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Tom Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go right, will

Examining the sustainability of Tom Murphy’s great season.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Seattle Mariners
Tom Murphy’s helmet yet another victim of the power of Murphy’s swing
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Murphy hit 6 dingers in 4 games. That fact alone may be worth an article. I wrote this article because that seemed odd and I desired to find out why Tom Murphy hit 6 dingers in 4 games. Only I had to delete most of what I wrote because Rian Watt over at Fangraphs already profiled Tom Murphy back in June. Which made me momentarily angry, but that has since subsided. Great job, Rian.

The thesis of that article was Murphy, with the help of hitting coach Tim Laker, changed how he used his body in order to shorten his swing path, resulting in getting to more balls at the top of the zone and putting them in the air.

This year, Murphy’s groundball rate is down to 37% and his fly ball rate up to 42% from last year’s 34%. Nearly a quarter of those fly balls have become home runs. Murphy again credits the change to Tim Laker. But it didn’t come easy.

All of that is still true. Only now his profile has escalated in wackiness.

Instead of 42% fly balls he’s hit 50% fly balls (all stats through Saturday the 24th), which ranks 3rd in all of baseball (Jay Bruce, the Human Elevator, is #1). Instead of home runs on 24% of those fly balls, it’s 27.1%. The same rate as two people you may have heard of: Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger.

How is he doing this? By waiting for, and connecting with, one particular pitch.

Here is Tom Murphy’s swing chart.

“Better up than in, I always say” - Shrek

He likes them inside, but his favorite spot is up and in the middle of the plate, with a 78% swing rate.

For some reason he also knocks around pitches at his ankles?

When Tom Murphy hits that pitch, it’s leaving at >95 MPH 81% of the time. That’s incredibly consistent power production. That’s how you wind up with this home run distribution:

Fastballs up in the zone and elevated sliders away have not fared well

Tom Murphy likes to get his arms extended. If you look at the 9% hard hit rate on pitches up and in, you can understand why Tom Murphy is completely undone by cut fastballs (-4.96 wCT/C, 14th worst in MLB) but destroys four seams (2.32 wFF/C, 10th best). His swing is tailored to get the barrel to one particular spot, and cut fastballs start in that zone and “cut” away from his power.

Welcome to Murphy’s Fun Zone—Speed Limit 111 MPH

Here’s the swing. He is one the most patient in-zone hitters in the league, only swinging 63.5% of the time at strikes. He has a pitch he likes and he’ll wait until they throw it. A solid plan in today’s only-elevated-fastballs league.

OK, so Tom Murphy is waiting for a fastball up in the zone so he can redirect it back into orbit. But is that a profile that deserves to produce 2.5 fWAR in under 200 plate appearances? That’s more value than every Mariner not named Marco Gonzales and 58th in baseball tied with Manny Machado. Over a full season, his WAR/600 (WAR prorated to 600 PAs) comes out to an absurd 7.7, which would have been ahead of 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich.

Is Tom Murphy an MVP catcher? This is the same Tom Murphy, mind you, who has the face of someone who grunts involuntarily when getting out of a chair.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
Ugh these bases are so far apart.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Well, no, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. You knew that. His success isn’t a complete shock, as he was a 3rd round pick back in 2012, and crushed the low minors and with the Rockies accumulated .8 WAR in his first 88 plate appearances.

He’s been lucky in a small sample, that’s obvious. But which part is luck and which is untapped potential?

Well, there’s good news and bad news.

Good News, Everyone!

The good news is a healthy chunk of that value is derived from defense.

If we look at Matthew Caruth’s (there’s a name I remember!) StatCorner page, Tom Murphy ranks 11th in baseball at amount of strikes stolen per game, at 1.12.

Astros first again, I see

If we go by Statcast data, it’s much the same where he’s tied for 11th in Runs Extra Strikes added with +4 (Omar Narvaez is at... -5).

He gets to that number by being the best low ball receiver in the league. His 65.3% strike rate at the bottom of the zone is the best in baseball, and at the lower inside and outside corners he’s 4th.

Put simply: Murphy owns the bottom of the zone.

Smooth. Very smooth and good.

Here he assures a borderline sinker is a strike by setting up low and snapping the ball up with his wrist while maintaining his elbow and arm position. Harder than it looks, apparently, or Narvaez wouldn’t be so bad at it.

While Murphy’s pop-time is below average (elite grunting), his arm grades as 7th best in the league, but it is held back by a slow exchange. He’s fine. It’s the framing where he makes his hay.

Put together, Tom Murphy is a good defensive catcher—well above average! That much of his value pie has been sustainably sourced.

Bad and Obvious News

Remember that old idiom, “it is better to be lucky than good?” Maybe that’s true if you are talking about one event like playing the lottery or jumping over a pit of snakes, but over a long period of time—say you lived near an active snake pit—it would be more beneficial for Snake Pit Jumping to be a repeatable skill.

