"The way he works and as aggressive as he is, I expect him to be more than adequate," Hernandez said Tuesday evening from the East Coast of Florida, hours after he and Murphy had completed a second session. "Some of what he does already -- playing aggressively and always trying to get the lead runners -- that can't be taught. So he's ahead of the game. Other things he can learn. I'm more than happy to help."
Hernandez's assessment of Murphy's performance at first base -- Murphy started 97 games and played 849 1/3 innings there last season -- was properly qualified.
"Under the circumstances -- he had zero experience there -- he was very decent. I like his hands; you can't teach good hands. I like his aggressiveness. He played admirably."
Murphy's objective is to be an asset at first base, to exceed expectations that seem to overlook his surprisingly effective play last summer after his flawed attempts to play left field. Toward that goal, he enlisted Hernandez's expertise in December. An illness in Murphy's family made pre-holiday sessions impossible. But general manager Omar Minaya, aware of Murphy's desire for tutoring from a master, contacted Hernandez last week. The former Mets captain and now SNY commentator agreed to help and reprise his role of spring 2000.
Then, Hernandez worked with Todd Zeile and was paid for what he knew and imparted. This time, he's working pro bono, though he's being paid in compliments.
"One of the best first baseman of all time," is how Murphy identified Hernandez. "It's an honor to work with him. I want to get as much information out of him as possible."
"Practice makes perfect," Hernandez said. "There are things you can do [during infield practice] when balls are hit to others."
Hernandez, Murphy and Nick Evans, a more experienced first baseman, had two-hour sessions Monday and Tuesday. Nothing fancy -- just footwork and fundamentals. If there's time late in camp and Murphy has progressed, Hernandez will teach him how first basemen cheat. All try, some succeed. For now, footwork and finding the base are the critical factors. Hernandez was taught by his father, who was an accomplished first baseman. He began playing the position at age 6, so early that he said the base eventually "felt like part of my body, like an appendage." And Hernandez's left-handedness afforded him advantages at first that are not available to Murphy.
Murphy expects to start almost daily in exhibition games, much as he did last spring when learning left field was his assignment. But before games begin on March 2, he will be taking ground balls the way Larry Bird took free throws -- by the hundreds. The curriculum is more than merely ground-ball retrieval. Murphy must learn about another type of commitment. His aggressiveness and lack of experience occasionally had him chasing ground balls to his right that clearly were the responsibility of the second baseman, a problem that seldom developed when Delgado was playing first base and rarely leaving his narrow comfort zone.
He must adjust to Luis Castillo and his diminished range and to the pitchers' varying abilities to cover first base in a timely fashion. He must learn positioning based on the pitch to be thrown. And perhaps this year, Castillo will even share the information with him. He must learn the tendencies of each infielder's throws, i.e., how a throw from Jose Reyes may tail if the shortstop is rushed, how it may move if Reyes is on the first-base side of the infield. Throws across the diamond can be as distinctive as batting stances and disarming too.
Throwing to second base, a play Murphy enjoys making, is more difficult for him because of his right-handedness.
Hernandez won't be a regular tutor. He and his wife, Kai, are celebrating their fifth anniversary this weekend, and he will be at the camp headquarters for SNY telecasts for only 10 games. Most of Murphy's work will come with new infield coach Chip Hale. Hernandez and Hale will talk before camp opens.
Hernandez's objective is for his student to be as comfortable as possible, to have a sense of where the base is, so he can run to it and track throws. He knows it won't be easy; so does Murphy. The position no longer is where aging sluggers are assigned, the Mike Piazza experiment in 2004 proved as much. Hernandez didn't work with Piazza. What was the point? Piazza was a catcher. He blocked balls in the dirt. Catching a baseball wasn't as instinctive as blocking one for him.
Murphy played third in college and in the Minors. He played second base in the 2008 Arizona Fall League. The Mets thought so much of his work at those positions, they moved him to left. Now he's a first baseman, for better or worse. He wondered if he would have retained big league status last summer if he hadn't made the move.
The Mets are convinced his bat will keep him in the big leagues and in the lineup. They'd like to believe his glove will help in that regard.