>Coming to Daniel Murphy’s Defense

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Some baseball players just look like they were born to play the game. The smiling naturals. The ones who came out of the womb cleat-first, bat in one hand and glove in the other. They have a graceful gait of Carlos Beltran, that smooth one-handed Ken Griffey Jr. follow-through, or even just thick wrists and forearms like Fernando Martinez that inform the world they were built to swing a wooden bat with force. Even the big guys, the CC Sabathias or the Prince Fielders, move with a certain amount of grace and smooth coordination that hints to the point guard hiding beneath all the layers of flab.

And then there are players like Daniel Murphy.

Daniel Murphy looks awkward doing almost anything. Opening up a package of sunflower seeds can be a struggle. He doesn’t look like a baseball player. He was built with thick legs, a small torso and short arms that work together to make his swing, his running, and his fielding look like more work that it should be. – people like to call him a hustler, but maybe it just looks like that because it’s inordinately difficult for him to do anything effortlessly. He hits home runs on hack-and-slash, one-handed golf swings that never, ever look pretty. I distinctly remember his bubble-gum bubble accidentally popping on his face more than once in 2009. The Mets stuck him in left field, where he managed to fall down a couple of times, so they moved him to first after Delgado disappeared, where he often looked like he was learning on the job – you know, because he was. He played a grand total of 13 minor league games at first before 2009. Did he look out of place at first in the majors? Did he make 10 errors in just 850 innings? Did he often go after balls to his right so aggressively that too often no one was left covering first base? Yes, yes, and yes. Things did not go smoothly for Daniel Murphy in 2009.

But the man can play first base well.

The appearance of awkwardness is not always indicative of inability.* Daniel Murphy’s situation is one where looking at the defensive metrics can help overcome the lies of perception. He didn’t look smooth playing first base, but he was surprisingly good. UZR ranked Daniel Murphy as the 4th best defensive first baseman in the majors last year. Plus/minus ranked him as tied for first with Albert Pujols and Kevin Youkilis. Fan Scouting Reports ranks Murphy as a better defensive player than either Carlos Delgado or Fernando Tatis. He was not only solid defensively, but in fact he appears to be one of the best.

*That sentence also happens to be the nerd manifesto.

On one hand, all that is based on just 850 defensive innings at first, so it’s impossible to make any solid conclusions about his defense. 850 defensive innings is roughly equivalent to 6 or 7 weeks of batting. In other words, remember when everyone thought Daniel Murphy was a great hitter based on 8 great weeks at the end of 2008? Yeah. Don’t get too excited. Same small sample warnings apply here. This could all very easily be bull that will be hilarious to read a year from now. Feel free to dig this post back up and mock me for it in the future.

On the other hand, it would make sense for Murphy to be an above average first basemen. He was a +2 infielder in 213 minor league games (196 at third), though that is by iffy minor league Total Zone. He spent most of his time at third base, which is traditionally thought to be a more difficult defensive position to play – so first should be an easier job for him, once he figures out how to actually play it.

Daniel Murphy did some things well at first base, and some others things not-so-well. If you want to break up a first baseman’s defensive duties into two basic tasks, it’s really just this:

A. Field balls

B. Catch throws

The problem is that no one really knows how to measure a first baseman’s ability to catch throws. To the best of my knowledge, UZR and plus/minus do not take one’s throw catching, or “scooping”, ability into account – it’s difficult to separate a first baseman receiving abilities from the other infielder’s throwing abilities. The best looks at scooping comes in this MGL Fangraphs article, which points out that over the course of an entire season, it doesn’t appear to account for many runs anyway – two or three in either direction at the most. It does reveals that the taller and more left-handed a first baseman is, the better he tends to be at saving throwing errors. Daniel Murphy is not a left handed thrower, but he is 6’3″,* which counts as tall – so based on height and handedness, he projects as an average receiver. But I really have no idea how good he is at scooping and stretching.

*Murphy is listed at 6’3″, 210 pounds on Baseball-reference.com – as is Albert Pujols. That leads me to doubt the accuracy of at least one of their measurements.   

