For a 33rd-round draft pick who signed for “a candy bar and a plane ticket”, Penn Murfee doesn’t seem overly concerned with covering his name in glory.
Murfee was one of the prospects I was most excited to see in the AFL, fresh off a breakout year at Modesto where, in his first year pitching as a starter, he registered an FIP of 2.48 in the hitter-friendly California League, walking only 5.5% of batters he saw while striking out almost 30%. Murfee and I have an interview tentatively scheduled on a Tuesday, but on Sunday night I run into a national writer for Baseball America. He’s impressed with Murfee’s dominance in the AFL and has heard he’s somewhat of a character and wants to write a profile on him, so I message Penn to say that we can reschedule; obviously, national coverage should take priority, especially for someone quick to correct me when I refer to him as a prospect (“not a prospect!” he says in a dead-on impression of The Good Place’s Janet). Within minutes, I have a response, telling me, in the absolute nicest terms possible, to stuff it; Penn Murfee is a man who honors his commitments.
William Penn Murfee has always sought his own path. His older brother was a swimmer at UVA, and his father swam at Vanderbilt, the same school Penn attended. Penn might have been a fifth-generation Commodore, but he was the first to follow baseball as his passion. Penn’s father John, now a successful investment banker in Nashville, likes to boast he still holds Vanderbilt swimming records; Penn is quick to note that the Vanderbilt swimming program was shut down after John’s senior year, and he took batting practice in the cages that replaced the paved-over swimming pool.
But it was baseball that took hold of the young Murfee as a teenager. “By the time I was a sophomore I was already looking forward to playing college baseball, which I deeply regret,” says Penn. “My junior year English teacher kind of sensed it on me, and he said ‘Penn, if you keep looking forward to the next thing in your life, your whole bleepin’ life is gonna pass you by.’”
“I didn’t really grasp that until my junior year of college, though.”
What Murfee wasn’t expecting was a spate of injuries that hit partway through his college career—caused, he says, by overtraining—that forced him out of his shortstop position. With a torn-up lower half and frustrated at not being able to bend over and pick a ball, Penn took up pitching as a way to stay connected to the game he loved. Unfortunately, pitching didn’t love him back; at least, not at first. “I was terrible,” he says, wincing at the memory. “I was walking guys, hitting guys, couldn’t locate anything.” His catching partner, Matt Ruppenthal—”the reason I’m still in baseball today”—gave him some tough love, and some advice.
“He said, ‘Murf, you’re doing awful. You’re not a pitcher, so quit trying to be one. Just act like you’re slinging a double play ball, because you put it right in the chest every time from third to second, so why not just do that?’ So I dropped down to a sidearm release and it just kind of clicked.”
It wasn’t an immediate path to success, though. Murfee pitched just 11 innings out of Vandy’s bullpen as a junior, giving up six runs, two as home runs, and striking out six while walking four. He started looking into graduate programs—an honor student in Econ at Vandy, Penn specialized in data analysis with a minor in Mandarin Chinese and thought he might work on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley—and prepared to put baseball in his rearview.
Once again, however, Murfee was the recipient of some career-changing advice. While coaching youth baseball alongside friend and mentor Cody Ginsberg— described lovingly by Penn as “a six-year-old in the body of a 44-year-old”—Ginsberg gave it to Murfee straight, telling him that he would be “an idiot” not to take advantage of his extra year of eligibility. Murfee started researching grad schools, focusing on California schools where he could receive an education in the shadow of Silicon Valley while winding out the last of his playing days. A connection with pitching coach Rusty Filter (pause to appreciate one of the truly Great Baseball Names) led him to Santa Clara, where Penn planned to get a foot in the door in Silicon Valley while taking his “victory lap” in baseball before hanging up his cleats for good.
The feeler calls from scouts started coming halfway through the season. The numbers weren’t eye-popping—57 strikeouts to 31 walks in about 67 innings, with an ERA of 3.64—but scouts were curious if Murfee would sign if drafted as a money-saving senior. Baseball wasn’t the plan. But something had shifted for Penn during that year in Santa Clara.
“I re-fell in love with baseball,” he says. “I had the best time of my life. We had”—he pauses to count on his fingers—“fourteen seniors, two graduate seniors. Every day I went out, no pressure, just getting to ball out with my friends.”
