Before the season, I started writing a draft of something called “Are Mets fans setting expectations too high for Daniel Murphy?” I never finished it, mostly because I didn’t see the need to be overly negative before the season started; after all, spring training is a time for optimism, there’s plenty of time for negativity during the regular season. But the jist of my point was that Murphy was probably a little bit lucky in 2008, that he probably wasn’t as good as he played in August and September, and would probably see a little regression, and that Mets fans who saw him as the team’s next David Wright should probably lower their expectations.
Well, it actually has turned out far worse than I could have imagined. Daniel Murphy has not meant business for this Mets team. After a few bumbling errors on pop flies made him look foolish, coupled with Carlos Delgado’s trip to the disabled list in May, Murphy was pulled out of left field and made the team’s full-time first baseman. Those are the two most offensive-minded positions in the National League, and Daniel Murphy has started 65 games at either position.
The results have been horrific. Murphy has hit .260/.339/.390/.729 as a left fielder, which is bad, but not a disaster. One could chalk that up to a small sample size (116 PAs) and hope for a nice bounceback as the season progressed, especially since his 2008 had been so promising. However, things have gotten worse, not better, since his move to first base; a .222/.294/.326/.620 line in 162 plate appearances. This is no longer a small sample size. Playing two of the most important offensive positions in the National League, the Mets have gotten a robust .241/.309/.353/.662 line out of Murphy.
Here is some perspective on how bad Murphy has been this year. Over the past 40 years, there have been twelve first basemen in the majors who have qualified for a batting title who have put up an OPS lower than .667, none since Kevin Young OPS’d .643 in 1993. It has been sixteen years since a major league first baseman has performed as poorly as Daniel Murphy in 2009. The worst OPS by a first baseman in the last ten years was Daric Barton’s .675 in 2008. Barton has only 35 plate appearances in the majors in 2009 thus far.
There have been a few more left fielders as bad as Murphy’s .667, a total of 27 over the past 40 years. But most of these players were active in the 70’s and 80’s, when teams weren’t as smart with how to build a good baseball team. You know who the last left fielder to OPS less than .667 in the majors was? If you remember the 2002 Mets, you do, because it was Steve Phillips’ favorite player Roger Cedeno, owner of a .664 OPS that season. Daniel Murphy = Roger Cedeno? I’d like to think Murphy is better than that, but it’s probably closer than I’d like.
Daniel Murphy is a great example of the sweeping dysfunction related to the 2009 Mets. Murphy was the plan going into the season as the starting left fielder. Not a platoon situation with Fernando Tatis, ”Nasty” Nick Evans or another player – he was the starter. When the Mets acquired Gary Sheffield, it wasn’t to platoon him in left field with Murphy, it was to platoon him in right field with Ryan Church. Then, after Murphy made an embarrassing string of errors in left, that plan was abandoned when Carlos Delgado was hurt and the Mets needed a new everyday first baseman.
All the while, Murphy has continued to get worse at the plate as the season progressed (OPS by month: .800 in April, .631 in May, .618 in June, .592 in July). Clearly, beyond any shadow of a doubt, Daniel Murphy is not the answer in 2009 at any of these positions, and may never be the answer. But because the depth in this organization is so poor, the team has no choice but to keep forcing him out there day after day, bad performance after bad performance, and hope he turns it around. He clearly needs a trip to Buffalo to work out his swing, work on the outfield defense, and hope to fix him, but they don’t seem willing to promote Nick Evans and hand him first base until Delgado gets back.
As if starting the worst possible player they could find in left field or at first base wasn’t bad enough, Jerry Manuel has chosen to compound his error by batting Murphy as high in the batting order as he possibly can. Murphy has started 65 games this season. In 41 of those 65 starts, Murphy has batted first, second, or third. Jerry Manuel is pretending that everything is A-OK with Murphy and that this is a batter they need to get as many at-bats as possible. Even with as bad as some of the recent lineups have been, and as little as batting order may really matter, Murphy should not be batting higher than 7th or 8th, unless there’s a damn good reason. He’s batted 7th five times, and has batted 8th zero times.
It’s time to set new expectations for Daniel Murphy. He’s not going to be the Mets’ starting first baseman of the future. He shouldn’t be the Mets’ starting first baseman of the present. He’s still young enough, and there’s still hope that they can transform him into a super-sub type, a four corners reserve who can maybe play some second base as well. He’s probably not going to be a starter, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still have some value to this team. This Mets team needs to react and adjust, because as bad as Murphy has been, he is still a potential asset to this team.
For a team that loves to spend $2 million here, $1 million there on Marlon Anderson and Damion Easley types, they have a player who is probably capable of being better than that under team control for another 4-plus seasons. But this charade that he is an everyday first baseman needs to stop, because starting him at first base is hurting this ball club. For all the talk about how this team has been besieged by injuries, all these injuries have proven is how much guys like Beltran and Reyes are carrying a team that has sub-optimal players at other positions. Murphy is the most glaring example on this team right now.