Leaving out the unknown receiving skills, that just leaves fielding balls, which can be more or less broken down into four more areas:

1.) Fielding ground balls
2.) Fielding bunts
3.) Turning double plays
4.) Not doing dumb things (errors)

There are some other things first basemen do, but they’re little things that aren’t particularly important.

1 & 2) The first two can be taken care of by one of these plus/minus charts:

Murphy, as you might have guessed from visual evidence, is hyper-aggressive to his right. If you so recall, occasionally Murphy, Castillo and the pitcher would all go after a softly struck ground ball, while no one bothered to cover first base. However, despite those occasional moments of “oops”, Murphy’s aggressiveness to his right is a useful trait. It allows him get to plenty of balls that would otherwise sneak through for hits, even if it sometimes leads to moments of over-aggression.

You can see that plus/minus also rates him as slightly above average on bunts, but he’s only being rated on 13 bunts. Who knows. He’s aggressive – I imagine he probably goes after and gets to more bunts than Joe Average.

UZR also rates Murphy as an above-average fielder, but disagrees with as to how far above average. UZR has him as +6.8 runs based on his range, compared to +10 by plus/minus, but there is an agreement between the systems that he was a good defender at first.

3.) Turning double plays.

Not something traditionally associated with first basemen, but it can make a small difference. This seems to be another strength of Murphy’s. He initiated 9 ground ball double plays in 2009, fourth in the league among first basemen – and he only played two-thirds of a season at first. Murphy also finished fourth in assists to second base with 19. He turned more 3-6-3 double plays than anyone not named “Albert Pujols” – though it should be noted that he probably had more opportunities to turn double plays than other first baseman because of the Mets staff’s unfortunate aversion to pitching within the strike zone, thus putting more runners at first with less than two outs. All this shows that Murphy plays an first base with a third baseman’s mentality – he loves to go after the lead runner. Maybe a little bit too much, because he struggles at . . .

4.) Not doing dumb things (making errors).

Alas, this is something Mr. Murphy does not do well as a first baseman. With
all that aggressiveness, he committed four throwing errors, second to only Ryan Howard, who is notorious for throwing the ball into left field on 3-6-3 double plays. Murphy booted or otherwise muffed 5 more balls, and his 10 total errors at first ranked him third in the league – in only two-thirds of a season at first. According to UZR, all those errors were worth -2.2 runs, the lowest total by any 1B in the majors. If you ignore Murphy’s errors, he jumps up past Kendry Morales to the third on the UZR list, just behind Casey Kotchman (who made 0 errors in 2009.) This is the area Murphy can most improve.

The defensive picture of Murphy is one of an aggressive player who too often has no idea what he’s doing. Hopefully he cuts down on the errors with more experience, but that may not happen. He was an error machine in the minor leagues. He was charged with 55 errors in 230 games, which is as many as David Wright made in 379 minor league games. The errors might just be something everyone needs to just live with – his strength is his range to his right, and that shouldn’t be toned down. Given a full season and a cut down in his other mental mistakes, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Murphy as a +10 fielder, again ranked among the best in the game defensively. If he’s able to maintain his defense, he could actually (somehow) wind up as an average first baseman overall,* despite his batting that is well below the positional average.

*Pre-season optimism warnings apply here.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “>Coming to Daniel Murphy’s Defense

  1. Luker

    >Great analysis Patrick. In this time of pessimism, the optimism is appreciated!

  2. Shamik

    >FINALLY a clear-headed look at Murphy! I think he was a perfectly fine 1B, and if he could just get a better swing going, he could be very successful.

  3. Anonymous

    >You have go to be kidding me with these charts. Does it take into account the pace of a ball? The positioning of the 1B on every pitching? If hes holding a guy on? Murphy has stone hands and has a very low baseball IQ. Add that to the fact that hes the worst hitting 1B in baseball and we have ourselves a AAAA player without a position. Nice job

  4. Patrick Flood

    >@ Anonymous 3:14:These are just depictions of Dewan plus/minus. So to answer your questions: Yes, how hard the ball is struck counts, No, the first baseman is responsible for correct positioning, and Yes, I believe plus/minus takes into account the baserunners, so the player won't be penalized for holding a man on.I think it's a nice job, too – oh, hey I see what you did there. You didn't actually mean that.

