Hours before the Chicago Cubs faced off against the Detroit Tigers in the Motor City, the North Sider’s front office was busy on the waiver wire. For weeks now, much of the baseball community has wondered when and if the Washington Nationals would throw in the towel on a rough season in which they largely under-performed as a group.
Murphy Bolsters Faltering Cubs’ Lineup
Just taking a quick look at the statistics, one would come away with the assumption that the Cubs’ order is one of the best in the game. While that is not a totally wrong thing to say considering the Cubs rank second in the majors in team batting average, first in OBP and third in WAR, a deeper look into the numbers tell a different tale altogether.
Despite being near the top of the league in batting average and OBP, the Cubs rank 11th in slugging percentage and 21st in ISO, suggesting a complete inability to drive the baseball with consistency this season. That inability has been driven by the Cubs’ 32.5 percent hard contact rate this season, a number that ranks 25th in baseball.
The Cubs’ lack of hard contact this season is not the only issue plaguing this team. Entering play on Tuesday, Chicago was slashing .242/.345/.362 with men in scoring position, a far cry from their .262/.340/.417 overall line. For perspective, those numbers with men in scoring position are good enough for an sOPS-plus of 90, meaning the Cubs are ten percent below league average in that split for the season.
Since the All-Star break, the Cubs’ problems on offense have been front and center, especially over the last five games. In those games which cover the four-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tuesday night’s loss to the Tigers, the Cubs have scored five runs (one run in each game) with all of them coming on home runs.
The last five games have not helped things, but currently, the Cubs are slashing .251/.323/.387 as a group in the second half, resulting in a 60 point decrease in OPS from the first half to the second. In addition, the Cubs’ sOPS-plus has fallen from 113 in the first half of play to 93 thus far in the second half, suggesting their offense has been seven percent worse than league average so far.
With a faltering lineup that has seen its share of injuries this season, the Cubs felt they had to trade for a player of Murphy’s caliber.
Murphy, 33, is playing in his tenth major league season this year after breaking into the show in 2008 with the New York Mets. The veteran left-handed bat has found success at the plate in each of the last two seasons, slashing a combined .334/.387/.569 between 2016 and 2017. In that same time span, Murphy logged an MVP-caliber OPS-plus of 145 while averaging 24 home runs and 98 RBI. Murphy’s solid two seasons resulted in two All-Star Game appearances, a second place finish in the NL MVP voting during the 2016 season and two Sliver Slugger awards.
As for this season, Murphy is putting together another solid offensive campaign. After sitting out the first two and a half months of the season recovering from a knee injury, Murphy started slow in June, hitting just .200 in 50 at-bats before turning it on in July. In fact, since the All-Star break, Murphy is slashing .340/.370/.534/.904. That more-than-solid batting average is the tenth best in the game since the break while his second half sOPS-plus of 143 suggests Murphy has been a post-break All-Star thus far.
For his career, Murphy hasn’t really been known for his power-stroke. Prior to this season, Murphy has had only two seasons in which he logged slugging percentages over .500. Those came in 2016 and 2017, two years in which he hit 25 and 23 home runs respectively with the former being his career-best.
This season, Murphy’s slugging percentage clocks in at .442, but that’s largely due to his slow first half. Since the break, Murphy owns an aforementioned .534 slugging percentage, produced by five home runs and five doubles. In addition, the veteran is also sporting an ISO of .194 since the break, a number up from .080 while at the same time raising his wRC+ from a terrible 79 in the first half to 139 in the second portion of the season.
With the Cubs struggling to barrel the baseball in the second half, posting the fourth lowest ISO in the league and the third lowest hard contact rate, Murphy should greatly help the club in that department. What may be more of a challenge for the veteran is hitting with runners in scoring position.
Currently, Murphy owns a .267/.306/.419 slash line when the bases are empty. While those first two numbers increase with runners in scoring position (.294, .333) Murphy’s slugging percentage drops to .353. That results in a wRC+ of just 75 for the veteran with runners in position, an 18 point decrease from his 93 mark when the bases are clear.
What Murphy does excel in is hitting with runners on base. In that situation, Murphy’s numbers are .341/.383/.471 with an ISO of .129, producing a wRC+ of 125. Looking at the numbers, Murphy enjoys hitting the most when a runner is on first base as he is slashing .412/.459/.647/1.107 with two home runs and two doubles.
Even though Murphy doesn’t necessarily have good numbers with men in scoring position, hitting a double with a man on first, or simply a solid single, moving the runner to third, provides the same type of value.
Murphy’s Postseason Prowess is Off the Charts
The Murphy trade will be judged at season’s end on whether it helped the Cubs reach the postseason. As highlighted above, Murphy has the skill-set to help the Cubs in areas they are struggling with his season and particularly in the second half.
