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.