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October 2, 2012

BP Unfiltered

The Third-Best ERA in History

by Sam Miller

Fernando Rodney has passed Dennis Eckersley for the lowest ERA (minimum 50 innings) in forever history. At Hardball Talk, Aaron Gleeman has the all-time leaderboard: Rodney and Eckersley in the top two spots, a couple Deadball guys fourth and fifth. And third, Rob Murphy. A man who pitched entirely in my baseball-following lifetime and of whom I'd swear I've never heard. So who/how?

Murphy's big season -- he had a 0.72 ERA in 50 1/3 innings -- came with the Reds in his rookie season, 1986. He was 26. He didn't make his debut until July 13; before that, he was in Triple-A, with a 1.90 ERA. Once the Reds called him up, they used him constantly: 36 times in the team's final 78 games, with half of his appearances lasting four outs or more. He was a lefty, but he was no LOOGY, as just 26 percent of the batters he faced were left-handed. They hit .133/.184/.156 off him; righties, meanwhile, weren't much better: .162/.266/.187.

But if you look at Murphy's non-ERA stats, you'd be mostly unimpressed. He struck out 36 batters, and walked 21, in those 50 innings. Different era, to be sure, but he had just the fourth-best strikeout rate, and fourth-best K/BB ratio, in his team's bullpen. 

Of course, you know where this goes. He had a .193 BABIP that year, baseball's 20th lowest since 1960. And, further, his BABIP with runners on was .159. And, further, his BABIP with runners in scoring position was .150. He had a 92 percent strand rate that year, baseball's 20th lowest since 1980. Put those two things together and you get to live on, forever, in periodic blog posts on wonky baseball sites. (For good measure, Reds relievers kept all seven of Murphy's baserunners that they inherited from scoring. Murphy, by contrast, inherited 19 baserunners and allowed seven to score.) 

The next year, Murphy was a huge part of the Reds' bullpen all season. He increased his strikeout rate to nearly a batter per inning, and cut his walk rate by a similar amount. His BABIP and strand rates returned to league average, and his ERA was 3.04. He had one sub-3 season in his career, and no season lower than 2.74. He retired with a 3.64 ERA in more than 500 appearances, and a .303 BABIP

He didn't get a single Rookie of the Year vote that year, incidentally. It was an impressive rookie crop, with Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin and Will Clark all getting votes. But the winner was actually Todd Worrell, another reliever, but a saves-getting one. Worrell pitched twice as many innings as Murphy, but he also allowed more than seven times as many runs, with almost identical strikeout and walk rates as Murphy. You might consider Murphy to have been unjustly robbed of those votes. But really, Murphy was just a guy who stumbled into a magical world of adventure and awesomeness and, after a few hundred pages, returned home to his normal life, where nobody even remembered noticing he had been gone. 

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

Related Content:  Fernando Rodney,  Rob Murphy

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