Is Daniel Murphy’s defense worse than David Wright’s?

If we polled 100 Mets fans and asked them to name their favorite player, the top two responses would undoubtedly be Jose Reyes and David Wright. Those two players came up through the Mets farm system and are dynamic players capable of doing a bunch of different things on the baseball field. The perception is that these two guys are stars on both offense and defense.

That perception is wrong.

In 2007 and 2008, Reyes and Wright were stars on both sides of the ball. But in the past two years they’ve fallen off significantly. In 2007, Reyes had 11 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and a UZR/150 of 11.6 while Wright had 13 DRS and a 6.3 UZR/150. Last year Reyes had 0 DRS and a UZR/150 of -5.7 while Wright checked in with -10 DRS and a -9.5 UZR/150.

Last year 19 third basemen had enough innings to qualify for the FanGraphs leaderboards and Wright finished 17th in DRS, 17th in Revised Zone Rating (RZR) and 19th, also known as dead last, in UZR/150. And before you say it’s a one-year blip, in 2009 Wright finished 13th among 18 qualifiers at the hot corner in RZR, 17th in DRS and 18th (again dead last) in UZR/150.

So, we have two years of data and three different advanced defensive measures and they all agree – Wright is a bad defensive player. But does that mean he should not be in the lineup? To most people that is an absurd idea. Wright is so good on offense that it negates his defensive troubles and the overall package is still a very valuable player.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) looks to grade a player on his total contributions on offense and defense and give a total number. A WAR of 2.0 is an average player while a 0.0 mark is what a replacement player should produce. Last year, despite his -10.6 UZR (not adjusted to 150 games), Wright still finished with a fWAR of 4.1, the seventh-best total among 23 third basemen in the majors.

Which brings us to Daniel Murphy.

Like Reyes and Wright, Murphy came up through the farm system although he was not able to settle in at his preferred position of third base. They tried him in left field, which did not work so well. Then the Mets moved him to first base and after an adjustment period, that worked quite well. And then he got hurt and lost the first base job to Ike Davis.

Murphy allegedly came to Spring Training along with three others in a battle to win the second base job. Here are the OPS numbers for the 2B contenders this Spring:

Castillo – .641
Emaus – .664
Murphy – .771
Turner – .564

One would think that Murphy won this competition pretty handily. However, that does not seem to be the case. Questions about his defense have led many to view him as a backup instead of as a regular. It has been alleged that Luis Hernandez is now the front runner in the manager’s eye for the second base job. So, how bad does Murphy’s defense have to be to negate his offensive edge on Hernandez?

Neither player has a ton of MLB experience. But in 707 lifetime PA in the majors, Murphy has a .768 OPS while Hernandez has a .584 mark in 290 PA. If we go back to the minor league days, Murphy has an .808 OPS in 1,126 PA while Hernandez has a .633 OPS in 3,324 PA.

Both players have an argument why their OPS is not indicative of their offensive potential. For Murphy, he had a two-month stretch in 2009 when he hit like, uh, Luis Hernandez as he made the transition to first base. Here are his major league numbers, broken down in segments:

2008, 151 PA, .313/.397/.473 – OPS .870
2009, 108 PA, .298/.364/.457 – OPS .821
2009, 182 PA, .204/.272/.290 – OPS .562
2009, 266 PA, .294/.321/.504 – OPS .825

Murphy has 525 PA in the majors that say he’s a pretty good offensive player and 182 PA where he resembles a sub-replacement player.

Meanwhile, Hernandez has been better recently with the bat than he was earlier in his career. In 2009 at Triple-A Omaha, he put up a .725 OPS and last year split between Double and Triple-A he posted a .735 OPS. Even in his brief stint in the majors, Hernandez put up a .707 OPS last year and so far this Spring he has a .751 OPS in 25 PA.

Let’s ignore the bulk of the evidence and say that the .707 OPS that Hernandez put up in the majors last year is his true talent level while Murphy’s lifetime OPS in the majors of .768 is his true talent level. How much better on defense would Hernandez have to be to make up a 61-point OPS gap?

Last year, Howie Kendrick had a 56-point OPS edge on Aaron Hill. Kendrick also was one of the worst-fielding full-time second basemen with -11 DRS and a -6.7 UZR while Hill was above-average with a +9 DRS and a 3.6 UZR. And Kendrick still put up the better overall season with a 1.6 fWAR while Hill finished with a 1.1 fWAR.

So a difference of 10.3 UZR was not enough to catapult the weaker offensive player past the superior offensive player. And we are assuming that Hernandez actually is this good offensively, which is a leap of faith. Plus it’s far from certain that Hernandez is even this good defensively. In a brief trial in the majors, Hernandez has a -5.7 UZR/150 at second base.

On the flip side, we are also assuming that Murphy will be this bad defensively, which is hardly a sure thing. Murphy was actually a fine defensive first baseman, as he posted an 8.7 UZR/150. His range was outstanding at 7.4 RngR. But Murphy figures to be below average in both hands and turning the double play at second base.