Murfee was throwing a bullpen when the call came in from Mariners scouting director Scott Hunter that he’d been selected in the 33rd round. “I went FUCK YEAHHHHHH!” says Penn, throwing his head back and hollering into the Arizona sky, briefly scandalizing a passing park attendant. “I was psyched. Getting those feeler calls and having that come back around piqued my interest, and that’s when I started honoring the thought of, man, I could be a professional ballplayer. It took until I was 24 years old.”
Did Silicon Valley still beckon? “No, because by that point I had come to terms with the fact that I’m living my life. No one else is. And sure, I’ve talked to a lot of successful businesspeople, and they’ve done it one way, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do it my way. I always felt pressure throughout Vanderbilt and throughout Santa Clara that if I wasn’t networking and going to these events in San Francisco and keeping up with people and doing projects with professors on the side and doing all this extra shit, that I’d be passed up. But really what I figured out was I could either be one foot in with baseball, one foot out in this other career, or I could just jump both feet, headfirst into something and just go with that, and that’s what I did with baseball. And it took me until after my short season, when I pitched horribly, I came back in the off-season and I looked myself in the mirror and I was like, I’m going to go for it. The other career stuff isn’t happening right now, so I’m not going to pay it any credence.”
Short season was a rough introduction to baseball at the pro level for Murfee. “I was horrible,” he says cheerfully. “Oh man, I pitched terrible.” In 33 innings out of Everett’s bullpen, Murfee struck out just 16% of batters who faced him. His ERA (6.5) was bad; his FIP (6.07) wasn’t much better, and his xFIP, while the kindest cut of all, was still an uninspiring 4.47. And the struggles weren’t limited to between the lines for the 33rd-rounder.
“I didn’t in my soul believe that I belonged. It still felt like I was—you know, you’re new, you’re coming into a new place, you show up in Arizona, first time at the spring training complex walking through the halls and seeing big-league guys rehabbing. I was just like, we’re not in Kansas anymore. I was a little shell-shocked by not being in a familiar environment. It wasn’t something I had visualized forever, since I was eight or whatever thinking I’m going to be a pro ballplayer.”
“I went back and forth 50-50 that year between ‘I have nothing to lose’ and ‘I am on a short leash.’ Me, I’m a goofball, I’m most comfortable when I’m messing around, I like meeting a ton of new people and building relationships. Coming into pro ball I kept to myself a little more, I didn’t really cut it loose with my personality, and putting away the inhibitions helped.” On bad days, when he struggled, he’d think back to his time at Santa Clara. “That’s the best I’ve ever played personally, and I wasn’t thinking but two minutes in front of me. It was just purely enjoying where I was, who I was with, playing baseball.” He’d remind himself: someone has to wear the jersey, so why not you?
Despite the struggles he’d faced in his first taste of pro ball, Murfee went into the off-season on a mission. He’d spend his days working a desk job for a healthcare analytics company, 7-5, before heating up some dinner and then heading to the complex where he trained into the night, throwing into a net or against a wall.
“I just looked myself in the mirror and said screw it, I’m going for it. Put the knife between my teeth. I’m going to try to build some swagger. And that’s what gave me some confidence headed into spring training. I knew what my last year had entailed. I was just plain bad. But I knew the work I’d put in over the off-season. No one had to tell me to show up. I did it for myself.”
The work paid off that spring, and Murfee pitched well on the backfields, well enough to be invited back in the role of a standby pitcher, someone the team could send from affiliate to affiliate to fill out pitching staffs, including a five-game stint at Triple-A Tacoma at the beginning of the year; a big ask of a pitcher who hadn’t made an appearance above short season ball. The results were mixed—as Penn says, he made some good hitters look silly, and also gave up some big hits.
“But failing up there [in Tacoma] was the best thing that could happen for me mentally this year, because...I’m still breathing, I learned what worked, what didn’t. It was sink or swim, and I swam. Maybe doggy paddled. But I kept my head above water.”
