by Cam Ellis
Unless you've been living under a rock - or more appropriately, stuck inside your home because apparently the sun has given up on D.C. - you've probably heard that Nationals secondbaseman Daniel Murphy is having himself a year. Murphy, a career .293/.335/.432 hitter, is crushing the ball this season, posting a .395/.424.612 slashline through 39 games this season. There was some skeptisicm when the Nats signed Murphy to a 3-year, $37.5 million contract because the general consensus was that while he was a good hitter, Murphy benefited from a well-timed post season power surge. So far, however, the Nationals are getting the last laugh, as Murphy has been as good - if not more - as advertised. What's been the reason for this? Is it sustainable? (Hint: probably not)
While the all the attention has been put on Murphy's postseason with the Mets and hot start with the Nats, the fact of the matter is that he's been an incredibly productive hitter for over a year now. The indescribably helpful baseball hub FanGraphs put together a chart of Murphy's hitting numbers over the last 365 days, and you can see the results below:
You can take out any number you want from this chart, and it all says the same thing: Murphy's been a great hitter the last calendar year. Looking at his wRC+, which is - put crudely - a catch all statistic to measure how good a batter has been, Murphy has been 42% better than the average hitter over the last 365 days. His 205 wRC+ gives you a fun look at just how good he was during the Mets post season run, too.
A growing trend in evaluating batters' effectiveness is looking at how hard the batter is making contact. It stands to reason that theoretically, a better hitter would hit the ball harder and more often. In case you were wondering, yes! FanGraphs does measure that. I know, I'm thrilled too. They measure contact in three levels: Soft%, Medium%, and Hard%. And you thought analytics were complicated. Below is a table for context:
Now that you have said context, let's take a look at what Murphy's Quality of Contact numbers have been this year:
So basically, Murphy's numbers are better than even the most optimistic projection that FanGraphs has to offer. Now let's put that up against what Murphy's career norms are:
There's quite the discrepency between his 2016 Soft% and his career Soft% and the gap between his Hard% is comically huge.
When someone is hitting almost 100 points higher than their career norms, usually something is up. Sometimes it might be a young player finally making "The Leap," but Murphy is 31, and with a little over 900 games under his belt, regression seems inevitable. One thing that is frequently looked at first when deciding whether a hitter can sustain gaudy numbers is their BABIP. Here's your disclaimer that it's SABRMETRICS and that it's not the only factor and BABIP isn't a perfect indicate either, etc etc etc. Whatever. We're rolling with it. BABIP stands for "Batting Average on Balls in Play" which basically means out of all the balls that Murphy puts a bat on, how many fall in for a hit versus how many are played for outs. To put it simply, BABIP does a decent job of measuring luck. How lucky has Murphy been? Quite simply: super lucky.
Murphy's career BABIP is .318, which is slightly above league average. That makes sense, because Murphy has been a slightly-above league average hitter his entire career. This year, Murphy's BABIP is .417 (!!!!!). That's absurdly high, even for good hitters. It's not just absurdly high, it's unsustainably high. In fact, .417 is the second highest BABIP in baseball, per FanGraphs.
To his credit, Murphy has been hitting the ball harder than at any other point in his career. Coupled with a lower K%, it's not going out on a limb to imagine that Murphy has figured something out and is a noticeably better hitter than he has been in the past. 31 is on the latter edge of what's considered the "prime" of a hitter, so it's very possible that Murphy is enjoying the prime of his career. With that said, with a .417 BABIP, a regression is inevitable. Will Murphy be an above average hitter this season? Probably. Is he an upgrade from any of the other options the Nats had this winter? Absolutely. Is he Ted Williams back from the cryogenics chamber? I doubt it.
Basically, don't expect his world-conquering to be quite so dramatic for the entire season. Analytics: telling you something you already knew, but making it super complicated.