How Daniel Murphy has transformed into a playoff hero at the plate

We watch playoff baseball in part to see the stars of the game write their legacies. Whether they become legends or eventual disappointments, the October stage grants them a chance to produce the alluring commodity we most crave in this wild month of baseball: narrative.

We know the names. Reggie Jackson; Kirk Gibson; Carlton Fisk. We can see their postseason highlight reels in our heads just by reading the words on the page; we know the accompanying commentator clips so well that the audio plays along with them. They’re more than legends — they’re woven into a historic fabric, embedded in our consciousness as touchstones for the game’s future.

Somewhere in our minds, amid the grocery lists and afternoon meeting agendas, Gibson is pumping his fist as he rounds the bases. Fisk is waving it fair. And a Yankee Stadium crowd is yelling "Reggie. Reggie. Reggie." They’re all there, because they’re now part of who we are as a collective baseball mind.

And so we come to Daniel Murphy, who’s not yet one of those household names. An important part of the Mets during the past few years, yes, but never what anyone would call a superstar. Only now, after fueling another Mets win in the NLCS over the Chicago Cubs by homering in his fourth consecutive game, he’s becoming something else — a one-man show, a phenomenon, a postseason hero in the making.

This is happening because most professional baseball players are capable of doing extraordinary things for short periods of time. The greatest among them are able to stretch those periods, shortening the downtime between each episode. However, sometimes we need to recognize when someone’s performance is not just a hot streak; oftentimes there have been legitimate improvements made, and those coincide with a streak at just the right moment, like crucial at-bats over a few playoff series. That’s exactly what’s happening to Daniel Murphy, and it’s cause for us to look deeper into the forces behind his incredible run in this year’s playoffs.

To begin with, Murphy made a conscious decision to pull the ball more often in 2015. Take a look at the percentage of balls he has hit to the pull side since 2008 (as a note, he missed all of 2010 due to injury):

Murphy_Pull_Rate

Tending to hit more toward the opposite field for most of his career, Murphy showed more aggressiveness in increasing his pull rate to around league average (40 percent) in 2015. This formed one of two major improvements in his offensive game this past season; the other was a major jump in contact rate that cut his strikeouts almost in half. Look at how his contact rates have changed over the past three years ("O" stands for pitches outside the strike zone, while "Z" stands for pitches inside the strike zone):

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2013 31.5% 62.0% 46.7% 79.0% 93.3% 88.5%
2014 32.5% 64.7% 48.0% 76.6% 94.4% 88.1%
2015 32.6% 68.0% 49.4% 82.7% 96.7% 91.8%

Not only is Murphy swinging more often at pitches inside the strike zone, but he’s making more contact on pitches both inside and outside the zone. This is the main reason why his strikeout rate went from 13.4 percent in 2014 (an almost identical rate to his 2012 & 2013 marks) to 7.1 percent in 2015. He’s being more aggressive by swinging more often, and he’s also making more contact on the pitches that he used to miss.

Put this in the context of the playoffs, add an incredibly hot streak, and his recent performance starts to make a lot more sense.

About that hot streak. To begin with, there’s the simple matter of Murphy not being great against left-handed pitching, something he seems to have momentarily forgotten about. From the start of the 2008 season until the end of the 2015 regular season, Murphy hit a total of 12 home runs off of 12 different left-handed pitchers. Most of those came in 2009, when he hit four. Out of those 12 pitchers, only five have a career ERA under 4.00. Just take a look at how well he fares against lefties/righties to get the basic idea:

  OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA wRC+
vs LHP .303 .371 .674 .099 .296 88
vs RHP .341 .442 .783 .148 .338 116

In the past 10 days, Murphy has hit three home runs off of left-handed pitching: two off of Clayton Kershaw and one off Jon Lester. I don’t need to tell you about those two pitchers, because they’re among the best lefties in the game. All three home runs are alike: they were early in the count (three pitches or less into the at-bat) and all to the pull side. Murphy doesn’t have a ton of power, so he’s not going to hit many opposite-field home runs. However, his success against lefties during this postseason is a direct result of his altered approach: get a pitch to handle, be more aggressive, and try to pull the ball.

Finally, let’s go back to last night’s game. Specifically this home run in the first inning.

Dave Cameron already wrote about this particular home run for this site, so I’ll only touch on it briefly: my first reaction to seeing this was that the pitch Murphy hit out was low. As I sometimes do in situations such as these, I looked at all of the pitches that were hit for home runs by left-handed hitters in 2015, and where they crossed the plate. This one, unsurprisingly, was one of the lowest of the year. The third-lowest, in fact. If we’re talking just curveballs, it was the very-most lowest. This is an exceptional home run. There weren’t a ton of great camera angles, but here’s a close-up on the moment Murphy hit the ball.

Jake Arrieta almost executed his pitch perfectly. On a 1-2 count, he buried a curveball in the dirt. Unfortunately, it was probably just a little more inside than he wanted it to be, and that allowed Murphy to get the bat on it. So, I wondered: what happened to pitches similar to what Murphy saw in this situation during the 2015 season?

On 1-2 counts, curveballs thrown to that area of the zone against left-handed hitters in 2015 resulted in:

• a ball: 48 percent of the time

• a strikeout: 34 percent

• a foul: 13 percent

• in play for an out: 3 percent

• a hit: 2 percent

In the vast majority of cases, hitters either take this pitch or swing and miss, because curveballs in the dirt on 1-2 counts are strikeout pitches. Even if they are able to hit this pitch, most batters can only foul them off. Any balls that do turn into hits aren’t very damaging: they’re almost all singles, in fact. Hitters simply don’t hit home runs off of this pitch in this situation.

Arrieta knew that. Even Murphy probably knew that. Murphy hit one out anyway, because he’s that locked-in, and he probably feels like he can homer off of pretty much any pitch. After this one, who’s going to tell him that he can’t? This is Daniel Murphy, up-and-coming postseason hero: swinging more often, making more contact (especially on pitches out of the zone), being aggressive to the pull side, and white hot. Sometimes success is about the adjustments. Sometimes it’s about the hot streaks. Once in a great while it’s about both, coming together to form something that approaches legendary.