Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Devil And Daniel Murphy

Daniel Murphy's historic playoff performance last year carried the Mets into the World Series.   In the Mets' 4-game sweep of the Cubs in the League Championship Series, Murph batted over .500, with four home runs, a double, six runs batted in and six runs scored. Including the final two games of the Division Series, Murphy homered in six straight post-season games. 

Murphy had been a pretty productive hitter for the previous few seasons -- second in the league in hits in 2013 and ninth in 2014, and even made an All Star appearance in 2014.  But he would often make baffling mistakes in the field and on the basepaths.  I believe it was Mets' announcer Keith Hernandez who once said that Murphy believes he is invisible when he runs the bases. 

Murphy was bound to come back to earth after his ridiculously hot playoff run and, unfortunately for the Mets, he crashed a little too early. 

In Game #4 of the World Series, the Mets were on the verge of tying the series up at two games apiece, leading 3-2 with the Nats  having two on and one out in the 8th inning.  Closer Jeurys Familia came in and coaxed an easy grounder from Eric Hosmer, but Murphy, rather than scooping it up and throwing to first for an easy out, charged the ball and missed it completely, allowing the tying run to score.  As he later said, “I tried to one-hand it, and it probably deserves to be two-handed.”

Probably.  Fangraphs found this to be one of the most costly fielding errors in World Series history -- right up their with Bill Buckner.  On the next play, Mike Moustakas hit a ground ball beyond Murphy's limited range, for the go-ahead run.  The Mets lost the game and the Royals went up 3 games to 1.

Murphy also made a costly error in Game #5, and finished the series with a .150 batting average (3 for 20 with no extra base hits). 

Of course, Murphy wasn't the only Met to play poorly in the World Series -- there was plenty of blame to go around.  But in analyzing Murphy's body of work -- his seven year career and 2015 regular season (.281 batting average, 14 home runs, 73 RBI) -- his NLCS performance seemed like an aberration and his World Series play -- particularly his fielding gaffes -- seemed more Murphy like.  Comparable players identified by were Rance Mulliniks and Martin Prado -- not Rod Carew and Joe Morgan.

So, when the Mets declined to sign Murph as a free agent, and chose the more consistent and far better fielding Neil Walker, it appeared to be the right move. 

Little did we know that Murphy made a deal with the devil.  The devout Christian sold his soul in return for an MVP-type year.  There is no better explanation.

Eerily tracking the Broadway hit Damn Yankees, Murphy joined a Washington team against their New York rivals and has been transformed into a star.  Signed by Nationals, Murphy flirted with an other-worldly .400 batting average for much of the first part of the year and showed the kind of power that he displayed in the playoffs last year.  He is leading the National League in hitting (.346), and is third in RBI (82).  And he has absolutely crushed his former team -- hitting six homers and knocking in 19 runs in 12 games.

But far worse, the devil appears to have thrown in for no extra charge, the complete and utter demise of the Damn Mets.  While Murphy's Nationals are comfortably in first place, the Mets have imploded.  Their all-too-familiar mix of injuries, uninspired play and baffling managerial moves, has just culminated in a humiliating three-game sweep by the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks. 

The Mets haven't won back-to-back games since early July.  They can't hit and they can't run. David Wright's career is in doubt.  Matt Harvey looked haunted early in the year and then succumbed to a season-ending injury.  Two other great young pitchers -- Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz -- are plagued by bone spurs that appear to have hampered their effectiveness. Yoenis Cespedes could play as long as he has a caddy and a golf cart.  Other key players are aging fast and/or getting hurt.     Once promising youngsters seem utterly lost.  Manager Terry Collins' tenuous grasp on baseball strategy is slipping away.  The Mets have no chance of catching the Nats, and their wild card hopes are quickly vanishing.  In short, the season has gone to hell.

Last year's run, despite a devastating World Series loss, was -- in a word -- amazing.  The Mets transformed what looked to be another depressing year of mediocrity into a joyful one filled with magical, unforgettable moments.  They were a fun, exciting team with a great core of young players, a fascinating collection of personalities and star power.

At the time, I wrote about how perhaps it was time to change the Mets narrative:
For Met fans, there is always a lingering sense that disappointment is not far off -- that the Mets' penny-wise owners will not do what it takes to keep the team competitive and that something unexpected but nevertheless devastating will undermine the team's seemingly limitless future.  But, things feel different this time.  The Mets have a deep core of great young talent, savvy veterans, and apparently great chemistry.  They surely need to make a few changes and add some key new pieces this off season, but maybe, just maybe, this is the start of a new era.  Maybe it is time for a new narrative.  Not lovable losers or unlovable losers tempered by the occasional miracle, but a truly solid baseball team that doesn't have to rely on magic to win. 
I guess I was premature.  I didn't take into account Murphy's deal with the devil.


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