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Trend Spotting: The value of David Murphy and closing doors

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1murphyWhile pondering an information age where a $12 million dollar contract signing could be leaked via Twitter because of a daycare conversation, I began to become very pleased with the possible addition of David Murphy.

Of course a guy like Murphy won’t exactly knock your socks off; he is what many would deem to be league average but for the Indians he offers legitimate value.

Last month, when evaluating the Indians off-season priorities, the top three looked like this:

  1. Middle or back of the rotation starter to cover the exits of Jimenez and Kazmir (Although my heart still longs for the Tribe to find a way to retain Kazmir).
  2. Right Field (Most obviously a platoon scenario due to Raburn’s ability to demolish left handed pitching)
  3. Third Base (Chisenhall’s abysmal splits against left handed pitching combined with league average defense at the position, has to be seen as a position that can be improved.)

Indeed, it was relatively clear that in terms budget capacity the Indians had nothing akin to an excess of resources.
Most people projected the Indians budget to sit at around $80 million flat, which is about where they sit at this moment. Which may be where it ends up but with Castrovince’s revelation that the Tribe has been involved in bidding on starting pitching of some cost, it is a possibility that they knock on the door of $90 million.

Of course, there are the two seemingly immovable objects, I mean contracts. I myself I have pined for that trade that clears either Asdrubal Cabrera or Michael Bourn off the payroll.

They are differentiated cases; Michael Bourn looks to continue to have some legitimate value but has an escalating contract that will probably pay more than he is worth over the next three years. Dealing Bourn is a possibility but one would have to be careful to evaluate the value back.

The only positive indicator offered surrounding a reclamation of Asdrubal Cabrera is the “contract year” argument. Being that Cabrera will suddenly eliminate his immense plate discipline issues that have surfaced because it is a walk year. Or that his defense can somehow become close to league average again because of “effort”.

Have people forgotten that Cabrera entered this season in much better shape than the prior two seasons; with the front office impressed by the shape of his body. Of course athletes are usually just motivated in contract years, a true indicator of the highly competitive. If one does not sense the sarcasm, I have now made it explicit. Next time I may insert a picture of Ron Swanson to make it particularly overt.

Alas, other front offices unfortunately see what we see, an abysmal defender, whose plate discipline and contact issues have dissipated his ability to the point that he is an OBP liability.

Of course, there are a few in the Ruben Amaro mold who might be foolish enough to deal for Cabrera and assist the Indians in clearing salary but these types of GM’s are becoming dinosaurs for good reason.

I suppose what I am asserting is that, while clearing payroll is possible, it is going to be immensely challenging for the front office and cannot be relied upon as a path to improving this roster.

Which brings us back to the Murphy signing and the cautious optimism. I will begin by detailing what he can add as well as why he will bounce back in 2014.

Murphy adds two particularly important pieces to the right field situation specifically, outside of solid defensive versatility in the outfield.

The first is his platoon value with Ryan Raburn. Although Raburn was adequate against right handed pitching last season, it was an extremely limited and over his career he has struggled with an OPS of just .714 and a wRC+ of just 90.

The real point being that if Raburn receives more than 350-400 at bats you are not employing his skillset correctly.

Which is where Murphy comes in. Over the course of his career Murphy has been a stud against right handed pitching. His career slash-line against righty’s: .280/.347/.469 for an OPS of .816.

Another important piece is David Murphy’s approach. The guy is towards the top of the American League in pitches per plate appearance at 3.90 but with a low strikeout rate. Furthermore, his career walk rate of 8.7% for a player who is not reliant on power is very positive.

Thus the fit as a platoon is fairly easy to establish, his second piece of value is defensive versatility and skill. Murphy can play both left and right as well as center if you are in a pinch or have to address it for a very brief period of time.

In left and right, Murphy plays above average defense according to Ultimate Zone Rating. UZR has its imperfections but usually when considered over a three-plus year sample one can make legitimate interpretations off of the data.

Thus, his platoon production, defensive skill and versatility make for a solid skill set of a league average player. The question then becomes, what is the concern with the Murphy contract? If he is indeed league average, which is different than “replacement level”, then the Indians are saving $2-3 million per.

