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Is Daniel Murphy still a top-of-the-order hitter?

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Murphy is the seventh-best hitter in the Mets' lineup. Perhaps he shouldn't be hitting third.

Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

When teams are playing well, they rarely try to fix what isn't broken. For the last six weeks, the Mets certainly haven’t been broken: The Mets are 31-15 since August 1, and have been the best offensive team in baseball, with a major-league-leading 126 wRC+.

That said, there is one small lineup adjustment that’s crying to be made. Despite the fact that virtually every other hitter on the team is outperforming Daniel Murphy, manager Terry Collins seems committed to batting Murphy third against right-handers. Meanwhile, some combination of Lucas Duda, Travis d’Arnaud, and Michael Conforto—all having far better seasons than Murphy—are relegated to the fifth, sixth, and seventh spots in the lineup.

It’s true that lineup construction doesn’t matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Over the course of a season, the difference between a standard lineup and optimized one is only about five to 15 runs. Still, a few extra runs could be the difference between a win and a loss. In the playoffs, those things tend to matter—a lot.

In a basic, sabermetrically sound lineup, the better hitters are at the top of the lineup and the weaker hitters are at the bottom. Murphy is unquestionably among the weaker hitters in the Mets’ lineup. Of the eight players who start against righties, Murphy’s 103 wRC+ (.275/.318/.431) is better only than Wilmer Flores’s (.264/.298/.414, 97 wRC+). Not only is Murphy the seventh-best hitter in the lineup, but he’s a distant seventh behind Lucas Duda (.241/.345/.460, 124 wRC+).

Against right-handers, Murphy’s 118 wRC+ (.289/.336/.472) is better than only those of Flores (.251/.281/.362, 79 wRC+) and David Wright (.264/.347/.333, 97 wRC+). Duda (.228/.349/.446, 122 wRC+) leads Murphy by four wRC+ points against righties, while the other four hitters in the lineup—d’Arnaud, Conforto, Curtis Granderson, and Yoenis Cespedes—are between ten and forty-five points ahead.

Collins seems to be following the old convention that a team’s third hitter needs to be a table setter who hits line drives and gets on base in front of the power hitters in the four-through-six spots, while also driving in the first and second hitters. Unfortunately, Murphy hasn’t been that player. Murphy’s .275 batting average ranks fifth among Mets starters and his .431 slugging percentage ranks sixth, while his .318 on-base percentage and 20.7% line drive rate rank seventh.

It’s been a similar story against opposite-handed pitching. Although Murphy’s .289 batting average against righties ranks second among Mets starters, his .336 on-base percentage and .472 slugging percentage rank fifth, and his 21.2% line drive rate ranks sixth.

There are a number of different ways the Mets could order their lineup. According to The Book, a team’s three best hitters should bat first, second, and fourth. The leadoff hitter should skew toward on-base skills, the cleanup hitter toward power, and the second hitter—preferably the best hitter in the lineup—a combination of the two. The next best hitters should bat third and fifth, with the third hitter skewing toward power and the fifth toward on-base and contact. The three weakest hitters should bat sixth, seventh, and eighth, in decreasing order.

By those criteria, and taking into account the preference to separate like-handed hitters, the Mets’ lineup should look something like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Granderson Cespedes Duda d'Arnaud Conforto Wright Murphy Flores Pitcher

Given Wright’s track record and recent hot hitting, it can alternatively look like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Granderson Wright Duda Cespedes Conforto d'Arnaud Murphy Flores Pitcher

Finally, if the Mets prefer to keep Duda down in the order until he starts to heat up, here’s a third possibility:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Granderson Wright Conforto Cespedes Duda d'Arnaud Murphy Flores Pitcher

The Mets are probably reluctant to hit either Duda or Conforto at the top of the order—Duda because of his struggles since returning from the disabled list, Conforto because of the desire to manage the rookie's pressure and expectations. Still, Duda (.176/.333/.324, 81 wRC+) hasn’t been much worse than Murphy (.224/.264/.449, 93 wRC+) this month, and his track record—both this season and throughout his career—is much better. It’s understandable to want to keep the pressure off of Conforto, but his outstanding .286/.366/.526 batting line (147 wRC+) makes him easily one of the best hitters on the team and deserving of a promotion to a higher spot in the order.

However the Mets arrange their lineup, it’s pretty clear that Murphy should be hitting seventh. The six best hitters in the lineup (by a fairly significant margin) are Cespedes, Conforto, Granderson, d’Arnaud, Duda, and Wright. The lineup should reflect that.

Murphy has, by wRC+, been a slightly above-league-average hitter for each of the last few years. This year, he is just about league-average. That would be good enough to be a top-of-the-order hitter on recent Mets teams. On this one, not so much.

And that isn’t a knock against Murphy; being a league-average major league hitter is nothing to sneeze at, and Murphy is a valuable asset to this team. The Mets could, however, do a better job of managing the offensive pieces currently at their disposal.