Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy is at it again.
The 32-year-old infielder is batting .450 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage that is more than twice the league average (1.188 OPS). This after bursting onto the scene as a member of the New York Mets, hitting seven home runs in the 2015 NLDS and NLCS and defying all expectations last season en route to a second-place finish in the NL Most Valuable Player Award voting with a .347 average and league-leading .985 OPS.
No one expects Murphy to continue to flirt with a .500 average for an entire season, but the end-of-season projections of .315 with 16 home runs and a .846 OPS might be undervaluing his advancements as a hitter, because his improved batting is not a fluke.
Here is Murphy batting as a member of the New York Mets in Nationals Park during the 2014 season. As you can see, he is far off the plate, standing almost in the middle of the batter’s box, with his arms and elbows away from his body.
Here is Murphy in 2016, again batting at Nationals Park, but after switching up his approach at the plate. Not only is he closer to the plate, but you can also notice a smaller gap between his elbows.
Murphy credits Mets hitting coach Kevin Long for these improvements: Long suggested Murphy move up on the plate and reduce the disconnect between his back elbow and back hip, and, according to Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, needed to be “driving more with his legs, moving closer to the plate, getting his front foot down sooner and bringing his hands lower and closer to his body.”
The adjustments are obviously working. Murphy is hitting the ball harder this year (92.3 mph average exit velocity, compared to 91.3 in 2016 and 90.8 in 2015) and at a better launch angle (14.9 degrees vs. 16.6 in 2016 and 11.1 in 2015), resulting in a higher percentage of line drives rather than ground balls or pop ups on all pitch types.
As a result, Murphy’s isolated power, a measure of how many extra-base hits a batter averages per at-bat, went from 0.135 during the first seven years of his career to 0.249 in 2016 to new heights in 2017 (0.275). And he’s hitting the ball harder and more effectively than he has at any other time in the major league.
Plus, Murphy is taking advantage of the entire strike zone. In 2015, his extra-base hits were concentrated on pitches on the upper, inside part of the plate. In 2016, that expanded further to pitches both in the upper and lower third of the zone and so far in 2017, no part of the strike zone is safe from Murphy’s power stroke.
The best way to slow Murphy is to use off-speed pitches. Despite the surge in power, he still struggles with the change-up, batting .235 against with no home runs and 16 strikeouts in 145 at-bats ending on the pitch over the last two seasons. And it’s best to get him to swing on a change that’s down and away, away from his power zone.
But this is nitpicking — no pitcher can give Murphy a steady diet of off-speed stuff out of the zone and risk falling behind in the count, especially not with Bryce Harper batting in front of him. Harper has drawn the most walks in baseball (nine) this season and Murphy has the third-highest OPS (1.073) the past two years with men on base.