Murphy Instantly Improves, Complicates Cubs Lineup Against Power Arms

For those nervous about the Cubs’ playoff offense, Tuesday’s trade for Daniel Murphy should have filled diaphragms enough for at least a partial sigh of relief. Not only is Murphy a veteran contact hitter with power, but he also boasts excellent numbers against the lineup’s biggest Achilles’ heel: Power pitching.

I won’t again outline the team’s challenges against elite playoff pitchers. But as talented and flexible as the Cubs’ position players are, Joe Maddon previously enjoyed few options for competing against elite strikeout pitchers. Only Ben Zobrist (.359), Jason Heyward (.354) and Albert Almora Jr. (.310) have hit power arms well this year.

But now Murphy provides a fourth such bat for packing a playoff lineup against hard-throwing starters and relievers. For his career, Murphy has hit .276 against power arms. But since his 2015 postseason breakout, he’s improved this to .293 and an .810 OPS.

The key for Maddon will now be how to best clump these bats together against elite starters. In this way, he can increase the chances of stringing more quality at bats and run-producing hits together in an inning. Throw in opportunistic pinch-hitting from contact-hitting Tommy LaStella, and this should upgrade the past default strategy of hoping for usually solo homers off rare mistake pitches.

This was specifically on Theo Epstein’s mind when he made the deal. At his post-2018 news conference, he spoke of the need to improve the linmeupEpstein In commenting on the deal, he said addition of consistent, high-level, professional at-bats would help us. Daniel Murphy has as good of at-bats as anyone in the game. He’s a proven, established, elite hitter. He hits good pitching

“Price check on Manny Machado, please.”

In a way, we could call Murphy a poor man’s Manny Machado. I say this not because Murphy is “Machado Light” with the bat. No, the Cubs actually acquired very similar offensive production. Over the past three years against power pitchers, Murphy’s .809 OPS is just a tad behind Machado’s this year in his career year (.819 OPS). And Murphy cost perhaps a quarter in trade what the Dodgers gave up for Machado.

To illustrate, Machado at shortstop and Murphy at second base are both subpar defensively. So unless Machado agreed to play third base for the Cubs, his added value would have been his quality bat against power arms. Thus I far prefer the deal for one-plus months of Murphy over what the Dodgers gave up for two-plus months of Machado – especially given the Cubs’ thin prospect options for trades.

And who knows. If injury hadn’t shut down Cubs’ pitching prospect Adbert Alzolay, maybe he would have been the focal point of a multi-prospect deal for Machado. Or an even bigger package for both Machado and Zach Britton (who has a 5.79 ERA since going to the Yankees).

Maddon the Mad Juggler

Now it’s up to Maddon to figure out the optimal mix of lineup pieces that can sew up the division, clinch home-field advantage, and increase playoff win chances.

First, one must admit a keystone combination of Javier Baez at shortstop and Murphy second base is far inferior to Baez and Addison Russell. You lose a lot of run prevention. As reminder, here’s a link to Murphy’s 2015 World Series game-costing gaffe. So I would be reluctant to just straight bench Russell in all playoff games.

Against elite starters, however, run-prevention seems of less value for the Cubs when even more runs are prevented by the opposing pitcher. So in those instances, I certainly consider benching Russell and holding him back as a later defensive replacement.

Another option can be to play Murphy at third base. As many have noted, Murphy’s not great at third, but he did make 41 starts there in 2015. Playing him at the hot corner would provide the advantage of pushing Kris Bryant to the outfield and sparing that trick shoulder from more frequent dives at the third.

Tough lineup choices

Maximizing the lineup against power arms still involves interesting decisions. Let’s assume Bryant comes back at least 90 percent of his healthy self and Maddon smartly starts all four power-arm bats (Zobrist, Heyward, Almora and Murphy). It’s also safe to assume Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras start at first and catcher even though their numbers aren’t great against power arms.

That’s seven field positions covered, leaving only a choice between Russell or Baez at shortstop. If both are fully healthy, this would be a tough call on paper. On one hand, Russell brings superior run prevention, but his power-arm numbers have plummeted since his mid-season hand and other injuries.

On the other hand, a completely healthy Baez has even worse power-arm numbers (.185 average, .502 OPS) than a banged up Russell (.195 average, .547 OPS).

However, Baez does bring an “anything can happen” quality that has marked his magical season. Of course, this hasn’t marked his season against power arms, with just one homer and one walk this year. All said, it would take huge cajones for Maddon to not start Baez in a playoff game, even if the raw metrics might recommend it.

The most painful decision actually involves Kyle Schwarber. Despite his .226 power-arm average, his superb 20 percent walk rate jacks his OBP up to .435. Plus, he ranks 14th in the National League in pitches per plate appearance. This only helps drive pitch counts up and an elite out of the game sooner.

But the only way to get Schwarber into a power-arm game is to sit another outfielder. If Bryant’s shoulder doesn’t allow him to gear up enough against power stuff, Schwarber could replace Bryant in the outfield. Otherwise, your choice is Schwarber’s lesser defense, great OBP, and greater power potential over Almora’s superior defense, average, and OPS.

So how will Maddon decide? Presuming Bryant’s shoulder is healthy enough to give quality at-bats against elite pitching, Maddon might just go straight platoon. Against elite lefties, Almora starts. Against elite righties, Schwarber stays in left field.

All tough choices, but that’s a good thing about the Murphy deal. Now Maddon has more choices. Far better than deciding whether to give more playing time to Ian Happ and his 53 percent K-rate against power arms. In fact when you also consider the even more complex pitching staff decisions, this October could be Maddon’s most exciting field management challenge ever.

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