WASHINGTON — Of course he gets asked. And of course he has no intention of answering.
Daniel Murphy stood in front of his locker before the Nationals got set to take on the Marlins on Friday night when a local television crew cautiously broached the subject of his old team. They, like anyone else who’s glanced at the standings, are looking to Tuesday, when Murphy goes back to the place he called home for the better portion of a decade. This time, he’ll do it as the best hitter in major-league baseball, but even so, he’s in no mood to look into the future. After all, he’s a baseball player — “One game at a time” is basically written into his genetic code.
“You’re not thinking about the Mets . . . ” the reporter began hopefully.
“Is Koehler throwing tonight?” Murphy responded, face twisted in mock confusion, like he’s trying to remember a long-lost fact from fifth-grade science class. “Right, Todd?” he said, calling to someone wandering nearby.
It’s all a ruse, of course. Murphy is one of the most studious players in baseball, and he can tell you who’s pitching, what’s in his repertoire, and possibly his mother’s maiden name. Though the jersey has changed, Murphy has not. He’s forever wry, forever sardonic; he turned back to the crew and smirked, and his eyes danced as he continued to answer the question no one ever asked.
“We’ve got [Tom] Koehler tonight,” Murphy said, the mystery of the Marlins’ starting pitcher solved. “We’ll just try to get this series started off on the right foot.”
It’s too early to tell if Murphy’s dry humor will translate to the D.C. market, but one thing is certain, he likes it here. It’s a nice place to raise a family, he said, and his wife and his son, Noah, have settled in comfortably. He’s also a pro at saying all the right things, something that can frustrate reporters but no doubt delights his team. His .403 batting average? “I’m in a nice spot in the lineup,” he said. Coming to the Nationals? “The ownership group has been unbelievable.”
And so far, every Nationals fan worth their salt should be pretty delighted, too. They got him at a relative steal — three years, $37.5 million — and these days, he’s hitting behind Bryce Harper in the cleanup spot. When he comes up to bat, the cheers that follow that familiar Dropkick Murphys at-bat music almost rival Harper’s. When he hit a long fly ball to right with the bases loaded in the first inning in Game 1 of a doubleheader Saturday, the crowd swelled in excitement. It barely reached the warning track, but they already know that in Murphy, all baseball things are possible. (Michael Taylor scored on the sacrifice fly.)
Still, he’s got a long way to go before he catches up in the jersey department (everyone in Nationals Park is either Harper, Ryan Zimmerman or Stephen Strasburg, it seems) but if he keeps up this pace, the No. 20s will start showing up soon enough.
“Oh, wow,” manager Dusty Baker said when asked about what Murphy’s been able to do in his short time here. “Dan, he was the largest acquisition we made this year. We didn’t know exactly how good he was.”
Hard to blame them. Most people thought that Murphy’s ridiculous, borderline unfathomable postseason was a fluke. After all, he was a career .288 hitter going into 2016, generally good for a smattering of home runs, and 60 or so RBIs. But then it happened. Mets hitting coach Kevin Long adjusted his stance, Murphy started to hit balls harder and better, then came seven playoff home runs and an October so big, “Dan-iel Murphy” chants became the primary mode of communication at Citi Field.
Murphy is hitting a league-high .403 following Saturday’s doubleheader. He isn’t exactly destroying the ball like he did in the playoffs, but he does have five homers, exceeding his career pace (Murphy has never hit more than 14 home runs in the regular season).
“I try not to think about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to have quality at-bats, just get a pitch I’m looking for and try to hit it as hard as humanly possible.”
So far, the transition to capital city living has been seamless enough, and Murphy has even found himself a study partner in Danny Espinosa.
“We talk every day about how we want to attack a pitcher, how we want to approach him,” he said of the Nationals switch-hitting shortstop. “So just having an idea of what the pitcher does well, what are his strengths, but also trying to remember and not getting too far away from what we do, as well . . . Sometimes it finds outfield grass and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Espinosa loves it. They started doing it in spring training and really got rolling when the season began. Espinosa will watch the video the night before and they find each other the next day to discuss. Hitting becomes less about what the pitcher can do to you, and more about what you can do to the pitcher in any particular situation, he said.
“Instead of having such a broad approach, it’s a more refined approach,” Espinosa said. “He just as an idea of what he wants to do off a pitcher . . . [It’s a] mental place . . . For me, sometimes it doesn’t show in the numbers, but I feel like my at-bats and how I’ve hit the ball has been completely different. I’m hitting the ball harder, I feel like I’m having better, cleaner at-bats.”
The most surprising thing about Murphy’s success, though, is how unsurprised everyone is about it. Espinosa said he saw evidence of it throughout Murphy’s career. Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu said he knew from having been personally victimized by him when Murphy was with the Mets. (He didn’t enjoy it.)
“He’s always killed us,” Schu said. “He’s gotten a lot of hits on us and he’s done damage, so you see the carry-over from last year in the playoffs, his power, his hitting in spring training, so I’m not surprised at all.”
Well, that makes two people. Despite how early it is, few things create buzz in baseball like a .400 average. But even only two months into the season, this hot start is a strong indicator that, at 31, Murphy is in store for one of the best years of his career. Assuming his career average of 537 at-bats (excluding his shortened rookie year), Murphy would only have to hit around .270 the rest of the way to finish above .300, which he’s done only once in a full season.
A look at where, and how hard, Murphy is hitting the ball gives a telling glimpse into how he’s changed his swing. Going into the Marlins series, Murphy had his greatest success at the top of the zone, hitting .351 on balls right over the plate, and that’s also where his hardest-hit balls tend to be, according to a FanGraphs heat map. Throw a fastball in that area, and be ready to regret it: His batting average going into the Marlins series was .400 on high fastball strikes in the middle of the plate, and his ISO (a stat that essentially measures hard-hit balls) was a staggering .571.
All this because Long and assistant Pat Roessler made Murphy move closer to the plate, and crouch down a little lower. The first tweak seems to have led to more hard line drives, and the second is likely responsible for his getting under the ball more, leading to fewer groundouts. Additionally, he’s able to turn on pitches quicker, and when Murphy pulls the ball, good things happen. This season, all but one of his home runs were to right. Essentially, it’s the gift the Mets never intended to give their NL East foes.
“I think it’s carry-over from last year,” Schu said. “He’s covering more zone, pulling the ball a little bit more. He’s just a pro. He comes to the park every day, gets video, has a game plan for every at-bat. He just grinds ABs. I’ve been watching him for the last three years from our dugout, so it’s nice to have him in our dugout.”
Statistics do indicate that Murphy is due to regress. Going into the Marlins series, his batting average on balls put into play was .413 — meaning that things are just going his way. By way of comparison, the major-league average last year was .299. His defense, which was always something of a liability, still has major lapses. His throwing error in the fifth inning of Friday night’s 5-3 win gave the Marlins a brief two-run lead. He already has four errors this season.
Not that anyone is wringing their hands about it right now. Schu’s face lit up when he talked about the Murphy acquisition. “Really excited” was his reaction.
“He figured out the formula that it takes for him to be successful,” Baker said. “He studies tirelessly . . . Just like some pitchers figure it out at a certain age, some hitters figure it out at a certain age. You figure out what your limitations are and what you can do and can’t do.”
Right now, for Daniel Murphy, the limit doesn’t exist.