NEW YORK — One could say that Daniel Murphy’s first at-bat of each game begins somewhere just beyond the infield, sometime just before game time, when he picks up his glove to play catch with Danny Espinosa. Murphy spends that game of catch focusing on the ball as it leaves Espinosa’s hand and heads his way.
When the first baseman throws groundballs around the infield, Murphy follows the ball to shortstop Espinosa and back, to third baseman Anthony Rendon and back, to his own glove and back. If he starts focusing on the ball early, engaging his eyes — “seeing it big,” in hitter speak — Murphy believes he will do the same at the plate. The scout who signed him used to tell him “see it big.” Now, he tries to do so.
As the Washington Nationals’ all-star second baseman transformed from a solid .290 hitter into a batting title contender over the past few months, he has been unwilling to delve into his process much. But that transformation, and each at-bat he takes, is the calculated product of years of internalizing advice like “see it big,” of hours of analyzing and adjustment.
“He processes information probably as well as any hitter I’ve ever had,” Mets hitting coach Kevin Long said. “He’s great at taking in information and applying it.”
Everything Murphy does offensively, from preparation to celebration, reveals some step in his growth into the National League’s leading hitter at age 31.
Start from the beginning, before he even steps in the box, with his focus on seeing the ball as he warms up. “See it big” was advice given to Murphy by the scout who signed him, Steve Barningham, when he was struggling in the minor leagues. Barningham said some players he signs stop calling him after a while, when they get used to professional baseball or establish themselves in the game. Murphy never stopped calling.
Murphy trains his eyes to see the ball with a dedicated pregame routine that traces its origins to former Mets teammate Carlos Beltran. Beltran used to have a tennis ball machine that he would use to see the ball. Murphy didn’t use it much, though he eventually internalized its intent.
Last year, he began using a similar tool: balls marked with different colored shapes — “green triangle, black circle, blue star.” Mets assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler would toss them to him, and he would try to identify the shapes.
“You easily forget, you just stop looking for the ball, because all the guys in here are so good like in BP [batting practice] and in flips,” Murphy said. “The BP guys are so good, you can go a couple days without looking for the ball and still hit it. Then all of a sudden, the game is there, and you’re thinking, you’re not throwing it where I want you to throw it.”
Eyes engaged, Murphy takes a brisk walk to the plate with the bat on his shoulder. He exchanges a few words with the catcher and umpire and conducts a little landscaping of his batter’s box before he lines up his feet, nearer to home plate than he used to stand before last season.
Moving up on the plate, one of those turning-point decisions written about again and again as Murphy swung the Mets to the pennant last October, was Long’s idea.
“We noticed he was breaking down on pitches away,” Long said. Murphy explained that breakdown as a disconnect between his back elbow and back hip.
Most hitters hunt synchronization between hands and hips. If the hips open up before the hands, a hitter loses power. If the hands fly through the zone without the hips, he loses power, too.
“We wanted to get him to take that ‘A’ swing as often as possible,” Long said at Citi Field this past weekend, revealing the etymology of the phrase Murphy has repeated over and over this season when explaining his success.
“Why don’t we move on the plate and shift the plate a little bit in my eyes?” Murphy said. “That ball away, now, I don’t have to reach for. And if I have to reach, it’s a ball, so hopefully I take it.”
Murphy, 6 feet 1 and 220 pounds, had never hit more than 13 home runs in a season before last year, and his average hovered around .290. If one combines the second half of last season — most of which was spent closer to the plate than in the first half — and the first half of this one, Murphy is 189 for 589 (.320) with 25 homers and 110 RBI. Over the past 10 years, there have been 24 seasons like that recorded, most of them by hitters named Pujols, Cabrera, Ortiz and so on.
“It’s maximizing potential,” Long said. “We knew what Daniel Murphy was, but was there more in there? We thought he had more to give, and we’re seeing it.”
Long and the Mets saw what Murphy could be this past weekend when he clobbered them with a seven-hit, three-homer, 10-RBI showing during a four-game series. As the fans booed, he stayed quiet, both at the plate and elsewhere.
Once Murphy digs in, he crouches, legs wide, head still, waving the bat slowly between his knees. That low, steady stance began in college, Murphy said. Long helped hone it.
Part of the reason Murphy’s stance is so quiet is that he does not rely on a major timing mechanism — Ryan Zimmerman’s leg kick, Bryce Harper’s bat waggle, and the like — to time his swing. He puts his front foot down sooner than most hitters do, trying to put his body in a good position early on so that his hands and hips can work in time.
“What that does for him, he sees the ball better than anybody,” said Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu, who pointed to Rendon as another hitter with a quiet stance who plants his front foot early.
“We had a couple of guys struggling one year, and a few of them said, ‘I’m going to hit like [Rendon]!’ ” Schu said. “Couldn’t do it. Different personalities. Different swings. But what Murphy can do because he is down early is see the ball really well, which allows him to have a plan and stick to it.”
Murphy’s approach also traces to Long and the Mets. Pitch selection is perhaps the most substantial contributor to his success this season — a part he has glossed over after games with elementary explanations like “looking for a pitch in my zone.”
Murphy analyzes the strike zone as a box that pitchers can fill with 70 potential strikes, seven balls wide, 10 balls high. Some hitters divide the strike zone into quadrants or halves. Murphy, himself, used to think of it in terms of “middle and edges,” until Long introduced him to the seven ball approach. A “one ball” is on the corner, way in. A “seven ball” is a corner ball, way away.
“The smaller zone that you look in, the smaller zone you’re going to swing at,” Murphy said. “If I said, ‘Okay, I just want a strike,’ well then that’s 70 strikes at possibly four different speeds. You can’t hit all of those pitches hard. It’s just really not possible. The guys who can are freaks of nature like Jose Altuve or Miguel Cabrera or [Mike] Trout or Harper. I’m not one of those guys, so I have to be a little more specific about what I do.”
Murphy starts by looking for a three or a four ball. If he reaches for something else, he is still reaching for a two or a five ball — a little farther from the middle but still strikes, still pitches he will probably hit well. As the count evolves one way or another, he adjusts his expectations, never letting the pitcher dictate his choice.
“I can still get a good pitch to hit, even if I don’t feel good. That’s been the biggest thing,” Murphy said. “Early in my career, when I didn’t feel good at the plate, I would just go up there kind of swinging at anything.”
More than a third of Murphy’s at-bats this season have ended with him standing safely on base, quietly removing his batting gloves to run the bases. Seventeen of his at-bats have ended in brisk jogs around the bases, already a career high in home runs at the all-star break. Those at-bats end with Murphy crossing home plate, raising his hands above his head for a double high-five with the nearest teammate, with Murphy and his high-five partner hollering, “FWAHHH!”
Murphy said former Mets first baseman Lucas Duda used to do that. Now the Nationals sell T-shirts with the phrase. Everything Murphy does reflects some lesson learned, some advice internalized, something picked up somewhere along the way. Few hitters improve like Murphy has once they become established major leaguers. Not many hitters keep listening like Murphy has.