With Murphy’s experience and hot-hitting ways, this addition will no doubt help the Cubs reach the postseason for the fourth straight year. If and when that does happen, the Cubs now have one of the best postseason hitters in the game.
Who doesn’t remember the 2015 NLCS? That was the year the Cubs overachieved and won 97 games, making it all the way to the Championship Series just to be swept by the Mets. Who was playing for the Mets that season and played a large part in that victory over the Cubs? That would be Daniel Murphy.
In that four-game sweep, Murphy slashed .529/.556/1.294 for an OPS of 1.850. To go along with that, Murphy clubbed four home runs and collected nine total hits and six RBI on his way to winning series MVP honors.
Not only was Murphy otherworldly in that series, but the veteran has also played to a similar level against other teams. Prior to that NLCS match-up, Murphy slashed .333/.333/.810 with three home runs and five RBI against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
More recently, Murphy collected seven hits, six RBI and five walks in the 2016 Division Series against the Dodgers, resulting in a .438/.545/.438 slash line.
All told, Murphy is well experienced in the postseason, having logged 108 plate appearances across five different series. Murphy’s 30 hits (including three doubles and eight home runs), 19 RBI and 14 walks have culminated in a very solid .323/.407/.613 postseason slash line for the veteran.
Where Will Murphy Play with the Cubs?
Like so many of the Cubs’ other middle infielders, Murphy is a versatile defender. While his defense leaves much to be desired (negative ten runs saved at second base this season), this trade was never about defensive ability with the Cubs possessing elite defenders all around the infield.
Still, Murphy needs a place to play, and with his recent hot-hitting ways at the plate, the veteran needs to be in the lineup as much as possible.
For now, Murphy will likely be playing a lot of second base. Addison Russell, the Cubs’ current shortstop, was scratched from Tuesday’s lineup with right shoulder inflammation. Maybe this is a pre-cursor to a DL stint for the struggling infielder.
Since breaking out with 21 home runs in 2016, Russell has been well below average at the plate. This season — even though his batting average would be a career-high — is shaping up to be his worst at the plate. Currently, Russell is slashing .259/.326/.359 with that last number contributing to his lackluster OPS-plus of 79.
In the second half of play, Russell is slashing just .216/.258/.250 and owns an ISO of just .019 for the month of August. Perhaps, it would make the most sense to place Russell on the DL until rosters expand in September as the youngster has been dealing with hand/knuckle issues for much of the season to go along with his shoulder problems.
For his career, Murphy has logged over 6,800 innings at second base, making that his primary position. With Murphy at second, Javier Baez is freed up to play shortstop, his more natural position and the spot where he got the start instead of Russell on Tuesday.
In addition to second base, Murphy has experience at third, recording 722.2 innings so far in his career. A chuck of those innings came back in 2011, but Murphy has extensive experience at the position as soon ago as 2015 (352 innings).
Of course, with Kris Bryant on the DL, the Cubs have had to find other players to step-up and fill the void left by the former Rookie of the Year and MVP. That position has largely been occupied by David Bote and Baez. With Baez no doubt at shortstop if Russell misses time, Murphy would easily get the nod over Bote at third.
Even though Bote has burst onto the scene in Chicago, the youngster is hitting just .225 with a .670 OPS in August after hitting .458 with an OPS of 1.354 in July. In fact, with his struggles and his remaining minor league options, Bote could be the odd man out on the Cubs’ infield, at least until rosters expand on September 1.
At some point this season, Bryant will make his return from left shoulder soreness/inflammation. When that happens, Cubs’ fans could see their MVP in the outfield more, with that no doubt coming as a platoon with Kyle Schwarber.
Murphy Could Be the Spark Plug the Cubs Needed
Much like Cole Hamels has been a breath of fresh air for the Cubs’ rotation, Murphy could be the same for Chicago’s lineup. With Bryant hurt and the remainder of the order not living up to expectations, the Cubs have finally hit an offensive wall in the second half.
That wall has kept this club from going on one of its signature second half runs, a run usually used to bury their division rivals. Instead, the Cubs sit at 16-15 in the second half, a mere 3.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Recognizing the need for more offensive firepower to bolster a lineup built around power, the Cubs swung a trade and landed one of the hottest hitting players in the game right now.
This move was not made with a long-term mindset. Murphy will be a free agent after this season and really the Cubs don’t need him past 2018 with all of their middle infield depth.
I was just as shocked as anyone when news was passed along that the Cubs had traded for Daniel Murphy. After digging into the numbers, the veteran has a real shot to make an impact on this club, much more of a shot than he had with the Nationals. For that reason, it’s possible Murphy can stay hot and help push the Cubs toward the postseason, because let’s be honest, this team needs a wake-up call right now.
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