The Education of Daniel Murphy

With one-half of a major league season experience in his back pocket, Daniel Murphy is still learning. His education includes a new vocabulary. In May, Murphy was introduced to a word he’d never heard before – slump.

From May 9 through May 31, in 20 games, Murphy was 6-for-46 (.130) including a 2-for-31 skid over one two-week period. His season batting average dropped from .324 to .250 while his on-base percentage plummeted nearly 50 points, from .373 to .325.

It’s an experience Murphy’s never really had to deal with in his previous baseball lives. Dry spells, adversity, slumps, pick your label, Murphy was exempt said Terry Alexander, manager atJacksonville University Dolphins.

“A slump for him would be 0-for-2 with two walks,” he said. “Very seldom would he get an oh-fer. When you go 0-for-4 and hit three rockets right at people, that’s not a slump. That’s never bothered him. It’s not about making outs or his batting average, it’s about making the proper contact.”

Forget about “proper” contact. Last month, making contact, any contact, was a challenge for Murphy and that spells trouble for a player clearly obsessed with hitting. Coaches and managers avoid the “O” word, but frankly it’s a reputation that’s shadowed Murphy like a kid brother at every level of his baseball career.

“He had a good work ethic but as he progressed it intensified,” said Alexander. “He just loved getting better. He understood that if he worked hard and put the time in, he would get better. When he saw what was happening — I won’t say ‘obsessed’ — but a notch below that.”

Murphy’s overzealous nature became enough of a concern at the major league level this season that Mets manager Jerry Manuel put a two-day ban on him using the batting cage. The reason: too much batting practice. The next step is Hitter’s Anonymous, a program designed for major league baseball players who are addicted to swatting at baseball’s.

“It’s not far from the truth,” said friend, minor league roommate and teammate Nick Evans. “He’ll talk hitting all day long if you let him. We’ve gone hours talking about it. We’d come home after games in Binghamton, sit down on the couch, watch TV and talk hitting … he keeps going on and on about it. I’m usually the one that has to cut him off.”

“The guy sweats hitting,” Mets reliever J.J. Putz told ESPN baseball writer Jerry Crasnick. “It’s his whole life — seriously. He probably sleeps with his bats. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

‘HE’S LIKE A SPONGE’

Murphy wasn’t going to be selected in the major league draft by working hard. Giving 100% wouldn’t cut it. Hitting a baseball is not a gift Murphy was born with, it’s a skill he’s honed behind an exceptional will to succeed. That intangible is what makes Murphy an exotic breed of baseball player.

“That’s the difference,” said Alexander, his former coach and mentor. “He’s like a sponge. He wants to learn and he will ask question after question. A lot of hitters are like, ‘Leave me alone, I got my own little thing going. Don’t mess with it.’ That’s not Daniel. He wants to know. He wants to understand. I’ve seen him line drives, balls he’d just smoke, and he’d be upset with himself because he didn’t have the right spin on the ball coming off the bat. That attention to that kind of detail is what makes him different.

“As a hitter, he always has a plan for what he’s trying to accomplish. He analyzes it to the point where, even if he hits it good, he won’t be satisfied unless he did the thing he set out to do. I liken it to shooting pool. You can hit a great shot, but if you don’t leave the cue ball in a place to set up your next shot, it doesn’t do you a lot of good. Daniel always leaves the [batting] cage where he’s left that cue ball in a good spot.”

Alexander knew Murphy could hit the first time he set eyes on him during an advanced summer baseball camp at Jacksonville University. Murphy, then a high school junior at Englewood High School, was just 16 years old.

“I couldn’t see him playing in the major leagues at that point,” Alexander confessed. “But what we didn’t understand, and it took a couple years, was to see how bad he wanted it, how good his work ethic was. If everybody could do what he does, every good player would be a potential major league player.”

Murphy batted .377 his freshman year (2004). He paid the price for his success his sophomore season. Murphy batted .329, an almost 50-point drop off.

“He felt like he could hit everything,” remembers Alexander. “He would get himself out because he would hit pitches out of his zone. Then he learned patience. He started taking his walks and started swinging at strikes only. He became a much better hitter.”

Bigger … and better is the best way Murphy’s transformation. By his junior year at Jacksonville, he added 25 pounds, sculpting his physique and wearing out opposing pitchers on his way to winning the 2006 Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year Award, batting .398.

PULLING A GIBSON

But Murphy saved the best for last, while at his worst. Late in his junior year, Murphy suffered a knee injury that would eventually lead to surgery. Doctors said there was no additional risk for injury, “if he could stand the pain, it wasn’t going to hurt him to play,” said his former college coach. “He couldn’t run, he could barely walk on it.”