Among full-time second baseman last year, the player with the worst hands (the one with the worst ErrR) was Chone Figgins, who had a -6.4 while the one who was worst at turning the double play was Howie Kendrick at -2.1 DPR. So, let’s assume Murphy is worse at both of these, giving him a -7.0 ErrR and a -3.0 in DPR. He then just needs to post a 3.3 in RngR to be as good defensively as Kendrick was last season. In other words, he needs to show less than half of the range he did at first base.

Murphy is likely to be better with his hands than what we show here. And he’s likely to post better range numbers, too. Basically, there’s not overwhelming evidence to think that Murphy would be the worst defensive second baseman in the majors and even less reason to think that Hernandez could make up defensively what he trails offensively compared to Murphy.

If given a chance at second base, Murphy has a good shot to post better defensive numbers for his position than Wright did last year for third basemen. Even if we give Murphy a -7.0 ErrR and a -3.0 DPR, he would have to put up a negative RngR number to be worse than Wright. No one is suggesting that the Mets bench Wright. While Murphy’s offense won’t be as good as Wright’s, he will still enjoy a tremendous offensive edge over Hernandez, one big enough to make benching him a mistake.

Top 10 Spring Training stories for Mets

After four months without MLB, Spring Training is always a welcome sight. Even though the teams never have full lineups, the pitchers rarely throw at peak form and managers make moves they never would during the season – we can’t help but to look at the stats and look at things that jump out. There are always going to be people struggling and people exceeding expectations. But sometimes the surprising thing is who is doing what – and to what extent.

With that in mind, here are my Top 10 surprises in Spring Training for the Mets.

10. Tim Byrdak with 2 Saves
In 343 games in the majors, Byrdak has 3 Saves and a 4.35 ERA. While it’s surprising that he has yet to give up an earned run this Spring, it’s only 6.1 IP. Last year with the Astros he had an 11.1 scoreless innings streak and a 14.0 streak. But if you had given us five guesses before Spring Training started about who would lead the club in Saves in late March few, if any, would have said Byrdak.

9. Fernando Martinez and his .364/.481/.591 line
When the Mets signed Martinez as a 16-year old, he was a five-tool talent and everybody’s expectations were through the roof. Now after an injury-marred minor league career, most people have written him off as a starter, much less an impact major league player. So, while it was only 22 ABs, it was still very nice to see Martinez put up sparkling slash numbers.

8. Kirk Nieuwenhuis gets 32 ABs despite .094 AVG
One of the most useful things to see in Spring Training is who gets a lot of ABs. Those are the guys that the club wants to see play, usually because they are competing for a roster/starting spot. But when a minor leaguer gets that much time, it’s a clear example that the club thinks highly of him. Nieuwenhuis benefits from being a CF but that doesn’t explain this much playing time with so little production. I had him rated fifth in my top prospects ranking and it’s clear the Mets are high on him, too.

7. Taylor Buchholz approaches 2009-10 innings total
Elbow surgery, along with a back injury that landed him on the DL last year, limited Buchholz to just 12 IP the past two seasons. This Spring, Buchholz has logged 11 IP, the top total of any reliever on the staff. And to make things even better, he has yet to allow a run. Buchholz has been fortunate, as he has allowed 15 baserunners in those 11 innings, but his health and performance have been good to see.

6. Daniel Murphy not locking up 2B job despite .811 OPS
Murphy has picked up right where he left off offensively despite missing most of the 2010 season. With only Jonathon Niese being likely to deliver big ground ball numbers to the right side of the infield, it should be an easy decision to install Murphy as the regular at second base and look to replace him defensively in the late innings with a slim lead. After all, an .811 OPS would tie for the sixth-best mark among second basemen in the majors last year. After scoring just 656 runs last year, which ranked 13th in the 16-team NL, the Mets should look for offense wherever they can get it.

5. Reserve outfield production
Not many people were enthusiastic when the Mets signed Jerry Hairston and Willie Harris for backup outfield spots. Hairston had a .652 OPS in 2010 while Harris was nearly as bad with a .653 mark. But in 78 Spring ABs, the duo has combined for 28 H, 9 2B, 1 3B and 4 HR. They also have 14 R and 11 RBIs.

4. Rule 5 picks struggling
Most people expected that Brad Emaus and Pedro Beato had good shots to make the roster. But Emaus got off to a terrible start before finally getting some hits the past few days. Beato has gone the opposite route, starting off strong but really sputtering later in the Spring. Emaus still has a chance to make the team because of support for his game in the front office. But Beato seems like a long shot. And cynics will point out that the owners will recoup $50,000 if they return both players.

