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August 8, 2011

The BP Broadside

If You Found Daniel Murphy Under Your Bed, Would You Pull Him Out or Put Him Back?

by Steven Goldman

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I come to you today from a recumbent position as I continue to recuperate from a back injury—my lumbar region has been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, not to mention Dun & Bradstreet, Abbott & Costello, Sacco & Vanzetti, and Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn. This accounts for why my hotly-anticipated “trade deadline losers” piece (maybe you weren’t excited, but the cat was psyched) did not appear on time. I will confess to you that I have seen very little baseball this past week as I have discovered that painkillers make me sleepy—a handy but very dangerous thing to know. I did, however, rouse myself long enough to see that the Mets lost everyday utility-man Daniel Murphy for the remainder of the season with a torn MCL.

Murphy was having a Billy Goodman kind of year, playing all over the field and hitting .320 while doing it. It was a heartening performance given that Murphy had missed all of 2010 with, ironically, an MCL tear—his other knee. His season was not only a credit to the player himself but to circumstance; the team’s impatience with Brad Emaus in the early going and the long injuries to Ike Davis and David Wright created opportunities. The initial breakthrough, which came at second base after Emaus failed to hold the job following an extremely short trial, speaks well of manager Terry Collins, a coach I’ve not often reviewed favorably. Despite having obvious reasons to doubt Murphy’s ability to field the position—his minor-league experience was limited to 19 games—Collins accepted the defensive hit he would inevitably take in return for a better bat than the standard utility infield options would have provided—indeed, more than Murphy’s successors Ruben Tejeda and Justin Turner have provided.

In my last column, I wrote that if being a General Manager is an art, then it is the art of turning today’s dross into tomorrow’s hope. The same is true in a different way of managers. Sometimes a manager needs to be able to see what a player can’t do, so he will stop asking him to do things of which he’s incapable. Conversely, at other times the manager needs to overlook what a player can’t do so he can use those skills a player does have. Sometimes, even adept talent evaluators miss the forest for the trees. According to legend, the evaluation of Fred Astaire’s first screen test read, “Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little.” This was all true, sort of.

I often think of Dave Magadan in this regard. The Mets’ second-round pick in 1983, Magadan, like Murphy, was a tweener, a hitter who didn’t have the traditional pop for first base but lacked the glove to be a regular at third. He was also inconsistent, hitting .328 one year, .258 the next. One aspect of his game that was relatively steady, though, was his patience. He hit .288/.390/.377 lifetime, averaging 74 walks per 162 games.

In 1989, the Mets were coming off of a year in which they should have gone to the World Series but didn’t and seemed to spend the entire season trying to find a hook, handle, or exit. Part of the problem was that the productive years of veteran players like Mookie Wilson, Gary Carter, and Keith Hernandez came to an abrupt end. Dwight Gooden missed half the year with shoulder problems. Gregg Jefferies was force-fed into the lineup, but no determination was made as to whether he was a second baseman or a third baseman—the Mets actually spent parts of four years moving him back and forth from the keystone to the hot corner in a weird experiment apparently designed to see if he could become better at one position by playing the other.

That June, for reasons that may have had their origins in a desire to reshape the roster to make it more comfortable for Jefferies, the Mets dealt Lenny Dykstra, reliever Roger McDowell, and player to be named Tom Edens to the Phillies for Juan Samuel. I don’t want to rehash the merits of that trade now—there were none, at least none for the Mets. What remains fascinating to me all these years later is that once Dykstra was gone, the Mets spent the next few years looking for a leadoff man. I listened to a lot of sports talk radio in those days, and you could not go 15 minutes on WFAN without either a host or caller deploring the team’s lack of a leadoff hitter. Among those tried in this period were Samuel and Jefferies, Keith Miller, Mark Carreon, Darryl Boston, Howard Johnson, Tommy Herr, and Darren Reed.

At no time were Magadan and his nigh-.400 OBP given a shot. In a career that lasted 16 seasons spread among seven teams, he started exactly one game in the leadoff position. Granted, he was slow, had no power, and was a mediocre glove, but the guy could get on base. He was, basically, a lowercase Wade Boggs. The inability to see him as such led the Mets to the infinitely regrettable decision to sign Vince Coleman as a free agent. Coleman had led the National league in stolen bases for six straight seasons at the time of his signing, but he didn’t do much else most of the time (although being eaten by a tarp-rolling machine remains a feat unmatched in the annals of baseball) and later embarrassed the franchise in a firecracker-tossing incident that injured a child. The Mets suspended him for the remainder of the season, then traded him to the Royals for the bloated remains of Kevin McReynolds.

Coleman and Magadan were teammates on the Mets for two years. Magadan hit .269/.383/.344. Coleman hit .264/.351/.341. Given the inability of either one to hit the ball for distance, maybe neither was an ideal starter, but given the other choices then available to the Mets, Magadan’s OBP was there, but they couldn’t see their way to getting him any higher than second in the batting order.

In any given season, you can find at least one player who could be more fully exploited in the way that the Mets failed to do with Magadan and did succeed in doing with Murphy. Until recently, my nominee for 2011 might have been Sean Rodriguez of the Rays, also known as the only player on the Tampa Bay roster who might do a half-decent impression of a shortstop while hitting even a little. To his credit, after seeing much too much Elliot Johnson as the fallback to Reid Brignac, Joe Maddon finally came to the same conclusion two weeks ago. Rodriguez has hit only .244/.367/.341 since becoming the regular shortstop, but that’s not so bad given what had come before. In April, it would have been David Robertson’s absence from high-leverage innings in the Yankees’ pen.

It’s funny how missed opportunities from more than 20 years ago can stay with you, but the funny thing about baseball is that things repeat. Maybe somewhere in today’s game there is a manager batting Erick Aybar leadoff and Bobby Abreu third because that’s who Abreu used to be. Or maybe that same manager traded Mike Napoli out of town so he could play one of the worst hitters of all time in the name of defense, thereby creating exactly the margin of defeat between his team and the division leader. These little misjudgments do have a way of biting back hard. At least Daniel Murphy got to show he had value. Now, sadly, he’ll have to do it all over again next season. This time, will an opportunity be provided for him by a perspicacious skipper, or will he once again have to look to providential injuries for his team to realize that a multi-position sub capable of hitting .290 has value regardless of his defensive shortcomings?

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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