The Value of Daniel Murphy

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Daniel Murphy: saying his name evokes different reactions from different Mets fans.  He’s an everyday player.  He’s a backup.  He’s hard-nosed.  He’s overaggressive.  He can play multiple positions.  He can play multiple positions…poorly.  Like him or not, Murph will be in the lineup every day for the remainder of the 2011 season, so the question is, what is Daniel Murphy’s value to the New York Mets?

If you go by FanGraphs, the answer is 3.0  That is, the sum of Murphy’s contributions this season have so far been worth three more wins than a quadruple-A type of player.  If he finishes the season with an fWAR (FanGraphs WAR) of somewhere between 4.0-5.0, that would be great and the Mets will have gotten great bang for their buck.  Murphy won’t be arbitration eligible until after the 2012 season and won’t be a free agent until the 2016 season; the Mets have him under control for awhile at what should be a reasonable rate.  But what will become of Murph in the future?

There is no doubt that Murphy has been essential to the Amazins this season.  Largely left out of the second base competition at the beginning of the season, the lefty spent a good chunk of time coming off the bench during the month of April.  Then the Brad Emaus experiment ended and he began to see regular action at second base.  Then Ike Davis got hurt and Murphy saw more time at first base.  Then David Wright went on the shelf and Murphy split time between the two corner infield positions while simultaneously shifting to the cleanup spot in the order.  To put things in perspective, Murphy’s natural position in the minors was third base, where he had an ugly fielding percentage of .919 in 196 games.  During his minor league career, he played a total of 21 games at first and 19 at second, and here he was in the Majors shifting around the infield on an almost daily basis.  And oh yeah, he’s been hitting as well.

Without Murph’s bat, the Mets are probably below .500.  He’s put together a .317/.360/.452 line with six homers and 28 doubles, good for third in the National League in batting and third in two-baggers.  His wRC+ sits at 125 (anything over 100 is better than average) and he hasn’t’ been a liability against lefties, batting .294/.307/.435 against them.  Yet even with his success, there are some concerns about the sustainability of these numbers.  For one, he doesn’t walk a lot, posting a walk rate of just 5.7%, lower than the league average of 8.2%.  Second, his BABIP is .344, a number well above the league average of .293 and one that is usually unsustainable.  So Murphy’s offense has been centered around him putting the ball in play and collecting hits, to which some degree of luck is owed.  He’s done a great job making contact, doing so 89.7% of the time (the average is 80.9%), especially on pitches out of the strike zone, where Murph has made contact 83.9% of the time (the average is 68.1%).  In fact, Murphy has only swung and missed 4.6% of the time, well below the average of 8.5%.  In short, Murphy has become a contact and gap hitter who flashes occasional power and puts the ball in play often, but doesn’t draw a lot of walks.  Whether he can sustain that skill in the long term (over a few seasons) can’t fully be determined yet because Murphy has only played one other full season in the bigs.

Then there’s defense, which is where the brunt of criticism at Murphy is directed.  Because of the constant moving around the infield, the sample sizes at each position are a little on the small side, but Murphy has actually performed admirably at each spot.  At first base, his best position, Murph sports an Ultimate Zone Ratingn (UZR) of 1.3 with three runs saved, while at third base his UZR is 0.6 with one run saved.  The sample size is the smallest at second base, which probably explains the 1.9 UZR; the minus three runs at second base is probably a better representation of how he’s played at that position, but Murph has flashed the leather there a couple of times.  It’s fair to say that in general, Murphy’s defense has been better than expected, although sometimes it can be an adventure in the field.

Finally, there are his baseball instincts, which can’t be measured, only observed.  This area is where Murphy probably struggles the most.  While he certain gets an A+ for effort, his instincts aren’t always the greatest, such as getting not reading a base hit well.  Unfortunately, even with repetitions, you can’t teach instincts.

Yesterday’s game against the Nationals was a microcosm of Murphy’s season.  He went 2-4 to finish a red-hot July, and probably would have had an RBI in the third had the lead runner not been Jon Niese.  His aggressiveness on a well-executed buntled to an important out (at the time) in the ninth inning, but he also ran the Mets out of a potentially big inningin the third.  With Murph, sometimes you take the good with the bad.

With Ike Davis probably out for the rest of the season, Murphy should receive all the starts at first base.  But what about in the future?  Assuming Davis comes back and David Wright sticks around next year, Murphy will in all likelihood return to second base, which is fine because the long term solution for that position is cloudy.  Reese Havens, who projects as a power hitter, can’t seem to stay healthy, while Ruben Tejada needs more seasoning and double-A prospect Jordanny Valdespin is more of a shortstop and needs more time as well.  So unless the Mets go out there and sign a free agent second baseman, the job is Murphy’s to lose and everyone will get a better look at what he can do on defense.

Murphy has been valuable to the Mets this year for two reasons: his bat and his versatility.  With all the injuries to Wright and Davis, Jason Bay continuing to look like he will never break out of his slump, and now the departure of Carlos Beltran, Murphy has stepped up in a big way.  His offense, combined with his ability/willingness to play wherever Terry Collins put him has made him an asset to the Amazins this season.  But long term, there are still questions as to whether he can keep up this level of offensive production given his low walk rate and high BABIP.  If he can continue to hit doubles while drawing more walks and playing average defense at second base, he could be of some value to the team.  If the offense falters, however, and one of the Mets prospects develops into an everyday second baseman, Murphy could still serve the team as an above-average utility player.

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