th), he’ll lose a lot of pitches to hit.
    • Joe Janish January 8, 2016 at 11:45 pm
      Good points, though I really believe Murphy’s second half was more about the combination of him being in hot streaks AND the presence of “Babe” Cespedes.

      There is something to the old-school notion of a player “carrying a team on his back,” in that when a monster slugger like a Cespedes (or Upton, or Reggie Jackson, et al) gets hot, everyone else in the lineup can benefit. A big part, of course, is that pitchers pitch differently to the other batters around the slugger in an effort to keep free passes to a minimum, and a highly aggressive hitter like Murphy is exactly the type that can benefit the most. Secondly, I do believe (and have experienced) the phenomena of one hitter’s streak rubbing off on others. I believe it has to do with confidence — when one guy is going well, his teammates can feed off of him and raise their individual and collective confidence. Anyone who has played a sport knows that level of confidence is directly related to performance.

      Murphy has big holes in his swing that are easily attacked — namely, up in the zone. Now that he became world-famous for all the homerun hitting, I guarantee that every pitcher in the NL will be know not to feed him anything down and in, and will be aware they can tie him up if they go up and in or get him to pop up on something up and away. His homeruns had more to do with mistakes and “cookies” IMHO than a newfound power surge. Players generally don’t become homerun hitters at age 30 without some “help” (Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Brady Anderson — I’m looking at you).

      Interestingly, there was a piece talking about Murphy’s “changed approach” that led to the postseason homerun surge:

      I don’t know that I buy into that as anything more than hype, and I don’t expect Murphy to sustain it and suddenly become a 25-homer guy. The swinging and missing / strikeout thing in that article doesn’t make sense to me, since he had a career high for HRs in 2015 alongside a career low in Ks. Someone who gets as many ABs as he has had, and constantly puts the ball in play, and refuses to take walks, SHOULD run into 10-15 balls that go over the fence.

      • remember1969 January 10, 2016 at 12:37 pm
        Again, I mostly agree with your thoughts on this, but as an observation, he is moving from a 2nd half of 2015 where he had “Babe Cespedes” to a 2016 where he will have a full year of “Babe Harper”. Although their total line-up isn’t particular ‘long’ or deep, depending on where he/they hit in the lineup, Harper could be that catalyst for Murph for the entire season. Overall though, I do like Walker and a draft pick (perhaps 2 draft picks if they QO him next year) over Murphy and Niese.
        • Joe Janish January 10, 2016 at 1:25 pm
          That is a good point about Harper, though it depends on Murphy hitting first or second in the order — which isn’t out of the question considering the Nats’ lack of on-base guys. If it turns out the the 1 and 2 slots are some combination of Rendon, Werth, Revere, Turner, or others, then Murphy likely is hitting 6th or 7th and not benefiting from hitting in front of Harper. Again, not impossible, but it would require Rendon not being Rendon and/or the Nats not finding a decent leadoff man. We’ll see!
    • argonbunnies January 10, 2016 at 12:04 am
      Good points — Baker might get Murphy to chill out and thus play a little less stupid, and playing 3rd would reduce the harm he causes on D.

      I think that, if Murphy sticks with the changes he made late last year, he will indeed hit more HRs, but I think it’ll open up new holes that some pitchers can exploit. I agree with Joe that he got a lot of cookies last October. Most of those “down and in” pitches he crushed were actually down and middle. The Royals showed that if you ACTUALLY get the ball in on Murphy, he can’t touch it.

      If he moves back off the plate a bit to combat this (I’m pretty sure he was closer to the plate in October than ever before), then the power might depart too. So, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a different sort of stat line out of Murphy than in years past, but I would be surprised if it were better across the board.

  8. DanB January 11, 2016 at 10:08 am
    Surprised that with all these Murphy comments, nobody mentioned Wright’s famous quote, to paraphrase, that Murphy ran the bases as if he thought he was invisible.
    • Gregg from Hoboken January 14, 2016 at 8:10 am
      What a great, descriptive line.
    • argonbunnies January 14, 2016 at 6:19 pm
      I was looking for that quote and couldn’t find it! I will try harder now.
    • argonbunnies January 14, 2016 at 6:22 pm
      Sometimes [Murphy] thinks he’s invisible and you have to remind him, “People can see you.”

      -David Wright

      • Gregg Of Boken January 14, 2016 at 6:34 pm
        I recall listening to Ron in the booth after a typical “Murphing”. Ron’s explanation was along the lines of “Daniel Murphy is always trying to do extraordinary things — when the ordinary would have been just fine.”