On November 20th, the Cleveland Indians signed outfielder David Murphy to a 2 year/12 million dollar contract, hoping to see a bounce-back pair of seasons from him after an atrocious 2013. There is always risk involved when signing a player coming off of such a bad season, and it certainly doesn’t help that Murphy is on the wrong side of 30, but nonetheless, this was a wise allocation of resources by the Tribe.
After, for the most part, reaching base at a very solid clip in the years 2010-2012, posting OBPs of .358, .328, and .380, he plummeted to .282 in 2013. Additionally, he saw his wRC+ decrease from 129 in 2012 to a dreadful 73 in 2013. Suddenly, he was dangerously close to being nothing more than a replacement-level player, posting an unimpressive WAR of 0.4 despite playing 142 games. This sharp decline coming just one season after achieving a WAR of 3.9, suggesting he was closer to stardom than replacement level. How did this happen to Murphy? While it is difficult to quantify the effect of, as Murphy puts it, “Putting pressure on myself to step into a role and play a bigger part in the offense,” one thing is for sure: Murphy had horrendous luck in 2013. The sabermetrics community is becoming increasingly aware that BABIP involves many factors besides a player’s luck, so perhaps Murphy’s putrid .220 BABIP cannot simply be written off as nothing more than bad fortune. Then again, perhaps it can, as Murphy also posted a .295 xBABIP, suggesting that he made solid enough contact to achieve roughly a league average BABIP.
This is especially important considering that, even in a down 2013 for Murphy, he still did a stellar job of putting the ball in play with a K% of 12.4 compared to the league average of 18.5. This of course suggests that, given his propensity to put the ball in play, an increased BABIP would yield even more dramatic results than it would for most players. To put into context just how impressive that strikeout rate is, it is superior to that of both Miguel Cabrera (14.4%) and Mike Trout (19%). By no means does this make Murphy a better player than Trout or Cabrera, as Murphy is no superstar, but he sure does avoid strikeouts like one.
Not only does he put the ball in play, his power is not yet on the decline. While no one would describe David Murphy as a slugger, he’s no Ben Revere, either. For evidence of this, one need look no further than to his ISO, which has stood above what FanGraphs defines as the league average of .145 in all but one of his six full major league seasons. Obviously, he possesses a nice combination of good power and excellent contact skills. Furthermore, let’s say he posted a .295 BABIP to correlate with his xBABIP. As a result, his OBP would see an impressive uptick from .282 to a comparatively robust .332, just about in line with his career mark of.337. Or, in other words, only .007 points worse than Hunter Pence. Perception is a funny thing, isn’t it?
Certainly, we are talking about a player who will see a healthy progression in his offense from last season to this, but what about Murphy’s defense? Well, it turns out he is steady with the glove as well. While he has played most of his career in left field, all signs point to him spending most of this season in right field for the Indians. This should be no problem, as his UZR/150 in right field of 10.3 for his career is a clear indicator that he is more than capable of manning the position. In fact, that mark is actually greater than his UZR/150 in left field, 6.1. These numbers do not quite reflect defensive wizardry, but as seems to be the case with almost every element of Murphy’s game, paint a picture of a solid, reliable player.
Assuming Murphy experiences an offensive rebound of sorts, as the numbers suggest he should, and continues his well-above-average glove work, one could reasonably project him to be worth somewhere between two and three wins this upcoming season. Considering that the price of one WAR is thought to be somewhere in the six million dollar range, and that Murphy will receive a six million dollar annual salary in his two-year pact with the Tribe, he has a chance to be worth in excess of two times what he is being paid. Simply put, this addition was a savvy one by GM Chris Antonetti. There have been flashier signings this offseason, and hindsight is 20/20, but perhaps in the year 2020, when the Mariners are still on the hook for 96 million dollars worth of 37 year old, near replacement level Robinson Cano, they and heavy-spending teams like them might wish they had chosen the route the Indians did this winter. The bargain bin isn’t sexy, but it will undoubtedly prove to be a wise, cost-effective approach for the Indians in the case of Murphy.
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