To most people, the word ambivalent means not to care about something. But the real definition of the word is a bit more complex. Instead of not caring, it really means having two opposed or conflicting attitudes or ideas or emotions at the same time. Using the true meaning of the word, I am ambivalent about Daniel Murphy’s defense in 2012.
Before the season started, I was a very strong proponent of having Murphy be the team’s starting second baseman, a viewpoint that put me in the minority. Most people considered him a butcher at second base and many considered it cruel or inhumane to ask him to play a position in which he had suffered a season-ending injury in back-to-back years.
Murphy reported to Spring Training early and got a ton of work in at second base. Unlike the previous season, where he split time at various positions, Murphy worked exclusively at second base and he got the lion’s share of work at the position. In Grapefruit League action, he made some miscues and did not look particularly graceful at the position. But he did not get hurt and the transition moved forward.
Having seen him play second base for 36 games in 2012, Murphy seems to have grown by leaps and bounds at the position. While no one will confuse him with Bill Mazeroski, Murphy appears to pass the eye test. In my mind, he’s gotten quite good at the “in the neighborhood” play at second base. During yesterday’s game, announcer Gary Cohen said, “Murphy handles it with aplomb.” Cohen followed that remark up by praising another catch by Murphy, calling it the defensive play of the game.
In today’s recap in the New York Post, Howie Kussoy quoted Collins on Murphy’s defense, talking about the play where he completed a DP by catching a ball in foul territory and then throwing home to nail the runner at the plate:
”He’s really adjusted to second base. That was a tremendous play. Your back to home plate, to catch and spin and make that accurate of a throw, that was a marvelous, marvelous play.”
So, to recap, Murphy seems to have made a ton of progress on defense and he now passes the eye test for me. Announcer Cohen speaks glowingly about his defense and manager Collins is running out of adjectives to describe his work in the field. It seems perfectly reasonable to hold the belief that Murphy is an acceptable defender at second base, perhaps even more.
But if you go over and check out Murphy’s defensive numbers at FanGraphs, they paint an entirely different picture.
There are 25 second baseman who qualify for the leaderboards and Murphy ranks 24th with a (-6) Defensive Runs Saved and dead last with a (-6.3) UZR. Last year in his brief time at 2B, Murphy was below average in DRS but UZR liked what it saw from Murphy defensively, as he posted a 1.8 UZR in 168.1 innings at second base.
UZR had Murphy below average last year in turning double plays and committing errors. But he displayed excellent range, which brought him to positive numbers at second base. Murphy had displayed good range previously, so this was not a big surprise. However, when we examine the numbers in 2012, Murphy’s range has been his biggest problem. After posting a 2.6 RngR factor in 2011, it’s down to a (-3.4) mark this season.
Murphy’s range seemed fine yesterday – is it possible he struggled early in the season and has grown more comfortable as the year progressed? This seems like a reasonable theory: however, Murphy’s DRS and UZR have gotten worse in the month of May.
So, while our eyes tell us that Murphy is getting the job done in the field, the numbers tell us the exact opposite thing. Which one should we believe?
Sometimes the eyes show us what we want to see and believe. That is why it is important to have non-biased numbers to fall back on. Perhaps being a Murphy fan has caused me to minimize his defensive shortcomings and exaggerate his achievements in the field. David Wright seems to be doing a great job at the plate and the numbers back this up. Murphy seems to be doing fine in the field but the numbers tell us he has been terrible.
The one saving grace is that defensive numbers take longer than offensive numbers to stabilize. So, while Murphy grades out as a rotten fielder after 36 games, it will not be a huge surprise to see the numbers tell a different story by the All-Star break.
Of course defense is just part of the equation and Murphy has done a fine job hitting the ball and getting on base in 2012. Despite being the worst qualified fielder at his position by UZR, the metric used in fWAR, Murphy grades out with a 0.3 fWAR, which puts him at tied for 18th among second basemen. It’s lower than what his backers expected heading into the season, but he is not in negative numbers, like Danny Espinosa and Rickie Weeks, two top 10 guys at the position in 2011.
My heart and my head tell me two different things about Murphy’s defense in 2012, leaving me ambivalent about his play. But with the Mets holding a winning record and Collins firmly in his corner, there seems little doubt that Murphy will continue to play second base. Hopefully he will continue to make highlight-reel plays like he did Thursday while also improving his range and getting to more balls than he has the first seven weeks of the season.