Eventually, Murfee landed at High-A Modesto, where he worked with pitching coach Rob Marcello Jr., who helped him incorporate his lower half better. Marcello also coaxed Murfee to throw his fastball up in the zone more, something Murfee describes as “scary at first” but he was willing to do because of his deep respect for Marcello, who he says possesses a “special” mind for pitching. Penn also connected immediately with manager Denny Hocking, a former big-leaguer who “welcomed me with open arms.” And Murfee also found he fit in well with the high-on-character/low-on-starpower bullpen assembled at Modesto.
“We listened to a ton of Mötley Crüe in the locker room, but we truthfully were the motley crew of bullpens in minor league baseball. I was a 33rd rounder, [Sam] Delaplane was a twenty-something rounder, so was [Collin] Kober, [Scott]Boches. [Raymond] Kerr was a free agent sign, Jake Haberer was a free agent guy from indy ball. The highest-drafted guy we had out of the bullpen was [Joey] Gerber, and he was an eighth-rounder. Everyone else was 20-something plus. Nobodies, no-name guys, and we all just came through and had a chip on our shoulder, and Rob was the perfect guy to bring that out. We identified with it, and we all just had a blast. I’ve never had more fun.”
But Murfee wasn’t in the bullpen for long. Following a spot start in May, the team started stretching him out as a starter. Far from the dismal numbers of his short-season experience, Murfee dazzled, striking out almost 30% of batters who faced him, with a California League- best FIP of 2.48 (minimum 100 IP). I ask him what he did to get those results in Modesto this year, and without missing a beat, Penn replies: “not give a [redacted].”
The message from Marcello and the rest of the coaching staff: we only care about punchouts. Get up there, punch guys out, go back in. Repeat. But punching guys out isn’t just about racking up big strikeout totals, Penn explains. “Punching guys out is a metaphor for getting ahead in the count, controlling the zone, not walking people, being aggressive, holding the running game, pitching situationally...it covers everything.” Murfee’s strikeout percentage landed him third among all pitchers who pitched at least 100 innings in the Cal League; in K-BB% he was second, at 23.7%, trailing only teammate Ljay Newsome and his league-best 2.2% (!) walk rate.
“[Sam] Delaplane and I were talking about this. Not giving the hitters too much credit ties in big with control the zone. Hitting is fricking hard. Hitting is really hard. So, not being scared to attack the zone, go for the punchouts, like right away I’m going to give you stuff in the zone and challenge guys. That not only puts off an air of like, oh god this guy’s coming after me, but it also puts you in the driver’s seat, and when you’re in the driver’s seat the game’s a lot more fun. So I think the whole C the Z philosophy is really honing in on challenging hitters, establishing and commanding the strike zone, because all the other stuff, all the other stats, those all work out for themselves. Not focusing on I can’t walk guys or I can’t miss this pitch in this count, because that’s all noise and that’s only going to take away from what you need to do: throw your good pitches in the zone, attack hitters, and finish them. It’s that simple.”
The numbers are impressive, but Murfee is quick to point out multiple people had a hand in his success. Coach Denny Hocking had instituted something called “accountability partners,” players responsible for pushing each other to greatness on and off the field. “Some could dismiss that as college,” shrugs Penn, “but this guy played thirteen years in the big leagues, and if there’s something he feels is worthwhile, I’m going to do that. My throwing partner Ian McKinney and I really bought into it. Mick was the uber-accountability partner.” The two worked out together, even on off days (in the picture below, McKinney is in the foreground; Penn is rocking the Daisy Dukes in the background, and pitching coach Rob Marcello wearing...swim trunks? is off to the side with the TrackMan).
No game today but check out these guys. Getting better is a mindset. Students bettering their craft under the tutelage of their professor. Got some technology, sun and desire pic.twitter.com/xn7P2bO5Pe— Denny Hocking (@bigleagueswings) July 29, 2019
The two became close, on and off the field; this off-season, Penn will be a groomsman in McKinney’s upcoming wedding. “We pushed each other, and it was sometimes uncomfortable. There was one time I snapped at him to get out of my face and shut up. But he’s like my best friend, and we just pushed each other, we challenged each other, but the most important thing was we talked, we listened to each other, about everything that did and didn’t have to do with baseball. . .going through the season with someone like that, who you know is rooting for you and has your back, but will also call you on your bullshit, was huge for me.”
