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The Strike Zone

JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot: Dale Murphy

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.

Dale Murphy won back-to-back NL MVPs in 1982 and '83. (Andy Hayt/SI) Dale Murphy won back-to-back NL MVPs in 1982 and '83. (Andy Hayt/SI)

For as long as I've been analyzing Hall of Fame ballots — 12 seasons, including my initial foray at my Futility Infielder blog — Dale Murphy has appeared to me to be a candidate who falls short enough of the standards for inclusion that I've resisted going through his career with a fine-toothed comb. 

When I started this endeavor for the 2002 ballot, Murphy looked to be the weakest among a quartet of outfield candidates whom I had grown up watching and to some extent revering: Andre Dawson, Dave Parker, Jim Rice and Murphy himself. He had the fewest career hits, the lowest batting average and slugging percentage, and the lowest scores via the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor tools. A fine and memorable player he may have been, but not one worthy of a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.

When I introduced the system that would eventually become JAWS, I found that all four outfielders fell shy of the standards at their positions, and even with revisions to my methodology and the underlying WARP currency, that held true.

The BBWAA voters disagreed with me on Rice, whom they elected in 2009, his final year of eligibility, and Dawson, who followed a year later, and who at least ranked as the most qualified of the bunch according to JAWS. They agreed with me on Parker, whose eligibility expired in 2011; he hadn't even broken 20 percent since the 2000 vote, and never topped 25 percent. They have agreed with me on Murphy, who's in a very similar boat as Parker, which is to say up the creek without a paddle: going into his final year of eligibility, he has never reached 25 percent, topped 20 percent only in 2000 (23.2 percent) and received 14.5 percent last year.

Murphy is about to become the 35th player who lasted on the BBWAA ballot long enough for his eligibility to expire. Seven of those players gained entry via one iteration of the Veterans Committee or another, including the late Ron Santo in 2011, but the lowest percentage any of those players received in their final year was Richie Ashburn, who got 30.4 percent, down from 35.4 percent the year before. No, it's not looking good for the Murph.

Player CareerPeakJAWSHR SB AVG OBP SLG TAv
Dale Murphy42.639.040.821802111398161.265.346.469.285
Avg HOF CF67.142.554.8        
Avg HOF OF66.341.253.7        
Avg HOF Hitter64.741.353.0        

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Murphy was the fifth overall pick of the 1974 draft by the Braves, a 6-foot-4 specimen whom the team saw as a catcher thanks to a strong arm that some compared to Johnny Bench. That 1974 season was Hank Aaron's final one with the organization, an 88-win aberration that marked the Braves' only winning season between 1971 and 1980. Murphy would help change that eventually, but only after abandoning the tools of ignorance. He debuted with the Braves on Sept. 13, 1976 as a 20-year-old, enjoying the proverbial late-season cup of coffee, and did the same thing the following year.

By the time of his true rookie season in 1978, Murphy was transitioning away from catcher due to a mental block involving a sudden inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher; that year, in which he played 129 games at first but just 21 behind the plate, he hit .226/.284/.394, with 23 homers but a league-leading 145 strikeouts thanks to his long swing.  He took a giant step forward the following year, hitting .276 /.340/.469 with 21 homers and just 67 strikeouts, but he missed roughly two months due to a knee injury; though he started the season as the regular catcher, he never played another inning at the position after returning.

The Braves made him their regular centerfielder in 1980, and he rewarded them with a 33-homer campaign in which he made the All-Star team and was 6.2 Wins Above Replacement (fourth in the league), with a .281/.349/.510 line accompanied by defense that was 13 runs above average overall according to Total Zone, and 11 above average in center. With his help, the Braves broke out of their long slide with an 81-80 finish.

After a down 1981 season (.247/.325/.390) shortened by the strike, Murphy bounced back in a big way in 1982: .281/.378/.507 with 36 homers, a league-high 109 RBIs, 23 steals and 93 walks. Under new manager Joe Torre, the team started the year 13-0 and withstood a late charge by the Dodgers to win the NL West for the first time since 1969. Murphy beat out the Cardinals' Lonnie Smith (who was drafted two picks before Murphy) and the Dodgers' Pedro Guerrero for the NL MVP award, though his 5.8 WAR was outdone by both, as well as five other players, hardly an uncommon occurrence in the annals of the voting. He also took home the first of five straight Gold Gloves, though his defense in center was only two runs above average (again, hardly uncommon).

Murphy won a second MVP award the following year, with an even better individual season: .302/.393/.540 with 36 homers and 30 steals; he led the league in slugging percentage and ranked second with 6.8 WAR. This time, the 88-win Braves lost out to the Dodgers in the NL West, and in fact Murphy would never make it back to the postseason.

He would continue to crank out strong years through 1987, his age-31 season; that year — a season that previewed the higher offensive levels of the next decade, and that also marked his move from centerfield to rightfield — Murphy set career highs with 44 homers, 115 walks (29 intentional), .417 OBP, .580 SLG and 7.4 WAR, the league's third-highest total. Alas, Dawson won MVP honors for a 49-homer season that was nonetheless vastly inferior (.287/.328/.568, 3.7 WAR), and in fact Murphy didn't even break the top 10 in voting.

