Daniel Murphy knew the Los Angeles Dodgers had arrived in the District before Thursday night’s game was over. When the Nationals were done with a 5-2 win against the Atlanta Braves, Murphy reached for his phone. He dispatched a text message to a former teammate who had arrived with the Dodgers, the National League West leaders in town for a three-game weekend series.
“I sense a new air ball hitter in my city,” Murphy’s text read.
Justin Turner laughed when he read it. Turner, Murphy’s former teammate with the New York Mets, gets a kick out of Murphy after befriending him in New York. Their opposite appearances and personalities are pulled together by perpetual baseball chatter. So, Turner was not surprised after he landed for an intriguing mid-September weekend that Murphy had sent him a baseball-specific note.
“We have a really good relationship,” Turner said. “Talked baseball all the time. One of the cool things about getting voted into the All-Star Game was getting to suit up in the same locker room with him again. Take batting practice with him. Talk hitting with him, which, is kind of non-stop for that guy. I like talking about hitting. Not quite as much as he does. … He’s a special human being. That’s for sure.”
Turner operates as the red-headed soul of the club with the best record in the National League. His hair drapes straight down out of the back of his dirty hat that rests backward on his head. When he walked into the Dodgers’ clubhouse Friday afternoon, he turned toward the media, spread his arms and joked, “I’m ready. One at a time.”
The thought of inviting the media over might be enough to turn Murphy’s curly brown hair red. He’s measured when speaking to the media. During the rare times he does talk, he will veer the conversation away from himself and toward the analytics of hitting or praise of a teammate. Murphy snaps off his sentences. Turner will roll along.
Despite their disparate approaches with reporters, their New York bond was cooked up over talk of hitting and trying to become the hitters they thought they could be. Neither was a formidable middle-of-the-order threat with the Mets. During his three seasons in New York, Turner hit just .267. His slugging percentage was a meager .371. Murphy had made more progress. He made an All-Star appearance in 2014, though he hit .289 that season with a .734 OPS. It wasn’t until his final season — and postseason — in New York that Murphy began to take a leap. He was hitting the ball in the air more, on purpose, and the results turned him from a modest-hitting second baseman to an infielder who led the National League in OPS in 2016, his first season with the Nationals.
Each has become a believer in hitting the ball in the air, hence the text. Murphy first shifted his swing upward with Mets hitting coach Kevin Long. Turner worked with former major leaguer Marlon Byrd and private hitting instructor Doug Latta in California. Murphy will instantly spout the math relevant to the change in philosophy any time asked about it.
“Whenever Justin and I talk about hitting, we’re talking about doing damage,” Murphy said. “To me, doing damage is how can I step on second base from home plate? If you hit the ball on the ground, only seven percent of the balls on the ground go for extra bases. So, if you want to touch second base from home plate, you’re probably going to have to hit where the infielders can’t catch it. So, get it in the air.”
Murphy saw a batch of positives from Turner when the two were in New York. The results he’s had since — sitting in the middle of the Los Angeles lineup and tied for second in the NL in batting average coming into Friday — are bringing those things together with a swing change.
“Justin already made really good decisions at the plate, he always swung at really good pitches, was willing to take a walk,” Murphy said. “He didn’t swing and miss a lot. So, if you couple that with a dangerous swing and you make good decisions and you don’t swing and miss, you have a pretty dangerous baseball player, which is what Justin is.”
Turner is hitting .304 and slugging .503 during his three-plus seasons in Los Angeles. Like Murphy, has has blossomed from ages 29-32 despite the perceived peak for an athlete being 27 years old. After leaving New York behind, both Murphy and Turner have evolved into two of the league’s most potent hitters while moving into their 30s and joining annual contenders.
“He just lives, eats, breathes baseball,” Turner said. “Everything that comes out of his mouth has something to do with baseball. If you’re a guy that wants to learn or thirsty for knowledge or you want to figure some things out, he’d be the first guy I’d probably point you to because he’ll sit there and talk to you for hours and hours and hours about baseball.”
A text rebooted their baseball conversation Thursday night. It could well last into October.
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