The Curious Case of Dale Murphy

If I were to ask 100 people who the best player not in the hall of fame is, or rather who has come the closest to being in the hall of fame without being a member, I might not get 100 different answers, but I’d probably get 20-30 at least.  And many of those guys might be types stat heads drool over (Ron Santo, Bert Blyleven).  Some would be hometown heroes (Alan Trammell, Will Clark).  Some would simply be indignant that the Hall of Fame could overlook their “Obvious” choice…say Tim Raines.  Still others think we haven’t honored enough minorities and select Minnie Minoso or Elston Howard.  And a few would even defend the steroid casualties like Mark McGwire. 

But the actual answer to the question of the closest to the hallowed halls… so close he could smell the laquer drying on his plaque was Dale Murphy.. and I’ll illustrate why. 

Murphy started out as a catcher in 1976.  Had he stayed a catcher and posted the same stats there would not be a discussion; he would have gone in first ballot.  Nonetheless he moved to first base and played his first full season in 1978.

1978:  .228/.284/.394  OPS+ 80

Not real impressive to say the least.  He was a horrible first baseman. But the Braves were also terrible and while the Yankees or Dodgers might have axed him the Braves stuck with him and were rewarded the following year.

1979:  .276/.340/.469 OPS+ 113 

He was injured a third of the season but the Braves also had another promising young player in Bob Horner and hoped for a better future.

In 1980 He moved to center field and at the age of 24 his career really started. 

1980:  .281/.349/.510  OPS+ 135.

He hit 33 Home runs, knocked in 89, and scored 98 runs.  This is actually outstanding for those days. He was selected for his first All Star game.  He also ran into one of the first things I think has kept him out of the hall of fame. That issue is his unremarkable showing in MVP voting.  While it may seen strange to say that about a guy who won back to back awards, the truth is that in other years he did far worse than he should have.  In 1980 he finished 12th.  Some of the guys who finished ahead with worse years:

Bake McBride (10th): Hit .309 with little power.

Bob Horner (9th):  Horner was considered the more promising player at this point.. he hit two more home runs than murphy but otherwise his stats weren’t quite as good.

George Hendrick (8th):  Hendrick hit .302 with 25 home runs.. but the main reason is he hit 109 Rbis, which MVP voters always reward.

Andre Dawson (7th):  Dawson and Murphy would have many MVP “battles”

Steve Garvey (6th):  200 Hits, .304 Average, 106 RBIs.. nice big numbers but with an OPS of only .808

Dusty Baker (4th):  Hit 29 home runs with a .294 average.. slightly worse OPS

Jose Cruz (3rd):  Proof that MVP voting isn’t everything.  Cruz hit .302 with decent speed but no power.  Playing a full season as a leadoff hitter he scored 19 less runs than Murphy.  That’s sad.

Gary Carter (2nd):  Carter didn’t hit as well, but he at least is a catcher.

By my estimation in 1980 Murphy should have finished no worse than 5th or 6th behind Mike Schmidt (who won), Steve Carlton, Keith Hernandez (who also got hosed), and maybe Dawson or Baker. 

In the strike season Murphy didn’t have that great of a year, posting a completely average 101 OPS+.

In 1982/1983 of course Murphy rocketed to the stop of the baseball heap. The Braves also finished 1st and 2nd these years, the best in quite a while.  First the numbers:

1982      36/109/.281   23SB  142OPS+

1983      36/121/.302    30SB 149OPS+

He appeared in both All Star Games, won the Gold Glove both years, Back to Back MVP awards, and two silver sluggers. The stats don’t look fantastic  today but to give an example in 1983 Murphy finished: 6th in BA, 3rd in OBP, 1st in SLG, 2nd in Runs, 1st in RBIs, 4th in Walks, while having a rare (at that time) 30/30 season with a gold glove for defense.  In 1983 Andre Dawson finished 2nd to Murphy.

Now most people know those were his two MVP years but fail to realize the next two years were even better

1984     36/100/.290   19SB  149 OPS+

1985     37/111/.300   10SB   152 OPS+

Ok not a lot better but at least as good

He led the league in Home Runs both years, and in 85 also led in Runs and Walks.  But curiously enough he only finished 9th and 7th in MVP voting, despite also having two more Gold Gloves. 