Well there are two important and legitimate criticisms that have come to fruition in the past 24 hours.

The first criticism is that Murphy appears to be aging poorly and already in decline. Thus, let’s take a look at his career:

2008 .321 6.80% 15.40% .295 4.80%
2009 .338 9.90% 21.50% .311 6.30%
2010 .358 9.60% 15.10% .324 9.00%
2011 .328 7.50% 13.90% .299 7.00%
2012 .380 10.40% 14.20% .333 7.10%
2013 .282 7.80% 12.40% .227 5.50%

(IFH%:Infield Hit %, BABIP: Batting Average on Balls in Play)

While Murphy’s walk rate is solid, it is clear that due to his contact rate and frequent capacity to put balls in play, he is highly reliant on the outcomes of his contact.  Which unfortunately, was the fatal flaw of his 2013 season; his BABIP was 75 points lower than his career average and 70 points below league average.

The positive is that this appears to be more fluky than it is a function of any declining skill. One of the important indicators is generally line drive %. Murphy’s LD% was actually a 1/10% higher than his career numbers.

The only noticeable difference in his batted ball profile was an increase in infield fly ball percentage and a decrease in infield hits. Even these small shifts while having an impact aren’t large enough to create this massive BABIP decline.

It is clear that Murphy experienced an extremely unlucky season and should bounce back to at least 95-98% of his previous production.

That is dependent on the following consideration – which is the second legitimate criticism – surrounding Murphy’s move from The Ballpark at Arlington to Progressive Field.

Indeed, looking at his splits it is easy to see where this concern stems from:

Career splits:

Home: .284/.342/.470, OPS .812
Away: .266/.332/.413, OPS .746

These are certainly alarming but there are multiple factors that affect home and road splits. The first is park factor. The Rangers play in a hitter friendly venue; however, if you look at park factor by handedness (a reason why Fangraphs is like manna from the heavens) one sees that Progressive and The Ballpark in Arlington have minimal differentiation.

In fact, the only large differential in park factor for left handed hitters is the triple. This is because for left handed hitters, Progressive Field is neutral or above neutral in singles and doubles, as well as being a left handed hitter is favorable for home run production at least since 2009. Which makes the case surrounding Murphy’s reliance on Arlington for success a bit weaker. This is not to say there isn’t a gap but over the past five seasons it has been a minimal one.

The second piece when looking at splits is the idea of a consistent batter’s eye. Being that having slightly better production at a home park over the course of multiple seasons is not uncommon because of comfort with picking up the baseball off a stable background.

In any case, Murphy’s home/road splits are worth monitoring but not inherently concerning at this point.

In 2014, I am projecting the following line for David Murphy: 128 Games, .269/.335/.420 with 12 home runs and 50 RBI’s. Which combined with above average defense would put him at a 1.6-2.0 WAR guy. A solid value when considering that the cost of a win will sit between $6-8 million.

When it comes to closing doors, I was referring to the possible paths the Indians can walk. With this investment, it appears that they will be limited to only adding a fifth starter via free agency.  While an offensive upgrade is possible I would expect it to occur via trade unless an incredible opportunity arises.

In effect, I believe that the Indians have only one mid-level free agent signing left, if that, and every other upgrade will probably be done by trade. This of course will be coupled with a collection of low-impact lottery tickets as with every offseason.

Furthermore, one might question why I did not include relief pitching as a need. In reality, I believe it is a need but should be addressed differently. Spending should be limited and improving a bullpen can be done in small side trades and spring training invites.

The Podcast: As a final note, for more insight on the David Murphy signing in an audio form you can check out ourCleveland Sports Insider Podcast.

Author: Michael Hattery

Currently an Attorney. I have been fortunate enough to be published at Fangraphs, The Hardball Times, The Athletic Cleveland, and Marquette Sports Law Review. Follow @snarkyhatman

One thought on “Trend Spotting: The value of David Murphy and closing doors

  1. Pingback: Plenty of movement at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario | Cleveland Sports Insiders

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