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Murphy's Law: Can Daniel Murphy Keep This Up?

Murphy's Law: Can Daniel Murphy Keep This Up?

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. 



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Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It’s tough to blot out the sun and joy in south Florida. Friday was an exception. The temperature dropped into the 60s, clouds won the day and if West Palm Beach can be labeled dreary, the title fit on Friday as the wind whipped around.

The poor weather forced the Nationals into a truncated workout before their first game of spring training. Typically, the Grapefruit League opener for each team would be a signifier of the creeping regular season. It’s not a thing. Certainly not a thing, thing. But that will be the case Saturday night when Max Scherzer faces the still-reeling Houston Astros.

The week has not been kind to the Astros. Meanwhile, the Nationals have mixed goofing around with standard practices.

Houston absorbed shots from multiple players, notably including Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis, who said every Astros player “needs a beating,” which prompted Houston manager Dusty Baker to retort Markakis must have had his Wheaties that morning. Earlier in the week, a fan ran up and banged a garbage can when José Altuve and others were taking batting practice, then took off.

Washington was busy with a cabbage race on National Cabbage Day and mercilessly pelting the head of its public relations director with water balloons on his birthday. Music played, Scherzer tussled with Starlin Castro, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton when throwing live batting practice, and Howie Kendrick held a rematch with Will Harris for the first time as teammates.

No one talked about death threats, which Houston outfielder Josh Reddick did on Friday when mentioning some of the social media backlash he is managing. No one on the Nationals’ side prompted hi-jinks from fans. The air horn signalled when to move, modern rap or the gravelly of Chris Stapleton bellowed from large speakers, and everyone generally went about their business.

The question about Saturday is if anything out of the ordinary will happen. What if Scherzer loses command of a pitch in his first outing and hits an Astros player? Who decides intent? Baker is so concerned about retaliation against his players, he publicly called on the league to warn other teams. Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did as much when talking to a large chunk of managers at his annual spring training press conference. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, said Friday the issue remains on the minds of the Astros.

“When you have comments publicly that suggest certain things may happen on the field, it’s hard to ignore those,” Clark said.

Clark spent roughly four hours meeting with Astros players on Friday. A large “2017 World Series champions” sign was one of the few things above the 6-foot-8 head of the players’ union. He said Houston players were “contrite and direct” in their discussions with him and they were concerned about “making sure the game is in the best place possible moving forward.” Clark’s comment came at lunchtime the day after the Nationals went through a parade through downtown West Palm Beach to yet again celebrate winning last season.

Houston will not play its regulars Saturday. Washington will play a few. Joe Ross will pitch after Scherzer. Everyone will watch Carter Kieboom in the field at third base. Baker and Martinez should cross paths. In the stands? Who knows? Every stadium is filled with metal garbage cans and beer vendors.

“I’m hoping that on our side, I can’t tell you anything about the Houston Astros or what they’re going to do or whatever, but for us we act professional, we go about our business and we get ready for the season,” Martinez said. “Go out there and compete and just get ready to play.”

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As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

The unwritten rules of baseball say that when your team is wronged or disrespected by an opponent, it’s on the pitching staff to retaliate.

Whether spoken aloud or not, that rule will be put to the test this season when the Houston Astros play out their 162-game schedule. From AL West division rivals to clubs that lost to Houston in recent playoff series, teams from across MLB are trying to grapple with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that’s dominated the sport’s headlines for most of the offseason.

After many players came out voicing displeasure with MLB’s decision not to punish the players involved with the cheating scheme, Las Vegas sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020.

NBC4 Washington’s Lindsay Czarniak spoke with several members of the Astros on Friday about whether opposing teams would try to retaliate for their use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs in real time during their World Series run in 2017 and parts of the 2018 season.

“I’m not concerned about that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’re grown men out here and whatever happens, happens. We just go out there and be professional and play the game.”

In 2019, there were 1,984 hit batters, or an average of just over 66 per team. Only one team, the New York Yankees, exceeded that total of 83.5 (they had 86 batters hit by a pitch). But despite MLB cracking down on pitchers intentionally hitting batters and handing out stiffer penalties for pitchers suspected of doing so, the number of hit batters has been on a steady incline the last half-decade.

In fact, the number of hit batters has increased every season since 2015. There were 1,602 batters hit by pitches that season, an average of 53.4 per team. That makes the 2019 total a 23.8 percent increase over the figure from five years prior.

Houston was right at the league average last season, watching its hitters take pitches of themselves 66 times. While the threat of disgruntled players deciding to take matters into their own hands looms, the Astros are preaching the same company line about only focusing on themselves.

“We can’t worry about that,” starter Lance McCullers told Czarniak. “That’s something that a lot of players have been speaking out about. We’re not sure if those players [are] speaking that way because they want to sound a certain way, they want to be portrayed a certain way. We can only worry about what’s in this locker room at that’s something that Dusty has really been preaching to us.

“We just got to go out there and we just got to play baseball and whatever comes along with this season we’ll address it and we’ll deal with it then.”

These comments also come on heels of MLB issuing a memo to teams laying out a new process umpires will be using to determine if pitchers are intentionally hitting batters during games. The umpires will now discuss the pitch in question among themselves before anyone is tossed, with managers being held more accountable. The change is reportedly not related to the Astros but comes at a convenient time for them and MLB.

That all said, 83.5 is still a high number for bettors to consider. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but the Astros would most likely be among the most-hit clubs in baseball if they do approach that total.

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