In 1984 either he or Mike Schmidt was the best hitter in the league (It was always Schmidt and somebody else).  But he finished 9th mainly because voters often have a “what have you don’t for me lately” attitude.  Ryne Sandberg suddenly posted the best offensive season by a second baseman in 10 years to win it.  Maybe you could argue for Sandberg, but Jose Cruz (again!), Gary Mathews, Keith Henandez,  Rick Sutcliffe in half a season? 

In 1985  Pedro Guerrero finished 3rd in the MVP voting.  He should have been first. Him or Dwight Gooden. But there’s Dale in 7th place.  Nobody else in the league was more valuable than Murphy however except maybe Mike Schmidt again (who inexplicably got zero MVP votes that year).  He finished behind Tom Herr for pete’s sake. So who did Guerrero lose out to?  Willie Mcgee.. followed by 125 RBI Dave Parker.  To illustrate the absurdity of the vote McGee had basically the same offensive season as Ryne Sandberg.  even having about the same number of stolen bases.  But McGee was an ok center fielder while Sandberg was a perennial gold glove second baseman.  Yet in a real case of MVP-what -have-you-done-for-me-lately? Sandberg finished 13th in the voting. 

In 1986 Murphy appeared in his fifth straight all star game, won his 4th straight gold glove, and had a more than respectable OPS+ of 121.  His stats were down, but he was still one of the top ten hitters in the league that year.

In 1987 Murphy had his best year of all.  He set a career high with 44 home runs, stole 16 bases, hit .295, drew 115 walks, and posted an OPS of 157. Only Jack Clark had a higher OPS.  So the voters naturally awarded the MVP to… Andre Dawson of the last place Cubs. The National League in  1987 is one of the worst MVP voting travesties of all time.  Dawson went out of his mind and thumped a career (and decade high) 49 home runs.  The real reason he won the award though was an eye popping 137 RBIs.  And for MVP voters RBIs always trump everything else.  Murphy “only” had 105 RBIs despite outperforming Dawson in just about every other way.  The other thing that helps is being a shortstop who hits over .300 which second place Ozzie Smith did. Never mind Ozzie Smith hit zero that’s ZERO home runs and had an OPS+ over two hundred points lower than Murphy.  I know he was a great fielder, but that’s a LOT of offensive ground to make up.     Murphy interestingly failed to get the Gold Glove this year, although he essentially had the same fielding stats (just one or two errors more than normal). So where did Murphy finish in the MVP voting?  11th.  freaking 11th.  Jack Clark had a better offensive season, but he missed 30 games and was a mediocre fielding first baseman.  Eric Davis might have had a better season, but he also missed around 30 games.  Darryl Strawberry was almost as good.. I think a bit worse.  Nobody else was really close.  Howard Johnson and Tim Wallach finished higher?  Seriously?

So by this time Murphy was 31 years old, still in his baseball prime.  He had two MVP awards, and really 5 out of the last 6 seasons were MVP caliber, he led the league in Home Runs and RBIs twice and was always among the league leaders in most statistical categories.  He had also appeared in seven all star games and won 5 gold gloves.  And to boot he was handsome, well liked, admired by everyone as a nice guy.  If you had asked someone about his hall of fame chances after the 1987 season they would have said the only question is whether his plaque should be plated in gold or platinum.  In fact by this point he had already met the minimum number of seasons and likely would have been elected in due course had he been forced to retire after the 87 season.  So it seemed the sky was still the limit. 

Then a funny thing happened. 

He stopped being good. 

I don’t mean to say he started suffering through injuries; he played 150 plus games the next four years.  He didn’t have any personal tragedies, no issue with teammates or management.  No drug habits, financial trouble. 