Still, Alexander didn’t want to take any risks with Murphy’s future. Murphy was on the bench as Jacksonville faced Belmont University in the conference tournament. “I kept him on the roster just because we needed him on the bench just to be an inspiration,” explained Alexander.

Down a run in the ninth with runners on first and third, Alexander turned to his best hitter and asked, “Daniel, can you get me a fly ball?”

Murphy replied, “Yeah, I can do it.”

“He limped up there like Kirk Gibson,” said Alexander. “He took one swing and he hit a bullet off the very top of the wall and we win. It was at that point that I knew that this kid was something special.”

Murphy hobbled his way through the college regional tournament, playing on one leg. After Jacksonville lost the first game without Murphy in the lineup, he begged Alexander to play him.

“I DH-ed him,” said Alexander. “He really could not run. He went 3-for-4 or 4-for-5, something crazy like that. He was hitting balls off the wall and he was just getting to first base. Those games I look back on and those were the performances that told me he was destined.”

It paid off in June 2006 when, despite knee surgery, the Mets selected Murphy in the 13th round of the amateur draft. Last August, Murphy made the improbable jump from Binghamton (the Mets Double-A affiliate) to New York.

JOE LUNCHPAIL

“At a young age, I think he knows as much about hitting as anybody out there. He wants to take it to a science. I think one day, he’ll wind up being a hitting instructor at that [major-league] level.” – Terry Alexander, Jacksonville University Dolphins

A single off Roy Oswalt in his first major league at-bat, four multi-hit games in his dozen games and a .313 batting average in 49 games last season placed Murphy squarely in the Mets 2009 blueprint.

But where?

That question has had managers scratching their heads for years. Murphy bounced around defensively. He spent his freshman year at third base, then moved to the outfield as a sophomore and back to third his junior season.

“The question for us was a lot like the question for the Mets is, ‘What position will he play?’” said Alexander. “We thought he could be a pretty good third baseman, so that’s what we tried to groom him for.”

Before the Mets played a single spring training game Manuel named Murphy his starting leftfielder. There would be no platoon system with Fernando Tatis. The job was Murphy’s to lose, which he did by late April, thanks to a series of defensive errors.

As one door closed, another opened for Murphy. When Carlos Delgado underwent surgery for a hip injury, Manuel kept Murphy’s bat swinging, moving him to first base.

To Murphy, it doesn’t matter where he plays as long as he’s in the lineup. Alexander summed it up this way: “Put me anywhere, just let me hit. Whatever it takes to get in that lineup to hit, that’s what he’s gonna do.”

“He’s blue-collar, Joe Lunchpail,” said TV analyst and former Met Keith Hernandez. “He works hard and has a good attitude. He has enormous potential. He has a lot of discipline for a very young hitter. He’s not going to be a huge power guy. If he develops into what I think he is, he’s going to be about a 20-homer guy and he’s eventually going to be the third hitter [in the lineup] on this ballclub for a long time.”

“I didn’t know Pete Rose or have a personal relationship with him, but I watched how he played, and Murphy plays that way,” Manuel told the media. “He runs the bases hard. He plays the outfield hard. Every pitch is a grind.”

Pete “I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball” Rose? Charlie Hustle? The all-time leader in hits (4,256), singles (3,215), at-bats (14,053), plate appearances (15,861) and times on base (5,929) … that Pete Rose? Say what you will about Rose off-the-field, but on it, make no mistake, he was feared.

“I don’t hit the ball 500 feet, I don’t have a great arm and I’m still getting better on defense, so I have to play hard,” Murphy told ESPN. “When I’m done playing, hopefully the fans will say, ‘He played the game the right way every day. He backed up every base. He ran out every ball. He busted up every double play.’ That’s all I can ask for.”

Sounds like Rose.

On Opening Day in Cincinnati, Rose’s former home, Murphy battled Reds ace Aaron Harang. “He gets down 0-2 real quick and he battles,” said Alexander, who watched the at-bat. “Ball one. Then, he fouls a couple off. Ball two. Then, he fouls a couple more off. Ball three. Then – boom – home run. That epitomizes the kind of hitter he can be: just a pest. If you make the mistake, he’s gonna hit it. He’ll battle you until you make the mistake.”

Hits like Rose.

“When you go out and see a player you can’t tell that,” he continued. “People can tell you he works hard, but I don’t know that I’ve signed a kid out of high school that works as hard as Murph. He showed me that baseball was his passion and he was going to do everything he could to be the best he could be. Those guys are special … there are guys who work hard and then there are guys who work harder than those guys. That’s Daniel.”

Plays like Rose.

What are the odds he performs like Rose?

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