At that juncture, Murphy looked like a Hall of Famer in the making, with a career .279/.362/.500 line, 310 homers, five 30-homer seasons and six top-three finishes in homers from 1980 to 1987. Over that eight-year span, only Mike Schmidt (295) hit more homers than Murphy's 264, and only six players exceeded his 40.0 WAR: Rickey Henderson, Schmidt, Gary Carger, Wade Boggs, Robin Yount and Alan Trammell; all but the last are in the Hall.

Alas, Murphy's career quickly fell off the table. He hit a combined .238/.311/.403 over the next four seasons and was worth just 4.9 WAR in that span, a hair less value than the 5.0 he had averaged during that eight-year run. Traded to Philadelphia in August 1990, he exceeded 57 games just once over his final four seasons due to knee troubles, and played in just 44 games combined in his final two years with Philadelphia and Colorado.

As with Larry Walker, Murphy's key counting stats (2,111 hits, 398 homers) eyeball as rather light for a Hall of Famer. But even in a lower-run environment than that in which Walker played, with most of his time spent at a tougher defensive position, and with the benefit of 1,011 more plate appearances, Murphy comes up nowhere near the JAWS standard for centerfielders, or the slightly lower standard for outfielders in general; 49 percent of his career plate appearances came while playing center, another 34 percent as a rightfielder, and 87 percent at any outfield position.

Even by the most generous standard, measured against all Hall of Fame hitters, he's 2.3 WAR shy of the average Hall of Famer on peak value, and 22.1 WAR shy on career value. Among centerfielders, he ranks 25th in JAWS, below 12 Hall of Famers as well as several other very good players including Kenny Lofton, Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, Jim Edmonds, Jimmy Wynn, Willie Davis, Cesar Cedeno, Vada Pinson, Chet Lemon, Johnny Damon and Fred Lynn.

Murphy's collection of hardware — five Gold Gloves, two MVP awards, seven All-Star appearances — is often offered as a counter to the lightness of his numbers on both the traditional and sabermetric fronts. Most of that stuff is well-captured by Bill James' Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Standards metrics, which give credit for awards, league leads in key categories, postseason performance and so on, and there, Murphy is nothing special. His Hall of Fame Monitor score, which measures how likely (not how deserving) a player is to be elected, is 116, with 100 representing "a good possibility" and 130 "a virtual cinch"; that score centered at 100 for the average Hall of Famer when James designed it, but the average has risen over time, and it's not hard to find players on the 2013 ballot with much higher scores, led by Jeff Bagwell (150) and Walker (148).

As I noted in my article on the latter, the Monitor and Standard weren't built to cope with the extreme offensive environment of the 1993-2009 period, but even contemporary candidates on the ballot (Trammell at 118) or now off it (Parker at 124) rank higher. As for the Hall of Fame Standards, which attempt to measure Hallworthiness based upon career levels, Murphy scores 34 where the average Hall of Famer is supposed to be at 50; Trammell (40) and Parker (42) have him beat there, to say nothing of more modern players whose offensive contexts essentially broke the system such as Walker (58). JAWS was built specifically with an eye towards improving upon these metrics.

Murphy's two MVP awards alone have been offered as evidence he belongs in Cooperstown. Twenty-nine players have won multiple MVP awards; eight of the 10 players with three are already in Cooperstown, with Barry Bonds (the only player with more than three) on this year's ballot and Alex Rodriguez not yet eligible. Of the 19 players with exactly two MVP awards, Juan Gonzalez, Roger Maris, Frank Thomas and Murphy are the only ones not in. Thomas hits the ballot next year, Gonzalez fell off after two years due to his short peak and his connections to performance-enhancing drugs, Maris topped out at 43.1 percent of the vote in his 15th and final year of eligibility in 1988 and has since failed to gain entry via the Veterans Committee several times.

Of those 19 two-time winners, the only ones who don't exceed the JAWS standard at their position besides Gonzalez, Maris and Murphy are Hal Newhouser, Carl Hubbell and Hank Greenberg, all of whom are within four points of the JAWS standard. Newhouser and Greenberg both have peak scores above the standard but are short on the career mark; the latter missed three full seasons and parts of two others due to World War II, so he's excused. Hubbell is the worst of the two-time winners in terms of JAWS, and he's only 2.5 points short, while Murphy is 12.2 points short.

Murphy was one of the best players of the 1980s, but both his peak and his career were too short to measure up to the average Hall of Famer. In his final year on the ballot, I've given his case the most complete airing I can within this context — a viking funeral for his candidacy, if you will — and I still can't see a strong enough argument in his favor. In recent weeks, his adult children have taken to the internet and social media to urge voters to see the light. One of them even took aim at "statistic nerds" and specifically called out JAWS. In addition to his numbers, the Murphy brood highlighted their father's anti-steroid stance as well as his strong record of sportsmanship and community service.

It may be true that Murphy has led a more virtuous life than Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, but he's neither being sized up for sainthood nor even measured against those less-than-saintly types. He's being measured against the players already in the Hall of Fame, sinners and saints alike, for his tangible accomplishments on the field, and by those standards, he simply falls short.
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