WASHINGTON — It all started Oct. 9, 2015, but nobody knew it quite yet.
That day, Daniel Murphy went 1 for 4 with a solo home run and a strikeout, a modest outing but one that helped his New York Mets beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLDS. He followed that up with a 1 for 4 day, featuring just a single, in a loss. Two days later, Murphy went 1 for 5 with a single, a run scored and an RBI in a 13-7 Game 3 win. Through three postseason outings, Murphy was 3 for 13 with a home run, two singles and three strikeouts.
And on Oct. 13, it really got going, but again, it was impossible to tell at the time.
In Game 4, Murphy went 1 for 4 with a solo home run. Aside from the home run and the fact that it was the first time in four postseason games that he hadn’t struck out, there was nothing especially significant about the performance for Murphy, especially since his Mets lost 3-1.
What followed was what made that game significant. Murphy went on to homer in each of the five games after, an MLB record six straight postseason games with a home run. He went 13 for 25 in that stretch, adding two doubles and five singles while scoring nine runs and knocking in 10.
Things changed when the World Series started. Murphy went 2 for 7 in the first game of the series, a 14-inning loss for the Mets, striking out twice and scoring a run. He then went 1 for 13 over the final four games of the series, striking out five times and walking five times. He didn’t record an extra-base hit in any of the five games, and it seemed his incredible run had come to a less-than-graceful end.
The Mets didn’t make much of an effort to re-sign him the following winter, and he came to the Nationals on a three-year, $37.5 million contract. It wasn’t considered a needle-moving signing for Washington — after all, Murphy isn’t great in the field and set a career high in home runs in 2015 with just 14. Nearly a .300 hitter for his career, Murphy was thought to be a fine piece for the Nationals, but not much more than that.
And then 2016 came, and Murphy went on a tear for the ages.
He was still hitting .400 on May 16, and he has led MLB in batting average for almost the entire season. At the All-Star break, he’d already surpassed 2015’s total in home runs, by three. He’s tied his career high with four triples, and after his pinch-hit, bottom-of-ninth solo home run Sunday, he’s just 11 RBIs away from tying his career high.
As of Monday, Murphy is hitting .350/.388/.608 with 118 hits, 18 walks and 38 strikeouts. He’s on pace to set career highs in all of the following categories: home runs, RBIs, runs, hits, doubles, triples and total bases.
Murphy, who just turned 31 in April, seems an unlikely candidate for this incredible breakout. After all, it’s not every year an eight-year veteran with one All-Star season to his name (2014) emerges as an MVP candidate. But according to FiveThirtyEight, Murphy’s meteoric rise, while historic, is not unprecedented.
As Neil Paine mentions in the article, Murphy is on pace for the 21st-biggest single-season improvement by a hitter over his previous career Weighted Runs Created Plus at age 31 or older since 1901; that doesn’t sound that significant, but, as Paine mentions, many of the 20 seasons ahead of Murphy were influenced by steroids.
“Many of the people atop that list — including (but not limited to) Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Caminiti and Mark McGwire — have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs, were named in the Mitchell Report or were otherwise implicated in baseball’s steroid scandal via leaked test results. But nothing so sinister has been mentioned to explain Murphy’s rise, and some players outside the steroid era experienced similar (presumably natural) leaps in performance.”
Bonds is also responsible for three of the 20 seasons ahead of Murphy on that list, including the two at the top.
Every player goes through hot streaks and slumps, and the question always comes up of whether or not the player will sustain the streak or slump after a break. For example, many wondered if Murphy could keep his blistering season rolling after the All-Star break, and that question became amplified when Murphy was scratched for the first two games after the break.
But, as mentioned, Murphy is now 1 for 1 after the break with a solo home run.
It doesn’t look like Murphy is going anywhere.