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Despite his shortcomings, Daniel Murphy has had a banner year
Daniel Murphy is the antithesis of a star.
There is no grace in his game. There is no flash. There is no sense of ease. His value stems entirely from function, not aesthetics, and because of this, he knew long ago that his only way to the major leagues involved walking a fine line.
"I've always felt that at the point that I don't play the game with my hair on fire, I'm just not physically gifted enough to continue playing at this level," Murphy said. "So that's how I've always approached it."
On one side is hustle. On the other is recklessness. And still there are moments when Murphy can't distinguish which side of the line he stands on. It is one of his many imperfections as a player.
For all the warts in his game, though, Murphy has pieced together one of the most productive seasons of his career, and for the first time, he has been rewarded with a spot on the National League All-Star team. When the game's best players gather in Minneapolis for Tuesday night's Midsummer Classic, Murphy will be the Mets' lone representative.
"I never thought it would happen," said Murphy, whose limitations have long obscured his talents.
Of the five tools, he possesses only one, hitting for average. But it has been enough to make him one of the elite second basemen in the National League.
His defense ranges from substandard to merely adequate, and he's prone to making cardinal mistakes on the bases, a harmful side effect of the aggressive style that he regards as his key to survival.
Nevertheless, when measured by wins above replacement, Murphy ranks behind only the Phillies' Chase Utley among second basemen in the National League. And now Murphy, like Utley, is an All-Star.
"You've got to see him every day," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "When you see this guy every day, you realize what he brings to the table. He plays hurt. He plays so hard every day."
Murphy's batting average (.294 after Saturday's 0-for-4) is the only offensive category in which he leads the Mets. Yet he perhaps has been the team's most valuable player.
Aside from their recent stretch of productivity, the Mets' lineup largely has been subject to lulls, incapable of providing enough support for a pitching staff that has kept the team in almost every game.
They have since seen rightfielder Curtis Granderson emerge from a horrendous slump to begin his tenure with the Mets. They have watched Lucas Duda seize his chance since Ike Davis was traded away to clear the logjam at first base. They have benefitted from David Wright's renaissance after what has been a mostly substandard first half.
Through all those ups and downs, Murphy has been the constant.
"I'm thrilled for him," Wright said. "He's done everything that the organization has asked him to do."
As recently as three years ago, Murphy, 29, faced an uncertain future in the majors.
Knee injuries wiped out his 2010 major-league campaign. In 2011, another knee issue ended his season prematurely. He was hitting .320 at the time, still the highest mark of his career. But he had become overwhelmed by the anxiety of performing.
Not until he rediscovered his faith did Murphy finally learn to manage that anxiety.
"I have Jesus now, that's the peace," he said. "The peace comes from Christ. Any time I don't have peace or have anxiety, that's self-inflicted. That's me not trusting in the plan that Jesus has for me. I do that a lot. I don't trust. If I don't see it, if I can't touch it, I have a hard time trusting. But that's where the faith comes in."
Second chance at second
In the meantime, for as much as the Mets value Murphy's bat, they struggled to find a fit for him defensively. He was a man without a position, enduring even a failed attempt to play the outfield.
The journey eventually led to unfamiliar territory -- second base.
"All he did was grab a glove," Collins said. "He never asked why."
On Field No. 3 at the team's complex in Port St. Lucie, Murphy worked to make himself a passable second baseman. He fielded grounder after grounder from third-base coach Tim Teufel, the former Mets second baseman who oversaw the conversion. Former teammate Justin Turner often joined in, offering encouragement and advice.
The results, while often not pretty, have been passable.
"I don't think he's Robbie Alomar or anything over there," Wright said. "But he gets the job done."
It has been enough to keep Murphy's bat in the lineup, which has been invaluable for the Mets. Few have a better knack for the basic act of putting the bat on the ball. As strikeout rates throughout the game continue to soar, Murphy makes contact.
This season, Murphy has shown the discipline that has escaped him in the past. As an organization, the Mets have long preached patience, imploring hitters to swing at pitches they can drive. Murphy often strayed from the program, putting balls in play even if it meant making weak contact.
Wright said the most visible difference in Murphy's game has been with his approach, particularly when he gets ahead in the count. He has resisted the urge to go into "auto-swing mode, where he looks for anything good to hit, puts it in play and gets himself out,'' Wright said. "That's the biggest thing I've seen is that he's taking his walk. He's being more selective when he gets ahead in the count for pitches he can drive."
When ahead in the count, Murphy through Friday had a .382/.497/.593 slash line. Compared to his career numbers, that's at least a 40-point improvement in each of the three categories.
"Not that I haven't bought into it before, but I've had [recent] success with really, really being disciplined ahead in the count," Murphy said. "And when you have success doing that, that's fun. I want to do that more."
Experience and maturity
He's also made subtle physical adjustments -- such as getting his front foot down a hair earlier -- that he said has helped him see the ball better. But Murphy chalks up much of his season to a culmination of experience and maturity.
"I'm able to adjust quicker to the league than I used to," he said. "When I was younger, I would try to impose my will on the league. This is a tough league and it's tough to impose your will on it. It will beat you up. So I think I've been a little bit more aware of what they're trying to do to me."
There still are instances when Murphy strays from the strike zone. On the bases, he has been burned for trying to take the extra base. He's made the third out of an inning at third base -- a cardinal sin -- and he's been caught stealing with Wright at the plate.
"Sometimes he gets an itch to kind of do something that you shake your head at," Wright said. "But it's not for lack of effort. It's always like an over-hustle play. It's never being lazy."
Murphy's success hasn't gone unnoticed. With the trade deadline looming at the end of the month, Mets officials insist the club has yet to be active in talks. But rival executives believe that Murphy's bat will generate interest.
Great year so far
It already has been an eventful year. In April, Murphy and his wife, Tori, welcomed their first child, Noah.
During a quiet moment this past week, Murphy scanned the rosters for this year's All-Star Game, stopping at the many names that jumped off the page.
Mike Trout, the personification of a five-tool player, is a true baseball savant. Miguel Cabrera is a Triple Crown winner and perhaps the best pure hitter of his generation.
At age 26, Clayton Kershaw is working on his third Cy Young Award.
Then Murphy came across his own name.
"There's no way you would have told me when I was rehabbing in Port St. Lucie," Murphy said, "that four years later, I would be married to the woman that I love, that I would have a son that's 3 months old, and I would be playing in an All-Star Game."