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Why Daniel Murphy is the real deal and a real steal for Nationals

He won't hit .400 all season or relive his postseason glory, but there's plenty of reason to believe that Daniel Murphy can be a legitimate hitter for the Nationals.

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Last fall’s World Series was a nightmare for Daniel Murphy. In the Mets’ five-game loss to the Royals, Murphy hit .150 with just three singles in 20 at-bats. Compounding matters, he made two errors at second base, including an eighth-inning muff that sparked Kansas City’s comeback in Game 4. Murphy’s struggles provided grist for skeptics who had said that his magical first two playoff series—during which the 30-year-old career contact hitter had batted .421 and blasted homers in six straight games, including several off some of the game’s best pitchers—represented an unsustainable fluke, born of a notably small sample size.

Now, as the calendar flips to June, Murphy has completed his first two months with the Nationals—who signed him as a free agent in January—batting .397, some 46 points ahead of his closest competitor. He already has nine homers, putting him on pace to double his previous season high of 14. It has started to seem as if, for the new and improved Murphy, it was the World Series that represented the outlying small sample size.

Let’s get it out of the way: it is unlikely that Daniel Murphy will ultimately become the first player in three quarters of a century, since Ted Williams in 1941, to hit .400. Among other things, his batting average on balls in play, .414, would be the highest since Rogers Hornsby’s .422 in 1924, and is almost certain to regress. During his .406 season, Williams’s BABIP was .378.

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But Murphy had started looking like one of the better hitters alive before the first two rounds of last October’s playoffs, even if few noticed due to the attention-grabbing heroics of his new teammate, Yoenis Cespedes. Over his final 50 regular-season games, starting last Aug. 1, he batted .296 with eight homers, 37 RBIs and a .533 slugging percentage. Add that stretch to the postseason and his first two months in Washington, and over the past 116 games, Murphy is hitting .345 with 25 homers, 83 RBIs and an OPS better than .975. Five games is a small sample size; 116 might be a new reality.

As I explained in my Sports Illustrated cover story about Murphy last October, his transformation was the result of a collaboration with the Mets’ new hitting coach, Kevin Long, whom the team had hired after the 2014 season. Murphy is gifted with superior hand-eye coordination, and for most of his baseball life, he had been content to slap the ball around while almost never striking out—just 13.1% of the time through '14. That is the type of hitter that he had come to believe that he was. As Long nervously paced around his uncle’s pool in Hawaii last January, he wrote an email to his new charge that contained a bold proposal: Since he never whiffed, why not close up and lower his stance a little, try to meet the ball earlier in its flight path and whack the hell out of it?

Murphy received Long’s message at home in Jacksonville. “Baby,” Murphy told his wife, Tori, who was about to go to sleep for the night. “This guy gets it. He gets it. Kevin Long, he gets it.”

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After an acclimation period that consumed most of the first four months of last season, Murphy himself got it. The hitter that he and Long envisioned two winters ago is exactly the one who is currently lighting up the diamond in Washington. He’s still not missing the ball much, striking out 10.8% of the time, the majors’ 10th-lowest rate. But he is driving it. As recently as 2013, Murphy was pulling just 28.9% of balls he hit, according to FanGraphs. Last year, he pulled 40.7% of them, and he's doing so with 38.2% of balls hit this season. He’s also now hitting more balls than ever in the air, where they have a greater chance of doing damage. Whereas even last year he was still hitting more grounders than flies, his fly-ball rate is now 45.3%, and his ground-ball rate is 28.2%.

In some ways, it doesn’t make sense. Hitters—and people in general—aren’t supposed to be able to change significantly after the age of 30. At that point, they generally are what they are. But some can change, and Murphy has.

During last fall’s National League Championship Series, it was rumored that Murphy could command a free-agent deal of five years and $75 million, at minimum. After his terrible World Series, he ended up with a contract for three years and $37.5 million. He remains a sub-par defender, and there is likely no Kevin Long of fielding who can at this point help him become otherwise. But when you hit like he hits, it doesn’t much matter. It now seems clear that in more ways than one, the Nationals got a real deal.

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Several players at the top of last November’s Reiter 50,’s annual ranking of baseball’s top 50 free agents, have so far scuffled after signing their new contracts. David Price, whom I ranked the No. 1 available player that winter, has a 5.11 ERA for the Red Sox; No. 2 Zack Greinke has a 4.71 ERA for the Diamondbacks; No. 3 Jason Heyward is batting .226 for the Cubs. Here are seven from slightly lower down the list who, like No. 17 Daniel Murphy, have made their clubs feel smart in the early going.

Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Mets (No. 4)

Cespedes has continued his hot finish to 2015 in New York, as he’s second in the NL in homers (15) and RBIs (37). Barring injury, he's all but certain to opt out of the two years remaining on his contract to become the best player in a weak class this winter.

Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Tigers (No. 6)

Although Zimmermann was the clear-cut third pitching option last year, behind Price and Greinke, the former National has easily outperformed both despite receiving about half their total dollars. He’s 7–2 with a 2.52 ERA,

Johnny Cueto, SP, Giants (No. 10)

The longtime Reds ace proved his desultory stint with Kansas City—he went 4–7 with a 4.76 ERA there late last season—was a blip. He has begun his six-year deal with the Giants by going 8–1 with a 2.39 ERA and a career-best 2.41 FIP.

Dexter Fowler, OF, Cubs (No. 12)

Chicago's leadoff man sports a career best .316 average and .969 OPS to go with six homers, six steals and improved defense. He's likely to decline his side of his $9 million mutual option with the Cubs to hit the open market once more.

Ian Desmond, OF, Rangers (No. 13)

Last winter’s big free-agent loser has excelled at a new position—he was a shortstop with the Nationals—and is now batting .298 with seven homers, 10 steals and an .826 OPS. He's poised to do much better than his one-year, $8 million deal the next time around.

Jeff Samardzija, SP, Giants (No. 18)

After losing out on Greinke, the Giants turned to the recently disappointing combination of Cueto and Samardzija, and they are glad they did. The former White Sox starter’s ERA has dropped by more than two runs, from 4.96 to 2.84, and he’s 7–3.

Ben Zobrist, 2B, Cubs (No. 19)

The former jack-of-all-trades for Tampa Bay is now a mainstay at second, where he’s hitting .351 with a majors-best .452 on-base percentage. Age is a concern—his contract runs through 2019, when he’ll be 38—but so far, so good.