Daniel Murphy’s Keen Eye Bolsters a Nationals Pillar


After the Mets’ halfhearted effort to retain him with a one-year qualifying offer after the 2015 World Series, Murphy signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Washington.

He hit .347 last season and led the N.L. in on-base-plus-slugging percentage, at .985, validating his concerted effort to launch more balls into the sky.

“What’s success?” Murphy asked Friday. “Getting a pitch in your zone and hitting it as hard as humanly possible is success. Just putting the ball in play is not necessarily success.”

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Ryan Zimmerman, right, and Daniel Murphy after Zimmerman smashed a grand slam against the Braves on Wednesday.

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Jason Getz/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Zimmerman knows how to hit for power. He has a better career slugging percentage in 13 seasons as a National (.470) than Murphy had in seven seasons as a Met (.424). But Murphy, an expert in the analytics of his craft, studied data last winter that indicated why Zimmerman was not being rewarded for his hard hits.

He was hitting far too many ground balls, the numbers showed, and needed to raise his launch angle. Zimmerman has done so, but not drastically. Last year, it was 7.9 degrees; this year, 11.5 degrees — still well below the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes, who is among the leaders at 24.5 degrees. But Zimmerman came into this series hitting .389, with five homers and a .778 slugging percentage that ranked fourth in the N.L.

Murphy, who was hitting .344 with two homers, has refused to take credit for Zimmerman’s success. It would make a neat story line, but it’s not quite reality. Zimmerman understood what Murphy meant, and he does have a better ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio now. But he has not tried to remake himself the same way.

“I don’t want to say I wasn’t paying attention to the numbers, because they prove a point: Obviously, if you hit the ball hard and you hit the ball in the air, you’re gonna do more damage, and he’s the perfect example of that,” Zimmerman said of Murphy. “So I don’t want to discount them completely, but I didn’t completely change what I’m doing. I feel like if I can get 500 or 600 at-bats, I still feel confident enough in my abilities that I’ll put up the numbers that I should put up.”

Getting those at-bats has been the problem. Zimmerman has spent much of the past three seasons on the disabled list because of a long checklist of problems: a fractured thumb and hamstring strain in 2014, plantar fasciitis and an oblique strain in 2015, and a strained rib cage and a wrist contusion last year.

With the injuries and the decline in performance — he batted just .218, with 15 homers, last season — it is easy to forget that Zimmerman is still only 32 years old. Manager Dusty Baker said the player’s age, track record and otherwise sound physical condition made him believe in a Zimmerman comeback.

“He’s hitting the ball into right-center field, and that means you’re staying on the ball,” Baker said. “His pitch selection is better because he doesn’t feel like he has to start his swing earlier, which makes you more susceptible to being tricked. I’m glad for Zim, because he was my pick to click when the year started. He’s a guy we needed very, very badly.”

Right fielder Bryce Harper has looked the way he did during his most valuable player season in 2015, and the newcomer Adam Eaton has been shining in center field. With left fielder Jayson Werth looking sturdy, the new catcher Matt Wieters fitting in well and shortstop Trea Turner activated from the disabled list Friday, the Nationals have been baseball’s best offense. They averaged 6.15 runs per game entering the weekend.

“He lengthens out the lineup so much,” Murphy said of Zimmerman. “The at-bats Ryan’s having right now are just really fun to watch. He’s taking advantage of mistakes on the plate, he’s not swinging at marginal pitches for balls. He’s been really dangerous in there.

“We’ve had some really good conversations, him and I, and everyone on the offensive side of this team is very open to discuss what’s going on, what the pitcher’s trying to do to us. Ryan’s really cerebral — he’s always got a plan when he gets to the plate. For me, having a plan is always the biggest deal, no matter what.”

Murphy’s plan to obliterate baseballs helped plant an N.L. champions flag high above right field in Flushing. Zimmerman’s plan is less overt but with a similar endgame: to be the best version of himself.

“I haven’t really done anything crazy different,” he said. “I always felt like if you just continue to hit the ball hard, good things will happen.”

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