October Moment: The unlikeliest of home runs

The postseason always provides some surprising storylines, but this year, nothing has been more unexpected than Daniel Murphy turning into Babe Ruth.

The Mets second baseman is mostly known for his extremely high rate of contact — he posted the lowest strikeout rate of any hitter in Major League Baseball this year — but has turned into a super slugger in the playoffs, hitting five home runs in the Mets’ first seven postseason games.

While the team’s pitching staff is New York’s greatest strength, Murphy’s success against the best pitchers in baseball is a big reason why the team is two wins away from reaching the World Series.

But even given his recent power surge, his two-run home run off Jake Arrieta in the first inning of the Mets’ 4-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the NLCS on Sunday night remains something to marvel at. Not just because hitting a home run off Arrieta is impressive (after all, Murphy has also gone deep against Jon Lester, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw — twice — this postseason), but because the home run was one of the least likely we’ve seen all year.

First, watch the home run for yourself. 

Arrieta threw a 1-2 curveball to Murphy, and given that the Cubs ace was ahead in the count, he naturally tried to get the ball to break out of the zone, hoping for a strikeout. And he hit his spot, as the curveball was down and out of the zone. Per Brooks Baseball, here’s a plot of where the pitches in that at-bat were relative to the strike zone; note the location of pitch No. 4.

That pitch was registered by the PITCHF/x system as being 12.76 inches off the ground, and yet, somehow Murphy not only went down and made contact with it, he managed to hit it out of the ballpark. When you look at the other pitches thrown that far below the bottom of the strike zone, it becomes pretty clear just how amazing it is that Murphy turned that pitch into a home run. 

According to the data mined from PITCHF/x via Baseball Savant, major-league hitters swung at 14,318 pitches that were as low or lower than Arrieta’s curveball to Murphy. Seventy-four percent of the time, they swung and missed, because simply putting the bat on the ball down there is difficult. Sixteen percent of the time, they fouled the ball off. Only 10 percent of swings — 1,457 to be exact — ended up resulting in a ball in play. 

So it’s rare enough to take a pitch that low and hit it fair, but Murphy didn’t hit it, he elevated it. And that’s pretty amazing too. 

Of the 1,457 balls in play on swings at pitches no higher than 12.76 inches off the ground, 73 percent resulted in ground balls. Even hitters who made contact at swings in these locations almost always hit it on the infield, which makes perfect sense given how low these pitches are. Only 12 percent of balls in play on these low swings resulted in a fly ball or a popup, and that’s 12 percent of the subset of swings that put the ball in play to begin with. As a percentage of total swings at pitches that low, only 1.2 percent resulted in a fly ball or pop fly. 

And then, there’s the small matter of the fact that it went over the fence. Per Statcast (and queried from Baseball Savant), the ball was only coming off Murphy’s bat at 91 mph, which is right around the average exit velocity for a ball in play in the major leagues. Including Murphy’s home run Sunday night, only 49 balls hit at 91 mph or less went for home runs, and three of those were of the inside-the-park variety, so really, only 46 balls hit at that velocity cleared the fences. 

Murphy swung at a pitch that was only a foot off the ground, and didn’t even really hit it all that hard, but thanks to a windy night and the fact that he hugged it right down the right-field line, that swing somehow resulted in a home run off one of the best pitchers in baseball. When you’re going good, everything seems to smile upon you, and no one is going better than Daniel Murphy right now.