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40 in 40: Tom Murphy

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“He’s not a pony, Ben, he’s a mini-horse. There’s a big difference!”

Tampa Bay Rays v Seattle Mariners
tell me your secrets, Tom
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Look, far be it for me to yuck anyone’s yum, but like Ben Wyatt, I just gotta be honest: I don’t know what the big deal is with Tom Murphy. When I cast my eyes upon Murphy, I see an age 30-adjacent MiLB journeyman catcher with good defense, solid power numbers, and a propensity to strike out too much. I see a pony, not a magical mini-horse. But I have many friends, colleagues, and followers on Twitter, who when they cast their eyes upon Tom Murphy, see this:

Tee Miller

And it’s not just the fanbase. The organization hasn’t quite gone so far as to build a special Tom Murphy Enclosure at T-Mobile (which would, from what I’m given to understand, be a well-attended attraction), but are high enough on Murphy that they traded both his primary platoon-mates Omar Narváez and Austin Nola away in the past two seasons—both trades that netted a nice return for Seattle, to be sure, but each time left Murphy as the primary catching option/Cal Raleigh placeholder. In the Nola trade, the Mariners did recoup a catcher in Luís Torrens who will ostensibly compete with Murphy for first-team reps this spring, but Murphy seems entrenched as the heavy favorite to be the starter against the much-younger Torrens (fun fact! Torrens and Cal Raleigh are the same age).

Murphy is likely the best defensive catcher in the Mariners organization, now that both Nola and Joe Odom are gone. He ranks highly in framing metrics, ranking in the top 10 in baseball in 2019 in getting calls in his favor alongside such catching stalwarts as Yasmani Grandal, Christian Vazquez, Tyler Flowers, and the Austins Hedges and Barnes. What makes Murphy especially valuable to the Mariners is his ability to get the low strike called; in 2019 he 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). That’s good news not only for Justus Sheffield and his heavy sinker/slider combo, but also for Yusei Kikuchi, who worked lower in the zone more often in 2020. Murphy’s ability to convert pitches in the “shadow zone” into strikes—8th-best in the AL in 2019—is also helpful to a command specialist like Marco Gonzales. Even with sitting out a year and new additions to the staff (hello, Chris Flexen), it’s clear that this is Murphy’s pitching staff.

That leaves the question of the offense which is...questionable. Like many modern catchers, Murphy has an all-or-nothing approach that yields some booming home runs and some big whiffs. Murphy strikes out a lot, especially on off-speed pitches, and now that the rest of the league has some non cup-of-coffee data on him, pitchers have the upper hand in adjusting their attack plan against Murphy, and that attack plan will probably be: throw off-speed stuff, especially sliders.

If he gets a fastball, though (.750 SLG)...alert residents in nearby counties.

Baseball Savant says only 7 of Murphy’s 18 home runs in 2019 were no-doubters, so add Statcast to the Ben Wyatt club, I guess. The ones I watched back trying to pick out a good HR to embed all looked pretty darn gone, judging by pitcher reactions (which should be a stat in itself, the PdmF, Pitcher de-moralizing factor, or something...but I digress).

If this all strikes you as a typical backup catcher profile, well, congratulations, you too see a pony and not a mini-horse. But Tom Murphy fans are very real, and they are ardent. In fact, their ardor burns in direct contrast to Murphy’s icy—some might say thousand-yard—stare.

There is something about his eyes—their bigness, their pale blueness—that makes it extra hilarious when the Mariners, on promo nights, photoshop Darth Maul makeup or a Tommy Bahama reject and bucket hat onto his head:

But even beyond those oddly large, oddly blue peepers, there is something about Murphy’s persona that appeals—his Ron Swanson-adjacent personality as a woodsman who spends his off-season time in upstate New York, hunting bear with his bare hands and dragging trees uphill for exercise; his brief (but successful!) foray into position-player-pitching; even his distinctive pre-pitch warmup.

And let us not forget what might be the greatest Tom Murphy moment of all:

Fine. Consider me charmed. I’ll see you all at T-Mobile next year in my Tom Murphy jersey:

I’ll probably be making this face, too, so you can recognize me