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When the Rockies signed Daniel Murphy on December 22, it seemed to be exactly the right kind of low risk/high reward gamble a team in the middle of a contention window ought to take. He was coming off of a rough 2018, marred by injuries, and so he was willing to take a shorter-term contract. But he had the track record of being one of the best hitters in the National League over the previous five years, a product of the launch angle revolution who used his contact ability to generate a plethora of singles and doubles. Put a player like that in a stadium like Coors Field, and it seemed like a perfect fit in the short-term. Sure, he had to convert from second base to first base, but that should have been a straightforward and doable transition.
To paraphrase Marc Stout, sometimes you swing and you miss.
Murphy’s 2019 ended up being, by pretty much every measure, the worst season of his 11-year career. His .279/.328/.452 line and .328 wOBA would’ve been respectable for a 34-year-old second baseman in a neutral park, but playing half of his 132 games in Coors Field drags that down to a 86 wRC+. If you prefer Baseball-Reference, that’s a 87 OPS+. Now, his just-below-average DRC+ of 97 looks okay, but it’s still his worst since 96 DRC+ in 2012. Not great.
Murphy’s Rockies career got off to a rather inauspicious start. In his second regular season game, he made a diving stop at first base that resulted in a fracture on his left index finger. Worse than losing Murphy, the injury pressed Mark Reynolds into duty, and he hit .208/.344/.417 in the 22 games Murphy was absent. When RyMac went down, Garrett Hampson was pressed into a starting role and he hit .186/.205/.286 in that same time frame (he did recover and finish well). Hey, remember how bad this offense was in April?
So whereas Murphy’s signing seemed to provide the Rockies with flexibility while offering young prospects a chance to take their time to develop, his injury pressed those same young players into duty for which they clearly weren’t ready. When Jeff Bridich and Co. try to point to injuries as that which derailed the Rockies season, surely they look at this stretch. As the old adage goes, you can’t win a division title in April, but you can lose one.
But Daniel Murphy’s season wasn’t a failure because of 20 missed games in April. He struck out at a higher clip than he has since 2008, thanks in large part to his career worst 15.0% whiff rate. Weak contact was a huge problem, indicated by his 2.4% barrel rate, half his previous career worst. Based on his batted ball data, he “should have” hit .247 with a .359 slugging, good for an abominable xwOBA of .290, well below the .313 league average. Considering 2019 was his age-34 season, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Murphy’s bat speed has started seeing characteristic decline for a player on the far side of 30. Lower bat speed is actually the simplest explanation for the degradation of his quality of contact.
Weak contact wasn’t the only culprit. After seeing shifts on just under 9% of plate appearances in 2017 and 2018, Murphy was shifted against on 33.0% of his PA’s in 2019. Predictably, his wOBA dropped from .354 without the shift to .288 against it.
When you take weaker overall contact and combine it with an effective shift being used nearly four times as frequently, you get a career worst season on the front end of a two-year contract for a player entering his age 35-season. There are areas where Murphy can improve if he can recover his line-drive stroke that produced scads of extra base hits in his first two years in Washington. But he can also expect to see more shifts, and more fastballs as pitchers challenge his declining bat speed. If that’s the case, the Rockies might be better off making him their lefty off the bench instead of their starting first baseman come June if they have a shot at reaching the playoffs again.