What would a team be willing to pay Daniel Murphy? This was one of the most intriguing questions headed into the off-season. Over the past five years Murphy has been the kind of player who produced positive fWAR for the Mets on the strength of his offense. His production was solid, but not eye popping. However, during a stretch of the 2015 playoffs, Murphy went off. In the NLDS against the Dodgers he hit .333/.333/.810 with 3 HR and 5 RBI. The very next series he channeled the spirit of Barry Bonds hitting .529/.556/1.294 with 4 HR and 6 RBI.

Many analysts wondered how this offensive outburst would impact Murphy’s upcoming free agency. Clearly he wouldn’t stay this good (as evidenced by the World Series), but all it takes is one owner/GM with a recency bias to get silly offers being made. Just how big of a check was Murphy about to cash?

On Christmas Eve news broke that the Washington Nationals had signed Murphy to a three-year contract worth $37.5 million. He appears to have been a backup plan for the Nationals, who were attempting to acquire Brandon Phillips the past few weeks. This offer was well under what some projected Murphy to make, but as Mark Polishuk noted, teams having to give up a pick to acquire Murphy might have depressed his market.

So we know the terms of the deal. The important question now is whether or not the Nationals overpaid, got a bargain, or hit the offer right on the head. As Nick Lampe recently wrote, “the cost of a win is now somewhere around 8 million.” Thus, the Nationals are paying Murphy to accumulate around 1.5 fWAR per year. So what are the chances that he can be that kind of player for Washington? Since we can’t see the future (I picked the Mariners and Nationals to play in the World Series), we’ll have to do the next best thing. To the comps!

Recently I read Henry Ruschel’s piece “The Winter of Opt-Outs” for Beyond the Box Score. My methodology in this article was highly influenced by his.

 

For comparison, I looked at second basemen (yes, I know there is a chance he ends up at third) who were +/- 2 fWAR of what Murphy produced the last five seasons (ages 26-30). I started my search in 1988 because… well, Sam Miller. Since that time there have been 17 players to finish within those parameters. They are listed below.

Player fWAR Production from 26-30
Adam Kennedy 13.8
Bip Roberts 13.4
Damien Easley 12.6
Jose Offerman 12.6
Mark Ellis 12.4
Daniel Murphy 12.2
Orlando Hudson 12
Jose Vidro 12
Aaron Hill 11.7
Harold Reynolds 11.6
Neil Walker 11.3
Rickie Weeks 11.1
Kelly Johnson 10.9
Brian Dozier 10.7
Freddy Sanchez 10.7
Jason Kipnis 10.4
Jody Reed 10.2

 

Washington just paid Murphy to produce 4.5 fWAR over the next three seasons (ages 31-33). What are the chances he hits that mark? I took the players listed above, and looked at the following three years of production for each. Walker, Weeks, Dozier, and Kipnis were removed from consideration because they haven’t completed that portion of their careers yet. So what did the next three seasons look like for the remaining players?

 

Player fWAR Production from 31-33
Adam Kennedy 1.8
Bip Roberts 1.9
Damian Easley 1.2
Jose Offerman 1.6
Mark Ellis 6.9
Orlando Hudson 7.3
Jose Vidro -0.1
Aaron Hill 1.2
Harold Reynolds 0.5
Kelly Johnson 2.1
Freddy Sanchez 5.2
Jody Reed 2

 

Only three of the twelve remaining players accumulated at least 4.5 fWAR from ages 31-33. Yes it’s a small sample size, but recent history would suggest that fans keep their expectations of Murphy in check. That does leave three players who did produce at the required level. Do Mark Ellis, Orlando Hudson, and Freddy Sanchez share anything in common that allowed them to remain productive through their early 30’s?

When you look at their numbers, they do seem to share a similar profile. All three players seem to combine average to slightly below average offense with above average defense (or bursts of well above average defense). On the chart below you’re able to compare the wRC+, DRS, and UZR for these players from ages 31-33.

Player wRC+ DRS UZR
Mark Ellis 89 23 20.8
86 2 2.1
106 8 9.8
Orlando Hudson 109 6 -3.5
96 4 10.6
95 -8 -3.8
Freddy Sanchez 94 3 4.5
104 -3 8.8
105 -6 -1.5

 

Hudson accumulated the most fWAR of the three in part by his additional value on the base paths (BsR). For the most part these players look fairly similar. They’re obviously the success stories of the group. So what went so wrong for the other players listed above?

Some of them had terrible offensive seasons mixed in over the three year span (I see that 50 OPS+ Adam Kennedy). Others completely fell off defensively, and eventually had to change positions (Jose Vidro). Then there were players who hit the trifecta of regressing offensively, defensively, and on the base paths (Harold Reynolds–sorry to pile on).

Are there any conclusions that we can draw from this? It is interesting to note that none of the players studied were able to accumulate the production that the Nationals paid Murphy for primarily on the basis of their offense. As we’ve already mentioned, almost all of Murphy’s value has been due to his production at the plate. Over the past five years he has rated well below average defensively. Is it possible he could hit enough to be a 4.5 fWAR player from 31-33? It’s possible, but history seems to suggest that it’s unlikely.

If Murphy is going to be a 4.5 fWAR player he’s going to have to do it in a way that hasn’t been done in twenty-seven years (unless he produces like a player well above his comps). Steamer predicts Murphy to hit his needed fWAR total in 2016 (2.4) to keep him on track, but he’s also moving to a much more difficult park for left-handed hitters. While it seems unlikely he’ll hit the needed 4.5 fWAR over three years to be worth his contract, baseball is filled with unlikely things. Unlikely things like Daniel Murphy hitting a home run in six straight post season games.

 

While Murphy might never live up to his contract (how many free agents really do), he’s certain to be an offensive upgrade over Danny Espinosa. On paper the Nationals are still a crazy talented team with only small holes to fill. Also, a team with Washington’s payroll can afford to overpay for a slight upgrade. While Murphy isn’t going to fix all of the problems the Nationals had last year, he very well could be a small part of righting the ship in 2016. Now, in 2017 and 2018… your guess is as good as mine.

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