West Palm Beach, Fla. — History, at least of the baseball variety, isn’t made in South Florida in February. And Daniel Murphy, as he took batting practice under a cloudy sky here Wednesday morning, isn’t wrapped up in history, even though he has produced it.
“Hitting is an art,” Murphy said. And yet, standing in the cage, he might as well be wearing a lab coat, toting along beakers and a Bunsen burner. A pitch sailed in, and he swung. “Just inside the edge,” he said. Another swing followed another pitch, and he pointed his bat head to the plate, which he has divided into seven baseball-sized segments. “Two,” he said, making sure he knew exactly which area the pitch sailed through.
“It’s just different,” veteran outfielder Jayson Werth said.
“He’s built himself a real unique process,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
What that process produced in 2016, Murphy’s first year with the Washington Nationals, was historic, and don’t suggest otherwise. Here is a brief list of the highest slugging percentages produced by second basemen since the Great Depression: Jeff Kent’s .596 in 2000, followed by Murphy’s .595 in 2016. Not impressed by power and craving something a little more well-rounded? Then here’s a list of the highest on-base-plus-slugging percentages from second basemen over the same period: Kent’s 1.021 that same MVP season, Joe Morgan’s 1.020 in 1976 and Murphy’s .985 from last year.
(Don’t expand the list to include the 1920s, because then Rogers Hornsby gets in the way. And now I’ve included Rogers Hornsby and Daniel Murphy in the same sentence, and it’s an unassailable sentence. Back to present-day Murphy.)
“He found his formula,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “And a lot of guys never find their formula.”
Murphy found his in the second half of 2015, when he was still with the Mets. He built on it last year, when he was the runner-up for the National League’s MVP. In five previous major league seasons in which he had at least 500 plate appearances, he had never before hit .300; then he hit .347. He had never hit more than 14 homers in the majors; then he hit 25. He had never driven in more than 78 runs; then he plated 104.
“It’s always nice to get rewarded for something that was a little bit new on the way I was attacking the ball,” Murphy said. “But you can’t really control base hits.”
So one pertinent question, entering the latest season full of hope for the Nationals, is: Can Murphy, on the verge of turning 32, replicate the un-replicable?
“People are saying that it’s unsustainable,” Rizzo said. “But I don’t think he thinks it’s unsustainable.”
Regression, of course, is a governing concept in baseball. Murphy knows this because Murphy is a hitting nerd. This is a compliment.
“Some people would be offended,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He embraces it. By no means, obviously, is Murph a nerd. But hitting is for sure a science to him, and he studies it.”
What Murphy studies could overwhelm the impatient and feebleminded. Zimmerman, entering his 13th big league season, believes there are two types of hitters in the majors: guys who keep a clear head and let their natural ability take over, and guys who fill their brains with information. But the amount of information Murphy seeks, the amount he retains, would appear to be an outlier.
“Not a lot of people want all that information,” Rizzo said. “And not a lot them are capable of getting the information and getting it from their brain to their hands.”
Murphy said he wasn’t a math geek growing up. He didn’t spend inordinate time poring over the backs of baseball cards. But there isn’t a day when he picks up a bat and doesn’t consider some sort of number, some aspect of physics. There is an inordinate amount of psychology, too. The way to replicate his 2016: “Try to get a pitch in my zone and hit it as hard as I can 600 times.”
Here’s where hardcore calculations give way to manipulating pitchers through knowledge, experience, discipline and sheer force of will.
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily quantifiable,” Murphy said. “I’m the only one who can judge how engaged I was willing to stay on a particular day. I’m the only one who can tell whether or not the pitcher executed his pitches that got me out, or I wasn’t engaged and gave an at-bat away.”
Most Nationals believe they can count on one hand the number of Murphy’s 582 trips to the plate that were simply ceded last year. Among his teammates, Murphy’s approach and preparation are the subject of would-that-work-for-you sessions in the outfield while shagging flies. The answer: It works for him, and that’s what matters.
Meanwhile, Murphy is honing his focus. He figures that during a spring-training workout, players need to be fully engaged for 45 minutes or an hour — the total time they’re actually working on fielding or hitting baseballs. When games begin, the demand for engagement increases to three or four innings, then expands to six or seven, then full games, then back-to-back games and into the season.
“It’s only three hours,” Murphy said. “Hopefully, you can train yourself to stay focused for three hours.”
And Murphy believes he can. Put his average launch angle and exit velocity aside for a minute. Maybe the skill he has sharpened the most since he was drafted out of Jacksonville University in 2006 — in the 13th round, no less — is how to invest fully in each moment of a game.
“It’s a choice we make,” Murphy said. “I can only speak from my experience, but there’s been enough times that I’ve been running down to first base on a slowly hit 4-3 and realized, ‘Wow, I didn’t look for the ball at all that at-bat. I wasn’t prepared. I just went up swinging without a plan.’ If there’s no plan, there’s nothing to execute.”
Around 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, Murphy walked into the Nationals’ new complex here, dragging a briefcase-sized roller bag behind him, just a man going to work — part science, part art, part psychology, but work just the same.
He is a man, though, who discovered recently that he can perform his craft at a much higher level than he had ever before. He was a .288 hitter entering last season, and he bettered that by 59 points. He had a career slugging percentage of .424 entering last year, and he bettered that by 171.
Is this who he is now?
“He’s not satisfied with what he did last year,” Rizzo said.
Rogers Hornsby would be satisfied with what he did last year. Won’t there be regression?
“I think it’s repeatable,” Zimmerman said.
“I don’t see why he couldn’t do it,” Werth said.
That would be more history to be made, one fully engaged plate appearance at a time.