Each thriving at keystone in first season with new club
By Andrew Simon
There are some obvious similarities between the Nationals' Daniel Murphy and the Cubs' Ben Zobrist, two veterans who signed with new clubs following strong postseasons and so far are making their contracts look like bargains for division leaders.
That makes them the two leading candidates among National League second basemen on the 2016 All-Star ballot. But which one, at this point, is most deserving of a trip to San Diego in July?
That's where the differences between Murphy and Zobrist come into play, although there certainly isn't a significant gap as the calendar nears Memorial Day. In terms of wins above replacement (WAR), Zobrist was slightly ahead of Murphy according to both FanGraphs.com (2.4 vs. 2.1) and Baseball-Reference.com (2.0 to 1.7), through Monday's games.
What is clear is that Murphy and Zobrist have separated themselves from the pack statistically, despite Neil Walker's early home run binge for the Mets (Murphy's former team) and strong starts from the likes of the D-backs' Jean Segura and the Dodgers' Chase Utley.
If the focus rests solely on offense, Murphy should get the nod.
The two players are tied in home runs (six) and are close in RBIs. Zobrist's biggest advantage is in drawing walks (31), leading to a higher on-base percentage (.448), but Murphy is first in the Majors in batting average (.389) and holds a significant edge in extra-base hits (22).
Put that together, and Murphy's slugging percentage (.605) is almost 100 points higher. In terms of weighted runs created-plus (wRC+), an all-encompassing offensive metric, Murphy's 174 ranks among the league leaders, ahead of Zobrist's 157.
It's an amazing rise for Murphy, who was an All-Star in 2014 but whose wRC+ had wound up between 103 and 110 in each of the previous four seasons. After batting .421 and slamming seven home runs to help the Mets advance to last fall's World Series, Murphy has carried over some of that success at the plate.
The question is if Zobrist has enough of an advantage on defense to overcome Murphy.
Part of Zobrist's value always has come from his versatility, but the Cubs have played him almost exclusively at second, where he is +32 in his career -- but -3 since 2012 -- according to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Murphy, on the other hand, came to Washington with a reputation as a well below-average fielder, with DRS rating him at -42.
Two months of data is not enough to make a fair judgment, but different defensive metrics consistently put Zobrist, who is errorless, above Murphy (four errors) in 2016. That's reflected in the WAR numbers.
In the end, both Murphy and Zobrist are strong choices, and Nats and Cubs fans likely have their minds made up already. For those still on the fence, the choice could come down to how heavily they want to weigh the glove against the bat.
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Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.