‘Murph’ empathizes with struggling Braves rookie Swanson
MIAMI – Braves icon Dale Murphy is among those keeping tabs on Dansby Swanson, mostly from afar, and hoping that the struggling rookie shortstop will be able to snap out of his slump soon and enjoy his first full season in the majors. “Murph” knows how difficult it can be for any highly rated prospect to make his way in the big leagues, and says it’s never been harder than today.
The former two-time National League MVP offered an analysis and observation Friday that centered around a factor most either overlook or don’t often mention when discussing the success or struggles of just-arrived young players in the majors these days. Murphy isn’t one of those retired greats who says the game was tougher when he played. For a hitter, at least, it was easier in a couple of ways.
“(Swanson) wouldn’t be the first guy to struggle in his first full year,” said Murphy, who finished 12th in the MVP voting in his third full season in the majors, but hit .226 with a league-high 145 strikeouts at age 22 in his first full season in 1978 — albeit with 23 home runs. “It’s so much tougher to hit now than the old days (when) you’d get a break with a couple of finesse guys in rotations. Not anymore. And deeper bullpens. It’s tough. Those deeper bullpens increase the number of pitchers you face every night, and they are all ‘specialists,’ groomed to do just what they do.”
Asked to elaborate, Murphy didn’t hesitate. This is a subject he’s thought about plenty.
“It seemed to me, the old days had middle-relief guys who used to be young starting pitchers that hadn’t quite learned how to pitch yet,” he said. “Hadn’t learned how to get through a lineup a few times. They were down there to learn, to absorb, watch the game. Weren’t good enough to be starting pitchers yet. Now, those guys down there all bring it (throw hard). It seemed that there used to be a noticeable drop-off from starter to the middle-of-the-pen guys. The old saying, ‘just get to the pen … get this starter out and we can get their pen’ — it doesn’t apply anymore.”
Swanson, 23, was hitting only .162 with a .467 OPS in 30 games before Friday night’s series opener against the Marlins, after hitting .302 with an .803 OPS in 38 games last fall after being brought up from Double-A.
“Also, I’m wondering if there isn’t a bigger jump from the minor leagues to the big leagues now as well,” Murphy said. “So, you take that fact about how a big league staff is built today and compare that to these minor league staffs — well, you’re getting a lot of ‘breaks’ or easier at-bats down there (in the minors). That helps you so much mentally. Big leagues now? Seems relentless. Day in, day out. Plus, Dansby really went from Double-A to the big leagues. Tough adjustment.
“And again, getting back to the rotations. …”
Murphy played at a time when intimidating pitchers such as Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard still roamed the landscape, and young guns such as Roger Clemens and Dwight Gooden were getting started. But there usually weren’t overpowering pitchers also stacked in the middle and even the back of rotations, as there sometimes are today.
“You usually had one or two finesse guys, control guys,” Murphy said. “Not that they couldn’t get you out, it just didn’t wear you out mentally in your preparation, as you thought about them the night before you faced them. Rick Rhoden, Tommy John, Randy Jones, Tom Browning, Rick Reuschel — I hated facing that guy — Ken and Bobby Forsch. … I could go on and on, all good pitchers that could get you out, who didn’t walk guys and would win a lot of games, but didn’t wear you out mentally — i.e., throwing hard, hard sliders, cutters. And this is the big difference: You had at least three at-bats against those guys.”
Today, a struggling young hitter like Swanson might face a mediocre starter – mediocre, but still perhaps throwing low-to-mid-90 mph fastballs — only a couple of at-bats before a team goes to its bullpen and bring in a series of two, three or more relievers each more difficult to hit than the previous one.
And so, while hitting always has been one of the most difficult things to do in sports, an argument could be made that it’s even tougher today than before. Which, for a struggling player and especially one without a body of work to lean on and draw from, can make it more difficult than ever to break out of a slump.