  5. Anonymous

    >The Nice Job was directed towards the Mets for having the worst hitting 1B in baseball. But I do find it amusing that you and many others are finding any little chart or any little defensive rating to defend him.

  6. Patrick Flood

    >@ Anonymous 2:42He is the worst offensive first baseman in baseball. He will probably continue to be the worst offensive first baseman in baseball. He may become an average hitter in 2010, but that would still make him a poor hitter, probably the worst one in terms of first base. That's all true.That's the thing though – he's being compared to other players at his position. So an average hitter at first base is a poor hitter – but on the other hand, most first baseman are also miserable defenders. Adam Dunn spends time at first base. Lance Berkman does too, and they're both awful. So even if Murphy doesn't look like an A+ defender – and he doesn't – that doesn't mean his defense isn't significantly better than other first baseman's defense, who are even worse than him.So if you want to continue to criticize Murphy for his poor offense – which is fine, he is the worst offensive first baseman in baseball – compared to other first baseman, you need to take his defense compared to other first baseman into account as well.

  7. Anonymous

    >This is getting ridiculous. It's not like the guy is Keith Hernandez or John Olerud at first. Heck, he isn't even Doug Mientkiewicz. To already say that he is an above average 1st basemen is completely wrong. Murphy had 10 errors in under 100 games started at first last year. I know errors don't tell the whole story, but the fact that he only had 4 less errors then the league leader (Ryan Howard) in almost 60 less games is alarming. And it's not like he has incredible range and is picking everything at first. Also, since you brought up Lance Berkman. He only had 6 errors in 131 games started and according to espn.com "range factor" has more range then Murphy.My main point, in which you agree on, is Murphy is the worst offensive 1B in the league and his defense is not even close to good enough where it can make up for that. It's just crazy how you and so many other Mets fans will defend him like crazy probably because he is "home grown."

  8. Patrick Flood

    >I don't think it's completely wrong to say he's an above average defensive first baseman. In fact, there's actually a lengthy post above these comments that explains why Daniel Murphy may in fact be a good defensive first baseman, which covers thinks like his errors and his perceived awkwardness and the value of scooping. Now, if you don't want to buy into things like UZR and plus/minus that say Murphy was quite good at first base, then that's fine. But I would point out that plenty of other people and major league teams think those statistics are useful, though they may sometimes be flawed.Lastly, range factor (putouts + assists / nine innings) is not a particularly useful statistic for first baseman and catchers – it's more telling of which teams don't strike out batters. The less strikeouts, the more outs recorded in the field, the higher everyone's range factor is. Bill James, who created it, has admitted it is not good for much, especially at those two positions.

  9. Stesey

    >If you want to argue that scooping the ball may only account for 2 or 3 runs throughout the whole year thats fine, but what about receiving high throws, or throws that pull Murphy off the bag where he needs to demonstrate better footwork? Also, if you want to state that Murphy is an above average 1st basemen it seems to be only based on his range. He clearly isn't an automatic with the routine play (10 errors), and you even admit he doesn't have a high baseball IQ at first.And if you are only basing his above average fielding based on his range… how many runs could that possibly save? How many ground balls are hit in the hole that he would get to but lets say a Lance Berkman would not? We aren't talking about shortstop, or centerfield here. Range isn't as important as first base.

  10. Stesey

    >*at first base

  11. Patrick Flood

    >Sorry, I wasn't being clear. When I say "scooping", it covers all throws, not just ones in the dirt that actually need to be scooped. I just called it scooping because I don't know what else to call it. There really isn't a good way to measure that, as far as I know.The whole point of the post was that even though Murphy does do dumb things all the time and thus looks bad, he more than makes up for it with his range, which is fantastic – for a first baseman. So while he often appears to have no idea what he's doing, he makes up for by being more mobile than someone like an Adam Dunn or a Lance Berkman, even though they look smoother because of their experience. Over the course of 850 innings, he got to 14 more balls than an average first baseman would over the same period of playing time – according to plus/minus. That's what plus/minus is, and that's what is represented on the chart. Those 14 balls were worth 10 runs.The defensive abilities of a shortstop or a center fielder are more important. The best center fielder is going to be +20-30 runs, ditto for shortstops. But, first base matters too, even if the best player there each year is only worth +10. Those 10 runs still count.

