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Daniel Murphy and the "myth" of hot streaks

In this year's postseason, Murphy did everything he could to prove that hot streaks are for real.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of the regular season, this author wrote a piece critical of Daniel Murphy—or, more specifically, of how the Mets insisted on treating Murphy like a top-of-the-order hitter. I argued that Murphy is essentially a seventh-place hitter whose offensive talent is vastly overrated. (Hey, I wasn’t alone.)

Murphy then led the Mets to the World Series by homering seven times in nine postseason games, and set the all-time record with homers in six consecutive playoff games. Never did crow taste so good.

Fans, journalists, and teammates alike all asked the same thing of Murphy: What on Earth was going on? A reporter posed this very question to the second baseman, adding, "These are Barry Bonds numbers." Murphy’s response: "I don’t know…I can’t explain it."

Baseball traditionalists will tell you that Murphy was "locked in" at the plate. Perhaps the adrenaline rush of postseason play caused him to dig deeper, concentrate more, see the ball better, and put a little extra muscle on the balls as they left his bat.

Those who are sabermetrically inclined—as I consider myself to be—tend to write these hot streaks off as the product of good luck. They scoff at those who would say that Murphy was "locked in" or somehow "rose to the big moment." As Keith Law once put it, "Locked-in is a myth." "Bunching a lot of hits together" isn't the sign of a hot streak, Law contends; it's "just normal randomness."

Indeed, many in the sabermetrics community deny the very existence of "hot streaks" or "clutch hitters." As Law suggests, anything—including offensive outbursts like the one Murphy experienced—can happen, for no good reason, in a small enough sample of at-bats. And he may be right.

But as much as my instincts want me to join in the ridicule of "hot streaks" and "clutch hitting," I’m just not ready to do it. What Daniel Murphy did during the first two rounds of the playoffs simply wasn't supposed to happen. Not only did he perform at a level that he's never approached in his career; he looked like a completely different hitter at the plate. Typically, a raging-hot Murphy resembles players like Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs. Over the first nine postseason games, he looked more like Henry Aaron or Jimmie Foxx.

Could that just be the product of a random, yet fortunate, sequencing of home runs? Perhaps. Or maybe, as the baseball traditionalists would have you believe, Murphy was truly locked in, "on fire," and motivated to come up big when his team needed him the most. We just don’t know. In truth, we will never know. All we could do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

That might not be satisfying to the analytically inclined fan who wants a rational explanation for everything he sees play out on the field. But that’s the beauty of baseball. As much as we try to quantify every aspect of the game—and as useful and illuminating as that can be—sometimes we just have to accept the fact that baseball is a game played by human beings, and that sometimes human beings do crazy and unpredictable things.

After Murphy homered in his fifth consecutive playoff game, Mets radio broadcaster Josh Lewin joked that "Whatever the aliens did to Daniel Murphy when they invaded his body a couple weeks ago, Met fans say, ‘Thank you.’" A reporter later asked Murphy what planet he’s from, to which he simply replied, "Earth."

And that’s exactly the point. Daniel Murphy is an ordinary guy who, for whatever reason, put on an extraordinary show on the biggest stage in the baseball world. And what a show it was.