Daniel Murphy puts a bow on an incredible first half

Daniel Murphy gave high-fives aplenty throughout the first half. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Washington Nationals infielder Daniel Murphy's first half began with a game-winning hit and ended with a game-winning hit. And there were plenty of big moments in between.

Murphy’s two-run, first-inning home run was the difference in the Nationals’ third straight win over the New York Mets, which puts them six games up on the Mets in the NL East. His 17 home runs are already a career high.

Murphy has been a hitting machine for three months. He leads the majors with a .348 batting average. His .598 slugging percentage trails only those of David Ortiz and Jake Lamb. His rate of strikeouts per plate appearances (10.5 percent) ranks seventh lowest in the majors, second lowest in the National League, trailing only Joe Panik (10.2 percent).

Murphy is the third Nationals/Expos player to go into the All-Star break with a batting average and slugging percentage that high. The other two are Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro in 2000.

On Saturday, Nationals manager Dusty Baker quoted advice from Hall of Famer Luke Appling – “don’t give ‘em away,” meaning don’t give away any at-bats. Murphy has made every one count.

How did this happen?

Murphy moved closer to the plate this season, and that has allowed him to take more impactful swings against outer-half pitches. He’s hitting .375 with a .596 slugging percentage against them. Those are jumps of 100 points and 166 points from his 2015 numbers (.275 and .430). From 2009 to 2014, Murphy never even slugged .400 against those pitches.

Murphy has also taken an approach of trying to pull the ball in the air. Sixty five percent of his at-bats this season have ended in fly balls, line drives or pop ups, easily the highest rate of his career. His rate of fly balls that were pulled (28 percent) is a near match for his rate of fly balls to the opposite field (30 percent). In 2014, that ratio was nearly three opposite-field fly balls for every one pulled. Last season, it was 2-to-1.

MVP = Murphy Valuable Player?

Murphy’s offensive numbers make a legitimate case for his MVP candidacy. He also leads the NL in hits, total bases and the sabermetric stat, runs created. He has recorded plenty of big hits; he ranks sixth in the NL in win probability added (which measures the value of each plate appearance to the outcome of the game). He’s hitting .341 with runners in scoring position.

The mark against Murphy is and always has been his defense at second base. His minus-6 defensive runs saved take his wins above replacement down to 2.8, which ranks tied with Ben Zobrist for 13th in the National League.

Mash the Mets

Murphy’s value has been enhanced by whom he has done the most damage against. Murphy has made the Mets pay for not pursuing him this offseason. He’s hitting .423 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs against his former team.

Elias Sports Bureau Stat of the Day

Murphy's 21 RBIs versus the Mets this season are already the most by any player against a team he played for the previous season since Roger Maris in 1960. Maris, who spent the 1958-59 seasons with the Kansas City Athletics, finished with 27 RBIs against the A's in 1960 in an MVP-winning season for the Yankees.

The Mets and Nationals have six games remaining against each other. Murphy needs seven RBIs in those games to match the most against the Mets in a season, 28 by Hank Aaron in 1962.

Murphy is hitting .484 with an .871 slugging percentage against fastballs from Mets pitchers this season, a major league-best .433 with a .768 slugging percentage against all fastballs.

But when the idea was broached on Saturday to Murphy about feeling good against his former team, Murphy asked how many games the Nationals were over .500, citing that as the most important number to this point in the season.