He just stopped…being…good

In 1988 he hit .226, with 24 home runs and a 106 OPS.  Basically the same as his 1978 season except he walked more. 

people might have thought it was an abberation but in 1989 he was worse,  hitting .228 with only 20 home runs and an 89+ OPS.  Now keep in mind these are in FULL seasons.  It would be like Ted Williams overnight turning into a .290 hitter with 15-20 home run power for no discernable reason.  In 1990 the pain continued with a .248 average and 24 home runs.  Although it was obvious something was really wrong neither Murphy or the Braves could figure anything out.  He just stopped hitting.  Now it turns out his fielding totals were actually BETTER than usual in these years, but when a player is suffering a decline like Murphy was they weren’t going to reward him with gold gloves.  In 1991 the Braves were virtually forced to trade him after he started out hitting .232 in 97 games.  Traded to the Phillies, he did marginally better the rest of the year, but not much.  The Phillies in ’92, and Rockies in ’93 had Murphy mostly sit the bench due to lack of production.  He retired in the middle of the ’93 season at the age of 37.  I’m not aware of any other player of his talent to retire that young while still perfectly healthy. 

So Murphy due to early retirement and his late career slide “only”  posted career stats of 398 Home Runs, 1266 RBIs, a lifetime .265 average, and an OPS+ of 121.  Despite that he still might have squeeked into the Hall had an unfortunate coincidence not delivered a double-whammy.  In 1993 and 1994 as Murphy retired the league started an offensive explosion that continues to this day.  Suddenly 398 Home Runs is only six or seven seasons for Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds.  a .265 Average now gets you sent to the minors.  People lose the context of his accomplishments and he misses out.  To add insult to injury the year after Murphy left the Braves they suddenly turned into the greatest franchise juggernaut since the Yankees of the mid 50s, reeling off 1st place finishes in 14 of the next 15 years.  Murphy should have spent the beginning of this run as the Brave’s admired and respected elder statesman, teaching young players like Chipper Jones and Ryan Klesko as he prepared to enter the pantheon of baseball gods. But instead he wasn’t even good enough to ride the bench for an expansion team by that point.

As far as I know he doesn’t worry too much about his candidacy for the hall, never wringing his hands over the failure to get in, or lobbying incessantly for his own election unlike certain ex-pitchers born in the Netherlands. Nor does he have the support of people who think it a “crime” he’s not in or his election is “overdue” like the recently selected Andre Dawson.  He’s a nice guy, I don’t think he minds all that much. 

Plus his lifetime OPS+ is still 2 points higher than Dawson’s.   Take that Andre. 



3 Responses

  1. excellent article! Today was sad to see him still not get in, although he did increase slightly by a single vote I believe.

    I wrote about this on my blog, and will no doubt be writing again in the next day or so….

  2. Liked the blog a lot. I had refueled my discussions about Murphy when Jim Rice got the nod for HOF. I said that even though I can only hope Murphy gets in the nod to Rice actually gave Murphy more hope. Rice never won a gold glove he was an average fielder with a below average arm. Murphy was a Gold Glover and even in his down offensive years was a + Defender. Also CF requires the player to run around like a chicken with their head cut off and LF is a cushy position. I am a better LF than Rice. Murphys days off werent on the bench. When he needed rest they put him in LF. In addition Rice was a DH in 530 games in his career (Which is more than 3 full seasons). Rice had more average because of Murphy’s assassin years but Rice offered no speed when Murphy was doing it all. If we had Fantasy baseball back then imagine where the 30/30 OF goes in the draft. Yes he is a 1st rounder. So if you compare Rice to Murphy
    Defense – Murphy by an extreme landslide
    Speed – Murphy also extreme
    Power – Murphy had 16 more career HR’s. Both were feared power hitters in their prime.
    Avg – Rice by a landslide. Although like you said if Murphy leaves the game in 88 or 89 he would have salvaged much of his batting avg from his prime years.
    RBI – Rice by a decent margin
    R – Rice by 56 runs. Very close.

    A little light shed on Murphy when Rice got in but like you said his lack of top 5 MVP voting on his up years really kills him along with his career batting avg. But he was a powerful force in a pre-steroid era that could hit a ton and was one of the top CFers of the 1980’s. Murphy 100% should have been a top5 MVP vote in 1987 as well as 1985. Like you pointed out he should have been higher in 1980 as well. I am not sure if Murphy will ever get in but if the writers hold a huge grudge against the steroid ERA guys and then look at Duke Snyder and Jim Rice. Murphy has a shot. LF and 1B are the true power positions. Murphy supplied feared power with amazing defense in CF where much fewer player have shown that combination. I told my fiends even if he was .275avg and managed to pull off 400hrs he would be a definite HOF conversation piece every year. He was one of the nicest guys in baseball as well who respected the game on and off the field.

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