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Is David Murphy Fantasy Relevant?

The Indians finalized their two-year, $12 million deal with David Murphy today. He’s projected for two wins by Steamer, and in the past that front office has pegged the cost per win much higher than we’ve had it on this site. So it’s probably a good deal if he can manage to put up two wins in those two years combined. But should fantasy owners care?

Obviously, there was a moment — a long moment — in which he was fantasy-useful. Between 2010 and 2012, his age 28 to 30 seasons, Murphy averaged 13 homers and 12 steals a season with a .291 average. That’s borderline still, but it would have beaten out Jon Jay, our 50th-ranked outfielder. Jay was worth nine dollars. So Murphy was a third or fourth outfielder most years, and in daily leagues, where you could avoid his issues, he was the perfect platoon bench outfielder that wouldn’t cost much and could be very valuable.

But in 2013, he attempted five steals and was only successful once. Look at his disabled list information, and there are no leg injuries that year. His speed score has been below average more often than it’s been above average anyway. And with borderline success on attempts for his career (69%, 67% is considering break-even), it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll be given the green light much more often in the future. If you’re going to pencil in some steals, don’t hope for any more than Steamer’s seven projected steals, and even then… At least the Indians are middle of the pack when it comes to stolen bases.

If you take away that modest stolen base total, it’s hard to be valuable with just a batting average and (barely) double-digit home runs, but Chris Denorfia was our 62nd-ranked outfielder with a .279 average and 10 homers and 11 steals, so it follows that if Murphy can trump him in batting average, he’ll still have the ability to be worth five bucks or so, even in a mixed league.

David Murphy hit .220 last year. It’s easy to point to his .227 batting average on balls in play as the reason, but it’s a little more complicated. Mark Simon had an excellent piece on Murphy’s problems, particularly with ground balls, and had two interesting takeaways:

Our data provider classifies batted balls into three categories — hard, medium and soft. The chart on the right shows Murphy’s distribution. From 2010 to 2012, Murphy averaged 111 softly-hit grounders and 20 hard-hit ones. In 2013, that split was 124 and five.

Interestingly enough, Murphys 2013 line drive rate (19.3%, 19.2% career), ground-ball-per-fly-ball ratio (1.15, 1.21 career) and home-run-per-fly-ball rate (9.2%, 10.4% career) were all near career norms. And yet he wasn’t hitting his ground balls hard.

“[Murphy] has an open stance, and was getting a bit leaky and starting early with the front side, causing him to roll over a lot, hurting his ability to use the whole field with a line drive approach, which had been his trademark,” one scout wrote via e-mail.

What’s weird about this quote is that Murphy has been going to the opposite field more often as he’s gotten older, and that trend continued in 2013.

Year Oppo %
2008 21.5%
2009 26.1%
2010 24.8%
2011 26.0%
2012 27.6%
2013 27.5%

And it’s not just about going to the opposite field — he had a 26% line drive rate to the opposite field last year. In fact, it was his 16.4% line drive rate to the pull field that was the second-worst of his career. And though the emphasis here seems to be on his whole-field approach, it’s fair to wonder if the pull field is where his salvation lies. If he’s not hitting the ball hard enough on the ground, and he’s not hitting line drives to the pull field, he’s having a hard time driving the ball. Pulling the ball is everyone’s best source of power, even if it comes with its own set of problems.

Unfortunately, if more pulling is the solution for Murphy, he’s headed to the wrong team. The Indians pulled the ball fourth-least in the American League over the last three years. That’s a function of personnel, but it’s also a question of philosophy.

Maybe David Murphy is best served by spraying to all fields. After all, he’s not really a power hitter, with an isolated slugging percentage just above league average for his career (.166, .145 is average). Then again, he’s not a speedster any more either. And if his best way to be productive for your team is batting average help, it’s a shame that you have to sit him a third of the time. And at 32, he’s decidedly post-peak.

And yet, given all those faults, David Murphy will be owned in most leagues of any depth. Because he has the upside to help just a little in all categories on those days when he’s in the lineup. Consider him for your bench in 2014.