Where Daniel Murphy's postseason ranks among greatest of all time
The Mets are on their way to their first World Series in 15 years, and one big reason why has been the Ruthian postseason performance of Daniel Murphy. The veteran second baseman set a playoff record in Wednesday’s decisive Game 4 of the National League Championship Series by homering in his sixth straight game, breaking the record of five straight set by Carlos Beltran in 2004.
That homer, a two-run shot in the eighth inning, was also Murphy’s seventh of this postseason, one shy of the all-time record held by Barry Bonds (2002), Beltran ('04) and Nelson Cruz ('11). Murphy will get a chance to tie that record and extend his streak in the World Series starting Tuesday night, but with his team inactive for the next five days, it’s worth wondering if he is in the midst of one of the best postseason performances of all time.
In nine playoff games, Murphy has hit .421/.436/1.026 (1.462 OPS) in 39 plate appearances with seven home runs, 11 RBIs, 11 runs scored and just six strikeouts. Those rate stats will come down if he cools off in the World Series after the long layoff, but for now, let’s see how many players in postseason history posted a higher OPS in 39 or more plate appearances.
That’s it: three guys. Bonds and Henderson are all-time greats who were near their respective peaks, and Beltran is a potential Hall of Famer with a reputation as one of the greatest October hitters of all time. Unsurprisingly, two of the men Murphy is chasing for the single-postseason home run record are there; Cruz (.959 OPS in 70 PA in 2011) is not, in part because he went 1-for-15 in the Division Series that year.
Those aren’t the only three postseason lines we can compare to Murphy’s, of course. The most notable performance that just missed the cutoff above was Manny Ramirez’s 2008 showing, in which he posted a 1.747 OPS in 36 PA for a Dodgers team that lost to the eventual World Series champion Phillies in the NLCS.
Of course, prior to the introduction of the LCS, there were numerous World Series performances that, on a rate basis, far outdistanced even those above. The best came courtesy of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth in the Yankees’ four-game sweep of the Cardinals in the 1928 World Series. Gehrig hit .545/.706/1.727 (yes, a slugging percentage even higher than Bonds’s OPS above) in that series, which works out to a 2.433 OPS, but over a mere 17 plate appearances: He was 6-for-11 with four home runs, one double, six walks and no strikeouts. Ruth posted a 2.022 OPS of his own in that series, also in 17 plate appearances. In the 1914 World Series, Hank Gowdy, catcher for that year’s Miracle Braves, posted a 1.960 OPS in 16 PA in a four-game sweep of the Athletics.
Those performances all deserve mention here, but they came in fewer than half as many plate appearances as Murphy has had this postseason and less than a quarter as many as Bonds had in 2002, when his Giants reached Game 7 of the World Series and played a total of 27 postseason games. For the most direct comparison, let’s limit Murphy’s competition to players from the divisional era (1969-present) who played in at least two series (wild-card games don’t count as series; sorry, Colby Rasmus).
Would you believe there was a player in this year’s NLCS who had an even better OPS than Murphy this postseason? Well, Jorge Soler did; he hit .474/.600/1.105 in 25 plate appearances for the Cubs, good for a 1.705 OPS. The catch is that Soler, who quietly went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles on Wednesday night, only started six of Chicago’s nine games this October. Soler didn’t even appear as a pinch-hitter in the wild-card game victory over the Pirates or, inexplicably, in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Mets.
Per baseball-reference.com’s postseason leaderboard, Soler’s OPS ranks 10th all-time among players with either 20 or more plate appearances or a combination of at least nine hits and walks in a single postseason. The only man ahead of him on that list with more plate appearances is Ramirez, whose 2008 postseason OPS ranks eighth all-time. Rasmus checks in at seventh with a 1.760 OPS in 24 PA this postseason, besting Ramirez in just one fewer plate appearance than Soler. That’s a muddle that suggests we need to set our cut-off a bit higher to get a fair comparison to Murphy.
Let’s try this: The Mets have played nine playoff games and Murphy has appeared in all of them. To qualify for the regular-season batting title (or the league lead in any other hitting rate stat), a player must have an average of 3.1 plate appearances per team game or more. Nine games multiplied by 3.1 equals 27.9 plate appearances. So let’s limit Murphy’s competition to hitters with 28 or more plate appearances in a single postseason. If we do that, we keep Ramirez but leave out Soler and Rasmus, each of whom had fewer than 65% as many plate appearances as Murphy this postseason. That seems fair. Doing that, we get this list of the top-10 OPS leaders with a minimum of 28 PA in a single postseason:
Given how low we set the plate appearance cut-off relative to Murphy’s 39 PA, his fifth-place showing on the above list is incredibly impressive. It’s also worth noting that he has more postseason plate appearances than any of the five men below him on the above list. In fact, if the list is extended to 20 places, Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber ranks 19th (1.308 OPS in 31 PA), but the only other hitters in the top 20 with more plate appearances than Murphy are Paul Molitor in 1993 (1.378 OPS in 55 PA), Willie Stargell in '79 (1.362 in 46 PA), Reggie Jackson in '78 (1.317 in 45 PA) and Alex Rodriguez in 2009 (1.308 in 68 PA). That’s another quartet of marquee names to go with the four men ahead of Murphy on the list above. It's some pretty heady company for a player who had never hit more than 13 home runs in a full season prior to this year and whose .770 OPS during the regular season was his best mark for a year in which he qualified for the batting title.
Where exactly Murphy ends up on the all-time list of postseason performances remains to be seen. After five days off, he could emerge ice cold in the World Series and bring his cumulative line for this postseason way down, exposing this evaluation as premature. He could continue his hot hitting, claiming the single-postseason home run record for himself with just two more round-trippers and challenging Bonds’s 2002 performance. Or he could simply turn back into Daniel Murphy.
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine the last, and most likely, of those scenarios plays out. If Murphy hits close to his career rates of .288/.331/.424 over roughly 3.1 plate appearances per game over a seven-game World Series, what would his final line this postseason look like?
If Murphy went 6-for-21 with a home run, a walk, a hit-by-pitch and a sacrifice fly in the World Series, he’d hit .286/.333/.429. That works out to 24 plate appearances, or 3.4 per game, which seems reasonable, if not low, given that Murphy hits third in New York's lineup. Add that performance to what he has already done this postseason, and his final line would be .373/.397/.814, or a 1.211 OPS in 62 plate appearances. Tremendously impressive, but no longer competitive with the likes of Bonds, Beltran, Molitor or Rodriguez among players with 50 or more PA in the postseason, nor with Henderson, who stole a record-setting 11 bases in 12 attempts in addition to his tremendous plate production in 1989.
That’s speculation, of course. What Murphy has already done this postseason has been real, and it has been spectacular. Indeed, it deservedly ranks among the top 10 sustained postseason performances by a hitter in the divisional era. Whatever his final batting line looks like, Murphy’s production in the first two rounds of these playoffs should stand as an iconic performance for years to come.