  12. Stesey

    >I find it very hard to believe that Murphy getting to 14 balls saved 10 runs but scooping (which now includes all throws that are off line) only saves 2-3 runs a year.Even if Murphy saved 10 runs over an average 1B… they will more then make up for it with the bat and driving in runs. Does Murphys range take into account balls that he got to but got nobody out? Balls that he got to that could have been an easy play for the second baseman? Does it -10 for the 10 errors he commited?Murphys 97 starts at first base are not enough of a sample size to make a judgement on what type of fielder Murphy is. You seem to like the UZR stat so I just noticed that Berkman had a UZR of 7.4 in 2008. I'm not saying that Berkman is a great fielder, but UZR seems to be volatile stat.

  13. Stesey

    >Ok you can take UZR and throw it out the window. Just looked up Mark Teixeira UZR and it was -3.7 in 2009.

  14. Patrick Flood

    >If you go and read the article about scooping linked to up above in the post, you'll see that the best scoopers only catch about an extra 5 throws above-average per season. But the scooping ability is hard to measure. Errors are included in both UZR and plus/minus. So the +10 runs he was by plus/minus include those ten errors.Also, UZR is exactly as you describe it – it's volatile. You really need three years of UZR to make any conclusions. I mentioned in the post above that the sample size with Murphy was too small to make any solid conclusions about. UZR and plus/minus fluctuate wildly, it does rate players like Mark Teixeira and Tori Hunter poorly – but it's the best way to measure fielding that exists. It's far, far from perfect but it is the best, so that's what I'm going to use until something better comes out. If you don't want to accept any of these defensive statistics – which many teams do look at and use – then there really isn't anything I can say to change your mind. You can continue to think Murphy is a poor fielder, but there are a plenty of statistics disagreeing with that opinion.

  15. Anonymous

    >Great Answer. Murphy is work in progress,with Keith helping this will improve. Castillo didnt help Murph , I wonder can he read to catchers signs. Keith said he should have told Murph when a left handed hitter was up.Murphy is a good listener and wants to succeed. He will this year. His hitting will also improve.

  16. Stesey

    >Flood, how can you defend Murphy when the main stat you use (UZR) is saying Mark Teixera is a below average 1st basemen? That is a little ridiclous. He is a gold glover and if you watch baseball it is easy to spot the difference he had with the Yankees. Jeter and Cano said they felt comfortable that all they had to do was throw the ball in the vacinity of 1st base and Teixera would make the play.As far as the last post. If Murphy cannot tell whether a left handed hitter or right handed hitter is up we have wayyyyyyy more problems then even I think. Haha

  17. Stesey

    >I read this article before you posted it and I already read a more interesting article saying how UZR is least accurate for 1st basemen. Their argument as to why Teixeria rates so low is too simple. All they say is that nobody watches every single play that Teixeira makes. Any person that knows anything about baseball and watches games will tell you there is no wayyyyy Teixeira should be rated a below average fielder on any rating system. There are too many variables in fielding for there to be an accurate system.

  18. Patrick Flood

    >Saying "one year of UZR rates Mark Teixeira, who I think is a good fielder, as a sub-par fielder, thus UZR and all fielding statistics are useless" is like saying that "batting statistics say Mark Teixeira, who I think is a good hitter, hit .200/.367/.371 in April of 2009, therefore all batting statistics are useless." The sample size is important. One year of UZR is not a reliable indicator of true skill, just like one month of batting is not an indicator of true skill. Three years of UZR is the generally accepted amount of information needed to make any solid conclusions.Also, the main stat I used to describe Murphy's defense was plus/minus, which rates Teixeira as a +32 fielder for his career. Teixeira was rated the best defensive first baseman by both UZR and plus/minus in 2008, and ranks among the leaders in both over the past three years.

