Dale Murphy was the fifth overall pick in the 1974 draft, a high school catcher from Portland. He would be an interesting counterpoint to the (pre-Joe Mauer) belief that you shouldn’t pick high school catchers in the first round, except that it turned out he couldn’t catch. He rose quickly, even without outstanding numbers: rookie ball in ’74, A-Ball in ’75, then to Savannah (then the Braves’ high-A affiliate, and why can’t the team go back to having its minor league affiliates in Georgia already?) in 1976. For a time; he was promoted to Richmond and then to the majors late in the season. He caught 19 games and didn’t embarrass himself, and for a 20-year-old catcher his .262/.333/.354 line isn’t bad at all, though he didn’t hit a homer.
He spent most of 1977 in Richmond, where he broke out (.305/.355 [estimated]/.534). He hit well in his callup (.316/.316/.526; yes, no walks, but this is not an excuse, Mr. Francoeur) but had developed problems with his throwing; at times, he couldn’t even get it back to the pitcher. Eventually, young manager Bobby Cox, who took over the team in 1978, shifted him to first base, which was pretty logical.
I mentioned in the Ron Gant entry that a lot of baseball’s ideas about body types fitting certain positions are probably bunk. For instance, for a long time everyone was convinced that shortstops had to be small, until Earl Weaver stuck Cal Ripken at short. 2300-odd games later… Anyway, Dale is listed at 6-5; the general belief is that someone that tall can’t be a successful catcher. It does seem likely to me that it would take a greater toll on a tall person’s knees, but I am not a physiologist. Joe Mauer is 6-4, and the Twins think he can be a long-term catcher. Moreover, Javy Lopez is listed at 6-3 and I think he’s really an inch or two taller, and has caught in 1351 games, not counting postseason. So I’d say that the jury is out on if Murph, barring the throwing problems, could have been a catcher.
I also mentioned in the Gant comment that the biggest reason Ron was sent down to A-ball wasn’t really his fielding, but that his hitting was awful. Murph’s hitting in 1978 wasn’t all that great (.226/.284/.394) but it was enough to convince the team to let him learn first base in the big leagues. In 1979, he broke out, hitting .276/.340/.469, though he only played in 104 games. Interestingly, he still played 27 games behind the plate, so the idea of making him a catcher wasn’t quite dead. In 1980, it would be.
That year, he was switched to center field, and became a top player. His line isn’t all that much better than in 1979 (.281/.349/.510) but was spiked with 33 homers, third in the league. He made his first All-Star team and finished twelfth in the MVP voting. He had a terrible time in the 1981 strike season, but that was a depressing time for all — depressing enough that his 13 homers were still good enough for tenth in the league.
From 1982 to 1987, Dale Murphy dominated the National League, winning two MVP awards, five Gold Gloves, and four Silver Sluggers, and making the All-Star team each year. He played in every game from 1982 to 1985, and that probably hastened his decline. (Another was the trade of Brett Butler; in 1982 and 1983, particularly the former, Brett periodically relieved Dale in center, with Murphy sliding to left. Afterwards, Dale was in center almost every game.)
In 1982, the Braves won the NL West for the only time between 1969 and 1991. Murphy was named the MVP in a fairly predictable decision, though I don’t think I can defend him as the best player in the NL that year; it was probably Schmidt, though you couldn’t give it to Mike every year. Or to Dale. He led the NL in Runs Created each year from 1983 to 1985 and again in 1987. The first year he won the MVP, but afterwards the Braves fell out of contention and so did he. He had an off-year in 1986, but rebounded after the move to right field for his best season offensively in 1987.
After that, he simply wasn’t a good player. His secondary skills were mostly intact, but he hit .226 in 1988 and .228 in 1989. At midseason of 1990, hitting .232/.312/.418, the Braves traded Murphy, with Tommy Greene, to the Phillies for a load of crap. He played about the same for the Phillies in 1991, then completely lost it with brief, depressing seasons in 1992 in Philadelphia and 1993 in Colorado.
In the end, I think Dale is still safely ahead of Andruw, though if the latter has another season like 2005-06 I would probably reconsider. I can’t rate him ahead of the pitchers here, and Chipper has largely passed him as the Atlanta franchise leader in most counting stats. He is still the Atlanta home run leader, but both Joneses should pass him in 2007.