Daniel Murphy never hit more than 14 home runs in a season before hitting seven in nine games in the 2015 postseason, but Nationals pitchers hated facing him. Murphy hit .270 against the Nationals during his career, a strong showing if not an exceptional one, but wore pitchers out with the promise of contact. With a hitter as likely to hit the ball as Murphy is, not just any strike will do.
Over the last five seasons, Murphy struck out 11.8 percent of the time, the 14th lowest rate in the National League. He made contact on 89.2 percent of his swings, seventh best in the league in that span. Murphy made contact with 94.5 percent of the strikes at which he chose to swing.
“He never takes an at bat off,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, familiar with Murphy after years spent playing against him nearly 20 times a season. “This guy always grinds — no matter what the score is, no matter what the weather is, no matter what time of the year, he’s always grinding away and he’s a tough at-bat.”
Rizzo said he does not necessarily see Murphy as a 15-20 home run hitter now, even after he compiled 21 homers in the regular season and playoffs in 2015. Murphy believes the added power came in part from adjustments he implemented with Mets hitting coach Kevin Long over the course of last season — his most powerful yet by home run standards — that shifted his mind-set away from just contact.
“I think early in my career, just putting the barrel on the ball was something I really strived to do,” Murphy said. “Now as I’ve grown and matured and talked to hitting coaches …I’ve realized that just putting the ball in play isn’t necessarily a victory.”
Murphy provided the following example: If he is down in the count 0-1, and the pitcher throws him a change-up, he would probably rather miss than make contact. In that situation, a pitcher has options, so a hitter can’t sit comfortably and wait for a specific pitch. He is reacting, most likely protecting against a fastball while trying to stay ready for offspeed stuff. So more likely than not, he’ll jump at the change-up, or at least not have the timing that is a prerequisite to solid contact. If contact is his priority, he’ll adjust his swing to hit the ball anyway — probably off his front foot — roll his wrists and ground out to second base.
“Probably would’ve rather swung through that pitch instead of grounding into a 4-3 out,” Murphy said. “So swinging and missing isn’t bad all the time — just with two strikes it’s a little tougher because you’ve got no more strikes.”
But if a career .288 hitter not known for his power but averse to striking out isn’t just trying to put the ball in play, what is he doing?
“We’re trying to do damage,” said Murphy, providing some self-explanatory baseball jargon that does not necessarily refer to homers, but solid, powerful contact.
“So how can we do damage? Well, if we get a good pitch to hit, in the zone I’m looking at, get my “A” swing off, then we can do damage. That’s what I’m looking to do,” Murphy said. “Swinging and missing isn’t always a bad thing.”
Murphy said he and Long also emphasized using his legs more, as well as “getting pitches you can be dangerous on,” adjustments he said he plans to continue honing with Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu. Shifting his focus from putting the ball in play to doing so dangerously did not require Murphy to sacrifice much contact. His strikeout rate — which, as outlined previously, was always fairly low — dropped from nearly 14 percent in 2014 to 7.1 percent in 2015. No one in baseball had a lower one.
That strikeout rate spiked in the playoffs, to more than 20 percent overall, a statistic skewed by his struggles in the World Series, when the Royals adjusted and struck him out seven times in 25 plate appearances. When he was hitting homers — three in the NLDS then four in the NLCS — he struck out 15 percent of the time, higher than his career norm, but not by much.
“When you play somebody 19 times, you know somebody pretty well,” Rizzo said. “You know all the pluses and the minuses. You try and exploit the weaknesses. And every time we tried to exploit one of Daniel’s offensive weaknesses, he made an adjustment and made us pay for it.”
Will Murphy’s adjustments yield a more powerful hitter, a drop in contact, or more and better contact? In other words, can Murphy keep hitting as powerfully as he did this October, when he earned suitors, salary, and stole the NLCS show?
“Hopefully some of the adjustments we made can not only continue, but I feel Rick (Schu) and I can add to that going forward and he’ll be able to tell me and see some things maybe I’ve never heard before,” Murphy said. “I don’t know if I can keep hitting home runs but I sure hope so.”