3. Luis Hernandez named front runner by NY Post
Although the line is blurring, mainstream outlets (yes, even the Post) still have stronger editorial standards than independent blogs. So it was a huge deal when Mike Puma’s story broke that Terry Collins wanted Hernandez to be the starter at 2B. While the Mets have termed the story premature, there seems no doubt that Collins was impressed by what he saw from Hernandez last season. It will likely come down to Emaus or Hernandez at second base and it will be interesting to see if the manager wins out over the front office. I’m rooting for the front office.

2. The return of Jason Isringhausen
Another thing no one saw coming was the signing of Isringhausen, who inked a minor league deal on February 15th. After back-to-back years with elbow surgeries, it seemed like his career was over. But Isringhausen is seemingly back at full strength and has survived pitching on back-to-back days. He’s now the leading contender to be the team’s primary setup man and is hands down the feel-good story of the Spring.

1. The domination by Chris Young
I was not in favor of the Young signing. He had pitched just 96 innings the past two years due to shoulder surgery. Even when he was healthy, Young never topped 179.1 IP in a major league season. His last good year came in 2007 and there were serious questions about his velocity. Yet somehow this Spring, Young leads the team’s starters with a 1.33 ERA in a team-high 20.1 IP. He’s been touched by the gopher ball and still has a sub-par strikeout rate (3.98 K/9) but it’s hard to argue with the results, including six shutout innings this weekend.

Plan to start Luis Hernandez at second a mistake

In this morning’s New York Post, Mike Puma wrote a column based on a person “with direct knowledge of (Terry) Collins’ plans” saying that the Mets are going to name Luis Hernandez as the team’s starting second baseman.

How many people saw that one coming two weeks ago?

The last time we saw Hernandez, he was limping around the bases after hitting a home run off Tim Hudson. Previously in the at-bat, Hernandez fouled a ball of his right foot and had actually fractured a metatarsal bone. So if nothing else, we know that he is tough.

We also know that Hernandez has a lifetime .255/.302/.331 line – in the minors over 3,324 PA. The overwhelming majority of evidence screams that he cannot hit major league pitching. In 290 PA in the majors, Hernandez has a .245/.286/.298 line.

There is no reason to think that Luis Hernandez is the answer at second base.

If the Mets are so concerned about defense at the position, they should simply play Ruben Tejada there. It’s hard to imagine Tejada doing worse than he did last year, when his .588 OPS was percentage points better than what Hernandez has done in the majors. The difference is that Tejada did it at age 20 while Hernandez put up his marks over his age 23-26 seasons. Tejada has room for growth while Hernandez is what he’s going to be at this point.

Puma says that Collins is the one pushing for this move and he has to win a battle with the front office to get his guy. If putting a no-bat, questionable glove (UZR does not love his range at either 2B or SS in his limited time in the majors) is going to be the first defining moment for Collins as a manager, well I am extremely unimpressed.

My first choice for the position is Daniel Murphy. My second choice would be Luis Castillo. My third choice would be a Brad Emaus-Murphy platoon. My fourth choice would be Tejada. Which makes Hernandez (at best) the fifth choice at the position, and it’s not clear that he’s a better pick than Justin Turner, who significantly out-hit Hernandez at Triple-A last year.

Now, it’s possible that this story about Hernandez was floated as a trial balloon to motivate the others in camp to step up their game. So far, every single word out of Collins’ mouth this Spring has been positive. It’s easy to see him being underwhelmed about what he’s seeing so far in the second base competition and using this as a motivational tool for Murphy, Castillo and Emaus.

I hope that’s what this is. Because if Collins really has Hernandez in his Opening Day lineup, there’s only one way this story unfolds for the Mets. Last year Gary Matthews Jr. was in the Opening Day lineup while a far better player in Angel Pagan rode the pine. Matthews was finally released in mid-June.

Last April, I wrote the following about Matthews and Pagan, “If the choice is between a guy we know is no good (Matthews) and a guy who may or may not be good (Pagan) – always, always, always go with the guy who at least has a chance to be good.”

That same thing applies to Hernandez and Murphy. We know Hernandez is not a major league quality hitter. We can easily deduce that from his minor league numbers and his brief time in the majors backs that up nicely. Murphy has generally hit in the majors and is doing so once again this Spring (.303/.455 SLG in nearly 3X the playing time as Hernandez).

Murphy will be an asset offensively at second base. We do not know if he would give that back on defense. There’s a chance he will. There’s also a non-zero chance that he won’t. Hernandez would have to be the equivalent of Bill Mazeroski defensively to make up for that bat and there’s nothing in his record to say that he would.

Forget the whole Bernie Madoff mess. Forget the possibility that Carlos Beltran won’t be ready to play on Opening Day. Forget the fact that Johan Santana may not pitch at all this year. Choosing to start Hernandez at second base is worse than all of those things.

The Mets have no control over the Madoff fiasco. They can’t make injured players be healthy. But they can put the best players on the field that they have under contract. And sitting Murphy for Hernandez is not only a mistake, it’s one of huge proportions.

Just like starting Matthews over Pagan.

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