All that to say Murphy’s offense, at some point, will fall into a pit of snakes.

Tom Murphy’s 2019 slash line is, through August 24th, .293/.325/.614 good for a wRC+ of 145, which puts him ahead of Ketel Marte, Freddie Freeman, Juan Soto, etc.. He’s in Nelson Cruz country for ISO. To get to that line you’d expect some elite hard contact numbers.

Indeed he ranks in the Top-30 in the MLB in:

  • Average Exit Velocity (91.7 MPH): 28th
  • Average Batted Ball Distance (220ft): 7th
  • Hard Hit % (48.3): 23rd

Tom Murphy certainly hits the ball hard, but not as hard as the ISO leaders. And there’s a larger, more obvious problem.

Tom Murphy strikes out 34.5% of the time and walks 4.1% of the time. Both are near league worsts and both in line with his career averages. His BB/K ratio is currently 1.2, which is terrible. Is it possible to succeed with a 1.2 BB/K ratio?

I searched for every hitter with over 150 PAs that ran a 1.2 BB/K or worse over the past 19 seasons. I plucked those that were above average hitters.

Successful Hitters with Poor BB/K rates (‘00-’19)

Name Year BB/K wRC+
Name Year BB/K wRC+
Murphy, Tom 2019, Mariners 0.12 145
Johnson, Reed 2011, Cubs 0.08 121
Gutierrez, Franklin 2013, Mariners 0.12 115
Schoop, Jonathan 2015, Orioles 0.11 113
Wooten, Shawn 2001, Angels 0.12 108
Dunston, Shawon 2001, Giants 0.06 106

In nearly two decades, exactly four hitters have hit above league average with BB/K ratios the same or worse than Murphy’s. It is incredibly unlikely that Murphy would be able to sustain league average production with his current peripherals—almost no one does!

His expected stats bare that out. When sorted by the difference between actual wOBA and expected wOBA (min 150 PAs), Tom Murphy has the highest difference between the two at .089.

That’s a phenomenal level of difference. The expected statistics think Tom Murphy should be hitting like Dylan Moore and instead he’s hitting like Jose Altuve. Can you imagine? Replacing Moore’s bat with Altuve’s? That’s what’s happening.

His batting average on balls in play, at .373, is unsustainably high and 12th highest in the league. While it’s technically possible to run a high BABiP all year (he ran a .341 throughout the minors), he’s in the 36th percentile for sprint speed. It’s going to come down and the snakes will get him.

I know what you’re thinking: a) this isn’t fun and b) this power-first, great framing, high-K catcher profile can work! I’ve seen it accrue almost 5 WAR! Why yes, I was thinking the same thing.

Brothers in Bash

Player K BB FB HR/FB SwStrike Contact wRC+
Player K BB FB HR/FB SwStrike Contact wRC+
2019 Tom Murphy 34.50% 4.10% 50% 27.10% 13.70% 70.30% 145
2017 Mike Zunino 36.80% 9% 45.60% 24% 17.90% 63.80% 127

Ah, Good Zunino, I miss you as much as you probably miss yourself.

While the profiles are similar, and 2017 Zunino is certainly a path to success for Murphy, Murphy is walking less, hitting more home runs, and, somehow, has a higher contact rate than Good-Nino.

Looking through the last few years, a much more comparable hitter in plate discipline and contact is 2018 Nelson Cruz. The swing rates are almost identical: swing percentage, overall contact, swinging strikes, out of zone swings, and zone contact are all within a percentage point. The difference is that Tom Murphy doesn’t swing at strikes very often and Nelson Cruz barrels up twice as many balls. Tom Murphy’s profile is weird, with how little he swings at balls he should be walking more and striking out less—but he’s always ran these kinds of numbers. Worse yet, at 200 PAs his K and BB numbers are becoming stable.

Blue=BB, Red=K, Alpha=degree of confidence.

So here we sit, knowing the ride will end but wondering how long he can hold on. I think it’s likely that the league adjusts and throws more soft stuff low in the zone, and Tom counters by becoming more aggressive. In the end, he will likely regress towards his peripherals in all directions—his K% will hopefully fall based on his contact rates, and his batting line will regress towards his BABiP and xwOBA. How far, though? Tough to say.

If he can manage a Cruz-lite profile (with half the walks) his defense provides a solid floor for him to land on when his cartwheels become cartwhoops. He could be a Jay Bruce, even, hitting every ball in the air with above-average exit velocity, not walking, and maintaining a wRC+ around league average. If he can hit even 15% under league average he’ll be valuable; if he hits at league average? He’ll be one of the ten best catchers in the league. I can’t believe I typed that. It’s wildly true.

While we still can, let’s take another look at Tom Murphy cartwheeling away from his peripherals. Go, Tom. Cartwheel until your cartwheels fall off.

Whoo! Hahah I’ll be good forever! Hahaha Whoo!