Player Preview: Daniel Murphy
At many times this offseason he seemed to be overshadowed by those players the Nationals did not sign, however Daniel Murphy was the biggest acquisition of the offseason for the Nats. After a clear divorce from standout shortstop Ian Desmond and then a trade of Yunel Escobar, the Nats had little in the way of middle infielders besides a meh Danny Espinosa and green Trea Turner. And from those ashes sprung Murphy (and Stephen Drew) on a decent, deferred three years, $37.5 million.
The Murphy signing represented a couple different trends the Nationals have been following recently. First, it's not a coincidence that his contract lines up exactly with the remaining years of Bryce Harper's. The Nats have quickly worked to build up a new core around Harper and Rendon before re-assessing at the end of 2018.
Second, the Nats have made player health a big piece of their team moving forward after unveiling an all new health analytics and training program. To that end, Murphy's 590 games played from 2012-15 leads all current Nationals, and fellow offseason acquisition Ben Revere's 515 places him in second. Murphy, like the man he's partially replacing, Desmond, is a guy who will consistently stay in the lineup. Something the Nationals have learned the last couple years is more valuable than we likely initially think.
Third, Murphy is a pure contact hitter (again like Revere). By PITCHF/x plate discipline numbers, he has a career 88.8 percent contact rate. And his career best 91.8 percent last season would've been first among Nationals hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, just ahead of Denard Span's 90 percent. But unlike Span, he's a free swinger too, Murphy's 49.4 percent swing rate last season was almost equal to Desmond's (49.6 percent). That leads to a career walk rate of 6.0 percent and strikeout rate of 12.2 percent, numbers that are very atypical for a Nats hitter the last few seasons.
Last year the Nationals as a team (excluding pitchers) ranked 24th in MLB in contact rate and sixth in strikeout rate, but they also were third in walk rate and eighth in home runs. This put them in league with sabermetric darlings like the Cubs and Astros. Now it appears that they've decided to bring more balance to the lineup. After losing one of their most extreme hitters in this regard in Desmond (and also their only great contact hitter in Span), the Nationals have filled in two positions with players who hit for a lot of contact and not much else. Of course two guys doesn't make them the Royals now, but it'll be interesting to see how that balance plays out during the season.
At the least one would think that teams can't scheme the Nats like the Giants did in the 2014 NLDS by hitting the same weakness on every hitter. Going from Revere to Rendon to Harper to Zimmerman to Murphy and Werth should keep opposing pitchers on their toes. In this regard Murphy represents a valuable addition to the lineup as someone who can clean up the basepaths lower in the order.
On the non-offensive side of things it gets a bit stickier. Murphy has played second base in MLB for 4,343 innings and he still looks like John Travolta trying to figure out how intercoms work in Pulp Fiction. By the numbers he's still a solidly average starter, but the defense drags down a consistently good bat. He's also made some regrettable comments on what he would do if he had a homosexual teammate, but I'm not going to go into that more at this time.
Overall, you know exactly what you're getting with him. Few players in baseball have been as consistent as Murphy the last few years, something the Nats have desperately needed. With players like Harper, Rendon, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman ready to take on the star role when healthy, the Nats don't need Murphy to be more than himself, a dependable sidekick who's always their when you need him.