The New Daniel Murphy
This offseason, although they never officially said so, the Nationals placed a clear emphasis on trying to bring in some more contact hitters, guys who profiled completely differently from the standard Nationals hitter. To those ends, they brought in Daniel Murphy who had a career 88.8 percent contact rate and Ben Revere who has a career 91.8 percent contact rate. Murphy also was a free swinger, with a swing rate of 49.4 percent in 2015, a combination that made him unique among Nationals players.
However, no one told Daniel Murphy the Nationals' plan when they signed him, because during his time in Washington he's been a completely different hitter. He's mashing home runs, doubles and even triples like he's Bryce Harper while taking a walk in 12.5 percent of his plate appearances, double his career high. Through 14 games he's been one of the best hitters in baseball and nothing like the regular Murphy.
If that sounds familiar, it's also what he did through the first rounds of the playoffs in 2015. Back in October most chalked it up to a lucky fluke. Some who follow the Mets more closely said he made a change in his swing, which has carried over to this year. Here I've created a side-by-side gif of Murphy hitting a double in 2015 and a triple in 2016 on pitches both up and over the middle of the strikezone.
While his hands might be starting very slightly closer to his body, the overall swing seems identical, so I don't think that's the change. It seems Murphy's increased power hasn't come from his swing, but rather from his approach.
And the change might have come in those same "flukey" playoffs. In September 2015, Murphy was still putting up his usual plate discipline numbers with a swing rate of 48.5 percent and a contact rate of 92.1 percent. But then something changed in October, Murphy saw 108 pitches (less than 1/20th the amount seen in a regular season), and he swung at just 43.4 percent and made contact with only 84.3 percent. Not huge differences, but a difference nonetheless.
A difference that has seemingly been kept up through 2016, where he has so far swung at just 44 percent of pitches seen and made contact with only 79.1 percent, a substantial drop from his career high just last season. According to David Procter who helpfully tweeted me, Murphy admitted in a MASN interview that he has made a conscious decision to swing less and try to only make harder contact.
So has it worked? Hard to say, since Murphy's only had 57 plate appearances and has a wRC+ 20 points higher than Bryce Harper's 2015, something unlikely to last. And if it does last, you really have to wonder why it took him seven years to make the change. His underlying batted ball numbers aren't much help either, his average batted ball velocity is exactly the same in 2016 as it was in 2015, 90.6 miles per hour. FanGraphs says his hard contact rate has increased by 5.6 percent over last year, but it's still too early to put much stock in that, if you should at all.
What we do know is that this change has ruined the Nationals' plan to increase lineup diversity. In 2015 the Nationals as a team swung at 46.4 percent of the pitches they saw and made contact on 77.3 percent of their swings, 2014 those numbers were 44.7 percent and 78.9 percent. You might also recognize those numbers as almost exactly what Murphy has put up. Apparently he's a big subscriber to the When in Rome saying.