Daniel Murphy’s absence in Saturday’s lineup was mainly a matter of Reds starter Cody Reed being terrible against righties, but the Cubs’ starting second baseman needed a day off regardless. He has registered only one hit in his last 20 at-bats and has gone 10-for-58 (.172) since beginning his Cubs tenure with an 11-for-27 (.407) streak.
It’s enough to make “Maniel Durphy” sound more like a pejorative declaration than a harmless spoonerism.
Never a big on-base guy, Murphy has traditionally made up for a paucity of walks (6.3 percent career BB rate) by being very difficult to strike out (11.9 percent K rate). In his last 60 plate appearances, however, those respective rates have basically halved and doubled. Since August 28, Murphy has walked only twice (3.3 percent) while striking out 14 times (23.3 percent).
His overall whiff percentage of 17.6 in September currently stands as the fifth-highest month of his career and his 21.7 percent strikeout rate is his highest ever. Those figures would be bad enough in and of themselves, but it gets really ugly when we dig into the pitches Murphy is swinging at and missing.
Murphy has missed on 8.8 percent of his swings at pitches in the zone here in September, a mark that is right around his career average and stands as only his 11th-highest individual month ever. That tells us that he must be chasing and whiffing on a lot of bad pitches. Sure enough, his 32.4 percent chase-miss mark this month is the fourth-highest of his career.
But wait, there’s more.
Breaking and offspeed pitches are going to generate the most whiffs for pretty much any hitter and Murphy is no exception. But as his low strikeout totals indicate, he’s always been able to make contact with fastballs at a very high rate. His overall swing-and-miss against hard stuff is right around 8 percent, with an in-zone swing and miss of roughly 6 percent. This month, however, he’s missed 12.8 percent of the in-zone fastballs he’s swung at.
If you’ve been paying attention to either Murphy’s at-bats or my commentary here, it’ll come as no surprise that he is also swinging at and missing an inordinate number of fastballs out of the zone. He’s whiffing on 28.6 percent of them, to be exact. That’s the second-highest month of his career in terms of chase-miss and it’s exactly double what he posted in August of this year.
Now that we’ve made Murphy’s strikeout issues even more painfully obvious, let’s move on to what it means for the pitches he’s actually putting a bat on. Without even looking at the data, anyone who’s watched him lately can guess what it’s going to say. Heck, you could probably deduce the trend based on what you just read above.
Despite two homers in the sample we’re focused on here, Murphy isn’t making much solid contact at all, exactly what you’d expect from a guy who’s chasing as many bad pitches as he is lately. His average exit velocity of 86.6 mph in September stands as the second-lowest month of his career and is only the third month during which he’s been under 88 mph. All three of those have come this season, with the other two a direct result of his comeback from offseason knee surgery.
So that’s the how of Murphy’s slump, but what about the why? I doubt even Murphy himself can pinpoint the source of his sudden inability to either lay off or hit bad pitches, specifically bad fastballs. Maybe he got really overconfident with that hot start and decided he could hit everything. Maybe shaving his beard altered the aerodynamics of his swing. Whatever the reason, the good news is that he’s still got the second half of the month to correct it.
And correct it he must, because a 28 wRC+ and .493 OPS are wholly unacceptable for a guy with range and hands roughly comparable to the Venus de Milo.
*All swing stats via Baseball Savant