This offseason, I thought that David Murphy -- who agreed to a reported two-year, $12 million deal with the Indians -- made for one of the more intriguing free agents, at least from a statistical perspective because of the nosedive his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) took last season.
Luck is a factor, but so is the type of batted balls the hitter hits, the speed of the batter, the positioning of the defense and even things such as scorekeeping decisions (did the batter reach on a hit or error).
David Murphy – Last 4 Seasons
When it comes to Murphy specifically, one of the points of interest was how he fared when he hits a groundball.
Different data sources have slightly different numbers, but by our tally, Murphy hit 165 groundballs in 2012 and netted 44 hits, good for a .267 batting average. This past season, he hit almost an identical number of grounders (166), but had only 28 hits (a .169 batting average).
What was the 16-hit decline worth? About 37 points on both his batting average and slugging percentage and 33 points to his on-base percentage.
In other words, instead of the .220/.282/.374 slashline he delivered, he'd have been .257/.315/.411. And that's not factoring in anything else. There's a big difference in how you'd view the former compared to the latter.
With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to study Murphy's groundballs, to look a little deeper into the reasons for the drop. So I watched two years' worth of grounders, studied the data and solicited the thoughts of a few scouts and talent evaluators (with some help from ESPN.com's reporters).
What came from this? Here are a few observations.
Murphy's groundball "power" dropped
In 2012, I saw that type of smash with reasonable frequency. But it didn't come up often in the 2013 viewing. It disappeared against both lefties (which wasn't surprising given Murphy's history) and righties (which was surprising).
David Murphy’s Groundballs
Last 4 Seasons
Our data provider classifies batted balls into three categories -- hard, medium and soft. The chart on the right shows Murphy's distribution. From 2010 to 2012, Murphy averaged 111 softly-hit grounders and 20 hard-hit ones. In 2013, that split was 124 and five.
One scout shared that his data set showed the speed of the ball off Murphy's bat was down from his 2012 numbers.
Given that Murphy's history is as someone with modest foot speed (seven to 14 steals a year from 2008 to 2012, though only one in 2013), and that Murphy typically got hits on about 60 percent of his hard-hit grounders and 15 percent of his soft ones, it behooves him to hit the ball hard when he hits it on the ground.
Murphy was very "predictable" in 2013
There was a point in the 2013 video viewing in which it felt like Murphy was repeating the same at-bat time and again. He'd hit a four-hop grounder to second, the second baseman would barely move, and he'd throw Murphy out easily.
Murphy had 55 4-3 groundouts in 2012. He had 70 in 2013. And it wasn't like players were defending him better. I asterisked what I judged to be defensive plays that ranked from very good to excellent. I counted four asterisks on plays by second basemen in 2012, three in 2013.
This trend was something on which stats and scouts agreed. We checked in with two talent evaluators and each echoed the other's thoughts.
"[Murphy] has an open stance, and was getting a bit leaky and starting early with the front side, causing him to roll over a lot, hurting his ability to use the whole field with a line drive approach, which had been his trademark," one scout wrote via e-mail.
When asked whether opponents picked up on that and took advantage of it, an AL executive replied "Absolutely."
Maybe defense had a little to do with it
What was noted above is not to say that Murphy wasn't the victim of some good infield defense against him.
Baseball Info Solutions, which charts every batted ball and categorizes plays as Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays for teams and media sent us their data.
In 2012, Murphy was denied hits by eight groundballs that rated as Good Fielding Plays and benefited with the awarding of hits on four on which they awarded a Defensive Misplay. In 2013, BIS had Murphy being "robbed" 14 times and benefiting none from his groundballs.
Factor that in and there's some argument that Murphy was unlucky, and just how much depends on how much you wish to value those plays. But even if you give Murphy a hit for every time he was robbed, and take a hit away for every one he was rewarded one due to a misplay, Murphy still comes out at least six hits better in 2012.
One other note: Murphy reached once via error in 2012 and four times in 2013. However, only one of the reaches last season was debatable as to whether it was hit or error, so Murphy wasn't significantly penalized by scorekeeping.
What about the shift?
From what we could see, three teams noticed enough from Murphy to warrant significantly shifting their defense -- the Orioles, Royals and Astros.
But if anything, the shift helped him. BIS charted him as 9-for-19 when hitting a grounder (or soft line drive) against it.
Looking ahead to 2014
So what does this all mean for Murphy moving forward? A scout shared that Murphy probably wasn't as good as he was in 2012 or as bad as he was in 2013. There's likely a middle ground, accepting that he's a couple years older now.
It would seem that there are two things for the Indians to work on with regards to Murphy as they relate to groundballs. There's the physical side, to fix whatever is causing him to roll over and the mental side to make him realize that some of what happened last season was beyond his control.
They felt confident enough to pay $12 million over two years to try.