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Nice article on Murphy


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February 13, 2009

With Mets’ Murphy, Hitting Is an Obsession and More


PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — J. J. Putz has known Daniel Murphy for about a week and a half, or more than enough time for him to corroborate what Murphy’s teammates, friends and mentors already know.


“The guy is obsessed,” said Putz, who lives across from Murphy in a hotel here. “All he talks about is hitting, hitting, hitting. It’s not a stretch to say that it consumes about 90 percent of his day.”


When Putz sees him in the morning, Murphy is sitting by his locker holding a bat. When Putz sees him in the afternoon, Murphy is often on his way back to the batting cage. When Putz sees him in the evening, usually over a steak dinner, Murphy peppers him with questions about pitch sequences. The other 10 percent of the day, Murphy said he sleeps. Then he wakes up, maybe fires off a text message to the hitting coach Howard Johnson, and thinks about hitting some more.


“We had a guy in Seattle named Mike Morse who would be on Ichiro’s hip all day long just watching every little thing he did,” Putz said of Ichiro Suzuki. “So far, that’s who Murph reminds me of. There are some guys who want to learn and others who feel like they have all the answers already. He clearly wants to learn.”


The Mets would agree. Murphy’s sweet left-handed swing and precocious plate discipline fueled his two-year ascent from 13th-round draft pick to the major leagues. Once he arrived last August, after spending all of one day in Class AAA, the position he played in the field was secondary. The team needed his bat, and Murphy obliged, hitting .313 in 49 games and living up to his reputation as a grinder, seeing an average of 4.25 pitches per plate appearance.


This season, the Mets could use his glove just as much, as part of a projected left-field platoon with Fernando Tatis that, if each player builds on his breakthrough 2008, could stabilize a lineup left untouched during the Mets’ off-season overhaul. As intriguing, though, is how the 23-year-old Murphy fits into the Mets’ long-term plans. With the prized prospect Fernando Martínez perhaps a year away from making the majors, Murphy, a natural third baseman, seems ticketed for a future in the infield.


Thinking ahead, the Mets have discussed the possibility of Murphy moving to first base next season, should they decide not to re-sign Carlos Delgado, rather than find a replacement through a trade or from a largely unimpressive crop of free agents (Nick Johnson, Adam LaRoche). An alternative, which some fans probably wish had been implemented already, is second base, where Murphy played 15 games for Class AA Binghamton and again in the Arizona Fall League.


The Mets asked Murphy to play second because they were allotted a spot at that position, not as part of any great conspiracy to undermine Luis Castillo, who played dreadfully in the first season of his four-year, $25 million contract.


“Anything I can do to get more bullets in my gun, I’ll do,” Murphy said. “I learned something every day I played second base. What that means for me, I don’t know, but any time the organization gives me extra playing time is just fine with me.”


His reasoning is simple: If he plays, he gets to hit. That obsession was nurtured at Jacksonville University, where he occasionally skipped classes to fine-tune his swing, and reinforced when he was promoted to the Mets. Before, during and after games, Murphy would ask Delgado, Carlos Beltrán and David Wright about their thought processes during individual at-bats. Unsolicited, Murphy recites the type and location of the pitch sequences he saw in pivotal at-bats last season, including the 0-1 slider he ripped off Philadelphia’s Brad Lidge on Aug. 27 for a go-ahead eighth-inning double that snapped an 0-for-16 skid. Murphy called it “the biggest hit in my entire life,” though not for the result.


Murphy said he looked back at Jerry Manuel, the Mets’ manager, “and he clapped and said, ‘Let’s go.’ Just the faith he had in me, a 23-year-old rookie, meant the world.”


In Johnson, whose son, Glen, is a sophomore outfielder at Jacksonville, Murphy found someone whose philosophy meshed with his intensity. Calling himself a “verbal learner,” Murphy tends to talk when he hits, telling himself, “That’s it, that’s the one I want,” when he makes a good swing. When he feels out of whack, he will tell Johnson what he thinks he is doing differently, and they will try to solve the flaw together.


“He’s a guy that’s going to work on his swing, he’s going to talk about it, he’s going to think about it, he’s going to be absorbed in it,” Johnson said. “He has a leg up that way. He’s got a real good idea about what he does. But he’s also excellent at making adjustments here, making adjustments there. If I say something to him, he internalizes it and can make it happen.”


Once a week during the off-season, Murphy would send Johnson a text message or call him — “just to bug him, make sure we’re still buddies,” Murphy said — and Johnson went to Jacksonville a few times to visit his son and his pupil. Every day but Sunday, Murphy fielded ground balls at first base and second base and caught fly balls, often working out with his brother, Jonathan, and Glen Johnson at the university.


Murphy also told Howard Johnson how he took Delgado’s advice to heart in Arizona. On days he did not play, he would concentrate on the opposing pitcher to see if he was tipping his pitches. Murphy jotted his findings in a green spiral-bound notebook that contains 10 pages of detailed notes, including some on pitchers on his own team.


“This is my craft, this is my job, and I take it as seriously as I can,” Murphy said. “So what if I’m a bit obsessed? I love to hit. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”


Almost on cue, Murphy put on his batting gloves and flexed his fingers. He had somewhere else to be, something else to do.


“Time to go,” Murphy said. “Have to hit.”


If he continues to mature as a hitter he could end up being the X factor this season for the Mets. I would love to see him playing second base everyday.

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