When the Giants traded a recently-DFA’d catcher named Tom Murphy, who had previously spent seven undistinguished years in the Rockies organization, to the Mariners early in spring training, it didn’t make much of an impression. To acquire Murphy, the Mariners sent the Giants RHP Jesus Ozoria, who had just completed his first full year in the DSL with some excellent numbers (a K/9 north of 10, a BB/9 of 1.28, and an FIP of 2.24). While a rookie-level pitcher is about the furthest thing from a slam-dunk prospect, I remember that stab of dread that the Mariners had just completed the Juan Then/Nick Rumbelow trade again (that trade also cost them JP Sears! Never forget) in order to acquire a strikeout-prone catcher who had failed to stick with Colorado despite being named by Baseball America as the Rockies’ seventh-best prospect in 2016.
By the end of the season, Murphy would be the Mariners’ most valuable offensive player, ranking second on the 2019 Mariners in bWAR (2.6) and fWAR (3.2). Granted, that probably says a lot more about the 2019 Mariners than Tom Murphy, but in one season Murphy has gone from being a spring training afterthought to earning a platoon role alongside Omar Narváez, as the two combined to produce the highest wRC+ for a catching crew in all of baseball this season, and the second-highest fWAR (which is still only 5.2, and then it drops into the 3s and below after that. Catching right now...is very bad).
Offensively, Murphy’s strikeout rate is appalling (31%), but by pulling the ball in the air vs. on the ground more than he ever had in his career, Murph managed to make up for his poor plate discipline numbers, registering a .262 ISO. His 18 homers this season ranked 6th on the team, putting him in the company of traditional sluggers like Domingo Santana, Edwin Encarnacion, and Omar Narváez. The 6’1”/200 lb Murphy might not look like a member of the Beef Boys club, but his feast-or-famine numbers do resemble those of a traditional power hitter, with the attendant highs and lows, as his rolling ISO demonstrates:
His average exit velocity this season was 90.6 mph, putting him among the likes of Joc Pederson, Yasmani Grandal, and Justin Smoak, with an average barrel/per plate appearance rate of 6.8, in the top 100 among all qualified batters. In simpler terms, he is strong man:
What makes this all-or-nothing profile palatable is Murphy’s defense. Behind the dish this season, Murphy converted 50.5% of pitches in what Baseball Savant defines as the “shadow zone” into called strikes, 18th-best in all of baseball (and 8th-best in the AL). Those stolen strikes converted into five extra runs, placing Murphy in the top 10 among all MLB catchers. In fact, Murphy was the best catcher in all of baseball at getting called strikes at the bottom of the zone (what Statcast defines as “Zone 18” the middle-bottom of the zone), at a rate of 64.6%. That’s especially important for a pitching staff that likes to work at the bottom of the zone, and it’s also about 20% higher than Narváez’s rate in the same zone.
Murphy also threw out 39% of would-be base stealers, good for fourth-best in the AL, or top 10 in all of baseball among qualified catchers. Murphy’s pop time is slightly below-average, but he makes up for it with a strong arm, averaging 85 mph on his throws, top 10 among all catchers.
There are still improvements Murphy could make defensively—he’s not as good with stealing strikes at the top of the zone, for example—but the biggest step forward his game could take is a fairly simple one: try to get on base more without sacrificing the power. That’s a tall order for a player who has never struck out less than 22% at any stage in his career, but if he could shift around his three true outcomes by translating even a few of those strikeouts into walks, that would be a good way to build on a solid “rookie” campaign for the 28-year-old. Sometimes all a player needs is time and opportunity, and luckily Seattle had both to offer to Tom Murphy this year.