Murfee has gotten to where he is largely because he constantly seeks out people who will tell him the truth, even if it stings. In addition to seeking outside feedback, he also carries a journal with him everywhere and holds himself accountable to what’s in the pages; every day he re-reads the past five days’ entries and reflects on how well he’s putting those plans into practice.
Although Murfee has been keeping some form of a journal for years, he codified the practice this past year, noting that his approach previously had been inconsistent and half-hearted. “I wasn’t doing the re-reading, and I wasn’t really being honest with myself. It was more like, ‘did well today’ or ‘did poorly today, but hey, count your blessings.’ I didn’t really have that professional approach to it. That came from me halfway through the year kind of having a little bit of success and just craving more, and realizing that my velo was dropping at that point from becoming a starter and I just knew in the back of my head, I gotta be doing something more.” The re-reading, Penn notes, is especially important for giving a bird’s-eye view of the highs and the lows; “and here you are, still breathing. It’s a big, heavy dose of perspective.”
The journal and Penn made the trip this fall to the Arizona Fall League, where Murfee was a standout for the Peoria Javelinas, winning Pitcher of the Week once and collecting 30 strikeouts in 22 innings pitched, ending with an ERA of 1.23.
Initially, Penn was disappointed when he was informed he’d be headed to Arizona, thinking the team was sending him to instructs; McKinney had to impress on him the prestige of the AFL. But Murfee was also a little disappointed because of the summer plans he’d made. Your big plans! I say jokingly.
“Ah, but they were small plans,” says Murfee wistfully. “That was the point.”
Prior to the off-season, Murfee had arranged to spend the fall at the Little Jennie Ranch, in Bondurant, Wyoming, right outside of Jackson Hole. Murfee might be Southern-born and bred but has fallen in love with the West, starting from the moment he crossed into the Rockies on his way to California. “It’s a wide-open place. I like that feeling.” On the ranch, Penn would serve as “Johnny Wholestaff”: driving fence posts, doing barn work, even helping birth cows. He planned to set up a net in an unused barn and get his throwing in at night. Later in the winter, he was toying with the idea of heading to California and living out of a van parked near the beach for a while before pitchers report for spring training.
Right when his AFL stint ended, however, Murfee was summoned again by baseball, this time to play on Team USA as an injury replacement in the Premier 12 tournament. Penn wound up getting his off-season travel in after all, as the team headed to Mexico, then to Japan, where he was tapped to make a spot start when the scheduled starter couldn’t go. A little over a year removed from standing on a mound in Everett, Washington, and struggling to throw strikes, Murfee found himself standing on the mound in the Tokyo Dome, facing down a team of Japan’s All-Stars.
“When they first told me I was starting, I had that prickly skin sensation for a moment, then went straight into start-day mode after that. I didn’t tell myself anything other than treat it like a normal start in Modesto or the AFL. Just go out and do my job.”
Murfee held his own against a formidable Team Japan lineup, taming some fluttering command and not letting a ball leave the infield against him. His favorite moment, he says, wasn’t the strikeout he got in the first inning; it was this double play, ending a Team Japan threat and silencing the 28,000 fans in the Tokyo Dome:
And for someone who prides himself on being a traveler and seeker of new experiences, Murfee’s favorite memory of his Team USA experience was downright American: riding a roller coaster near their hotel in Japan with his teammates. “My stomach is still sore from laughing so hard.”
Murfee will spend most of the remaining off-season in Arizona, a place he came to love more deeply during his AFL stint; he enjoys hiking and exploring around the area and often goes to play his guitar at the Red Rocks in Sedona. No longer is the Mariners complex in Peoria an intimidating place; it’s more of a second home now. Penn Murfee has walked one of the more complex paths to arrive in professional baseball, and is acutely aware of how razor-thin the margin is to make it to the bigs.
“It’s going to end some day,” he says, philosophical but also matter-of-fact. “It may be tomorrow, it may be years from now—but I have no control over that. What I do have control over is how I approach every day, and what I’m most proud of every day is how I treat people, how I go about my career, my work ethic. That’s the stuff I can control, and all the other stuff I put to bed.” So for now Murfee is living in the moment and trying to keep it simple, with a future as wide-open as the part of the country he now calls home.