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40 in 40: Tom Murphy

The cartwheeling catcher finally got the playing time to establish himself as a major leaguer last season. Now he goes into the season with the starting job and looking to build upon his success.

Seattle Mariners v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Tom Murphy has never been shy about seizing opportunities. He chose his college because he wanted a school where he could play baseball as a freshman, rather than wait to try to crack a lineup. He took a college league exhibition game against Team USA as an opportunity to get his name onto scouting lists. He saw his early season pickup by the Mariners as a chance to finally begin his major league career.

So it should go without saying that when he saw the wide dugouts in Detroit, he knew exactly what he needed to do.

Last season, in the middle of August and the doldrums of a Mariners season that dragged on and on, Murphy cartwheeled his way firmly into Mariner fans’ hearts.

His acrobatics caused the Mariners internet to erupt with delight. Baseball and sports highlight shows picked up on his antics. Teammates imitated the move. Murphy said he did the cartwheel because his daughter has been doing gymnastics and he has practiced with her. Surely seeing her father cartwheel caused was excitement for her?

“She was pretty disappointed.” Murphy told The Rundown on MLB Network . “She realized the effort was there, but was not a fan of the bent knees and no pointed toes.” He later adds, “She yells at me all the time to keep my legs straight and I just can’t seem to figure it out out there.”

Murphy’s gymnastics may need some work, but his catching prowess was a bright spot last season for the Mariners. He was acquired from the San Francisco Giants in a trade at the beginning of the season with the express purpose of making him the backup catcher. Now, a season later the Mariners have traded his catching partner Omar Narváez to the Milwaukee Brewers, and he finds himself occupying the role of starting catcher.

How did he get here? It feels like a quick rise from part-time backup to full-time starter. However, Murphy will turn 29 at the beginning of the season, a player new to the major leagues but experienced in baseball. His professional career began when he was drafted in the third round of the 2012 Amateur Draft by the Colorado Rockies. He considered a legitimate prospect for several years, peaking at #6 in Baseball America’s ranking of the Rockies’ organization after the 2014 season, and cracking Baseball America’s top 100 overall at #97 after the 2015 season.

Murphy was born in a small town in central New York. He grew up in West Monroe where his parents owned and ran an auto-repair shop. In contrast to the experiences of many players, his early baseball years were exceedingly low-pressure. He played little league on teams with kids from his hometown. On the SportsEpreneur podcast last April he talks about the freedom to play with his friends, free from expectations. He says his parents only expected effort from him on the field. The pressure to win or play a certain way never existed. He fell in love with baseball and was able to let that love and drive to improve grow organically. As he got older and college approached, he did finally join a travel ball team, but not until the age of 17.

He wasn’t highly recruited out of college and the thought of playing professionally wasn’t a consideration. He chose a partial scholarship to the University of Buffalo over Wagner College and Monmouth University because he would have the opportunity to play as a freshman, rather than waiting for a spot later on. This ended up being a good decision because it took two full college seasons before the wider baseball world started to notice him.

After his sophomore season at Buffalo, Murphy was named the Mid-American Conference Baseball Player of the year. He told the SportsEprenuer podcast he had a couple offers to play in the Cape Cod League that summers. He had already signed with the Holyoke Blue Sox of the New England Collegiate Baseball League and they wouldn’t release him from his contract. Not to worry though. The Blue Sox played an exhibition against Team USA at Fenway Park.

His mom and dad were in attendances in Boston that day. He and his family were Yankees fans, but their baseball viewing was taken up by the games Tom and his brother played. The first time his father, Tom Murphy Sr., went to a major league baseball stadium it was to watch his son play in the home of the Red Sox. Before the game Tom Jr. joked that he was going to hit one over the Green Monster.

Leading off the second inning, Murphy faced Team USA’s starting pitcher Kevin Gausman, then a top pitching prospect. On the fourth pitch he did what he told his family he would do:

Scouts in attendance at the game took notice. Murphy says most scouts he talked to after the game didn’t know who he was. That one swing changed everything. Baseball American named him the top prospect in the New England League that summer. Murphy entered his junior year of college as a draft prospect and one of 50 players on the Golden Spikes Watch List. Suddenly, scouts were at every game and Murphy found himself playing with real expectations for the first time in his life. He put pressure on himself to perform, and came away dissatisfied with his performance. Nonetheless, he was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 3rd round of the draft. The pride of West Monroe, New York was a professional baseball player.

Murphy worked his way through Colorado’s minor league system. After beginning his second professional season in Low A, the Rockies opted to skip High A altogether and bounced him up to AA, where he spent three seasons. In 2015, he took a quick detour to win a silver medal for Team USA in the Pan-American Games. That September, he earned a call up to make his major league debut. Murphy got right to work, slugging .543 and earning a wRC+ of 118 in 39 plate appearances. It looked like it was the beginning of a major league career.

Then the injury bug struck. There was talk he’d make his major league debut in 2014. Unfortunately, a rotator cuff held him to just 109 plate appearances in AA that season. After his September debut, he was slated to battle for a starting job. This time a strained oblique muscle kept him from the majors. Again, he saw playing time in September, and again he capitalized with a 147 wRC+. In 2017, it was a broken arm that held him back. Even after returning from the injury, he just couldn’t find his swing that season. 2018 was another frustrating season. Despite getting more time in the major leagues, following a hot start at the plate he couldn’t keep it up. His defense also suffered, perhaps due to a mental block from his broken arm the previous season (The injury happened while throwing to second base. The batter swung and struck his arm).

Murphy headed into 2019 determined. He started the spring strong, but his power wasn’t enough to make the Rockies’ opening day roster. He was out of minor league options, so the team was forced to designate him for assignment. The San Francisco Giants claimed him, just to return him to the waiver wires three days later. This is when the Mariners swooped in. They grabbed a third catcher who had pretty dismal major league offensive numbers. Over 210 plate appearances, he walked just 6.2% of the time and struck out nearly 40% of the time. He had slashed .219/.271/.439 for a wRC+ of 69 (you want to say, “Nice”, but that is not nice),

The Mariners saw something in him. Murphy said they told him that he was their second choice catcher after Mike Zunino in the draft, and that they had tried to trade for him the previous year. There was something the team liked about him. Murphy didn’t let them down. After years of feeling like he was right on the verge of establishing himself in the major leagues, Tom Murphy finally had his outbreak season in 2019. Given regular playing time, he stepped up to the plate 281 times. He didn’t walk much more than he did, but he cut his K% down to 31% (hey, it’s all relative) and slashed .273/.324/.535 and earned a wRC+ of 126. Drastic improvements.

Defensively, Murphy made the biggest impression on the team. Last season, he shared time with Narváez, who the Mariners brought in to see if they could improve his defensive ability. Unfortunately, those efforts didn’t pay off. With Murphy the team found a catcher who could pull borderline pitches into the strike zone. As Kate notes in Murphy’s Exit Interview, he ranked in the top 10 catchers in saving runs by nabbing extra strike calls. He also found himself in the top 10 for throwing out base runners.

What changed for him this year? He is effusive with his praise for hitting coach Tim Laker and the Mariners organization. A factor that can’t be discounted though, is that last year was the first season of his career that his family was able to be with him during the season.

Maybe some extra time with his wife, son, and daughter will help him improve even more in 2020. He will helping ease young pitchers into the major leagues while establishing his own value.

Any maybe, more time with his daughter will improve his form on the home run celebrations we all hope to see.