  19. Steven

    >In the year that Mark Teixeira won the gold glove… he rated as a below average fielder…. and thats not a problem to you? I would also say that Derek Jeter best fielding season had something to do with Teixeira being at first, yet that doesn't show up in Teixeira's UZR. But back to Murphy. It just frustrates me that people like yourself will do anything to defend the guy. Sure he works hard and is a nice guy, but he is not an everyday first baseman on a contending team. He is not even the future 1B past this year if everything goes well with Ike Davis. Murphy is a dime a dozen. Given the same amount of at bats I'd argue that Mike Jacobs, Chris Carter and maybe even Fernando Tatis would put up the same stats, if not better then Murphy. Finding the one somewhat positive thing about Murphys game (range at first) does not hide the fact that he is well below average in pretty much every other aspect of the game.

  20. Patrick Flood

    >In the year Rafael Palmeiro won a gold glove, 1999, he played 28 games at first. So no, Mark Teixeira winning the Gold Glove despite a negative UZR doesn't bother me, because the Gold Gloves tend to be given to the better offensive players anyway, even if they don't play the position. It can be a silly award that doesn't mean much. Please don't misinterpret that though – I think Teixeira is a fine defensive player, and the numbers agree with that assertion.Daniel Murphy, in his 707 major league plate appearances as a 23 and 24 year old, has a wOBA of .330, which is exactly average, and an OPS+ of 103 – so his OPS is 3% better than the rest of the league during his major league stint. He's young, he's still improving, he only played one game at the AAA level before being called up to the majors. Despite all that, he's been a league-average hitter, he's projected to be a league-average hitter this year as well. Mike Jacobs is projected to be a worse hitter, Carter better, and Tatis about the same. A Murphy/Tatis platoon would make the most sense because their superior fielding would help offset their batting. But if Jacobs, Tatis, and Carter all put up offensive stats equal to Murphy – like you claimed – shouldn't the best defensive player play, since all offense is equal anyway?Murphy's not a superstar, he's likely never going to be a superstar and I never said anything like that. He's an average hitter, and an above average fielder – that's something I've said over and over. He's still going to be among the bottom of the barrel at first base, but he's the best option the Mets have.

  21. Stesey

    >I happen to watch most Yankees games, especially this year so bringing up how Palmeiro didn't deserve the gold glove has nothing to do with Teixeira winning the gold glove this year. He was hands down the best 1B in the league. I'm sure everyone around baseball would agree with that. That being said, how is UZR this year rates him below average I will never know. And you are defending it by saying his 3 year average or whatever is above average even though that has nothing to do with his year this year on the Yankees. And now that you say it takes 3 years for UZR to be accuarate, yet in this article you are saying Murphy is "one of the best" because he is ranked 4th. Thats a little inconsistent.I just can't take people constantly defending Murphy. Searching for every stat that rates him above average. If you just watch the games, you know he is nothing special. The fact that we can sign Mike Jacobs off street to compete with Murphy or project Chris Carter a career minor leaguer to put up better numbers should tell you how valuable Murphy is. His stats are comparable to Casey Kotchman. I don't see articles upon articles defending Casey Kotchman. Murphy isn't even the future 1B for the Mets. What is your plan for Murphy after this year if we can assume Ike Davis is ready to take over full time in 2011???

  22. Rashidi

    >Gold Gloves are a worthless award handed out by the media – as if they know anything about defense.Stesey makes it clear he has a predetermined judgement an emotional investment in Murphy-bashing. The reason why we look to statistics in the first place is because our eyes can easily be fooled.What is so bad about Murphy having a quality major league skill? You talk about Casey Kotchman as if he isn't a major leaguer. If Ike Davis is ready, then Murphy takes a bench role, which is hardly a bad thing. Role players are necessary in baseball. Teams do have 25-man rosters, after all.And wasn't Murphy a 2B in the minors? Wouldn't that make him an obvious replacement for Castillo down the line?

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