Name: Sean Murphy
Height/Weight: 6’3’’, 215
How Acquired: Selected in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft.
Sean Murphy may have been an under-the-radar prospect for the Oakland A’s going into the 2017 season, but after he flashed his impressive defensive skills and showed promise with the bat, he is under-the-radar no longer.
Murphy’s journey from high school to elite major league prospect wasn’t a typical one. The son of a former major league prospect himself, Murphy was lightly recruited coming out of Centerville High School in Ohio. A late bloomer physically, Murphy was all of 5’7’’, 145 pounds as a high school senior. Two years and more than half a foot later, Murphy was a rising star as a catcher for the Wright State baseball program.
Although Wright State isn’t a national powerhouse, scouts began flocking to their games late during Murphy’s sophomore season. The attention he received from scouts increased significantly going into his junior year after a he had a solid Cape Cod League campaign in 2015. He got off to a fast start as a junior at Wright State, only to break his hamate bone early in the season. Murphy returned quickly – perhaps too quickly – and he missed only 22 games. His overall offensive numbers as a junior were still solid (.287/.408/.507), but he didn’t hit for as much power after the injury.
When Murphy slipped to Day Two of the 2016 MLB Draft, the A’s were thrilled to snap him up with the 83rd overall pick. Although there were still some questions about Murphy’s bat coming out of college, the consensus around baseball was that he was the top defensive catcher in the draft.
Murphy’s pro debut season with the A’s was hampered by a staph infection in his knee that cost him nearly a month with short-season Vermont. Murphy’s offensive numbers were mediocre (.237/.318/.329 in a pitcher-friendly league), but the A’s loved what they saw from Murphy with the glove. They didn’t hesitate to push Murphy to High-A Stockton to start the 2017 season.
Nearly a year removed from the hamate injury, Murphy was able to swing the bat with more authority in 2017. A three-week stint on the disabled list with a bruised wrist was the only blemish on a standout first half with Stockton. Murphy made the Cal League All-Star team with a .297/.343/.527 line in 45 games. He homered nine times and sported a solid 11:33 BB:K. Defensively, Murphy was a rock behind the plate, leading a talented Stockton pitching staff. Teams didn’t run on him often, and he threw out a third of those who attempted.
After the All-Star break, Murphy was promoted to Double-A Midland, where he would spend the rest of the season. His offensive numbers dropped considerably after the promotion, but he remained a defensive stalwart. Despite having less than a year of professional experience, Murphy led an experienced Midland pitching staff to the Texas League title. A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman said Murphy’s presence behind the plate had a lot to do with the RockHounds’ second-half and postseason success.
“[H]e’s such a unique guy that he can go to Double-A and lead that staff. He’s done a really good job with that,” Lieppman said in a late-season interview. “He has a rapport with the pitcher and he knows how to get them on the same page. If he wants a breaking ball in the dirt, he’ll over-emphasize it. You watch a lot of good catchers who are very definitive with their movements behind the plate – whether they want the ball down or up in the ‘zone. He leads the guys well.”
Murphy’s offensive line was poor (.209/.288/.309), but looking at his numbers more closely, they may have been a product of some bad luck. In Stockton, Murphy’s BABIP was .323. With Midland, it dropped to .232. Murphy’s walk-rate and strike-rate both improved with Midland, a strong indication that it was his BABIP performance that was the difference between his Stockton and Midland numbers.
The Texas League can be difficult on hitters because of the winds, especially for right-handed hitters who have their home games at Midland’s Security Bank Ballpark. Murphy had at least five flyballs caught with Midland that would likely have been home runs in the California League. As the season wore on, Murphy’s groundball rate also increased, which hurt his BABIP. Whether it was fatigue or an attempt to avoid hitting the ball into the teeth of the wind, Murphy’s struggles with the bat in Midland look to be correctable.
During the Arizona Fall League, Murphy didn’t flash a lot of power, but the rest of his offensive game rebounded. In 18 games for Mesa, he hit .309/.413/.368. He walked 10 times against only seven strike-outs and continued to wow scouts with his glove.
As a hitter, Murphy has a chance to be an above-average contributor as a catcher. He may not hit for average in the big leagues, but he has a strong sense of the strike-zone and a solid up-the-middle approach that keeps him from getting too pull happy. Murphy has power in his bat and he should continue to develop more power as he matures.
Even if Murphy is below-average offensively, he still has a chance to be a valuable big leaguer because of his defense. Not only does Murphy have a strong and accurate throwing arm, he also is an above-average athlete who can adjust quickly to balls in the dirt and throw quickly from different angles. He is a student of the game who works closely with his pitchers and pitching coaches to develop game plans and pitchers like the target he presents them behind the plate.
“Sean Murphy is firmly establishing himself as one of the premiere two-way catching prospects in the minor leagues,” A’s Assistant General Manager Billy Owens said in a midseason interview. “His arm is a 70 and the scouting scale is 2-8. Murphy has a lockdown 7 arm.
“He’s a wall behind the plate: 6’4’’, but still really flexible, outstanding hands, 70-grade arm. … He’s been as advertised. That defense is outstanding. The arm has been superlative and the bat has been good and the power is going to be there. He’s a real tough kid. I just put in a scouting report that he’s hockey tough. He’s a tough kid and he’s hungry to play well and thirsty for more knowledge. He’s definitely one of the premier two-way catching prospects in the minor leagues.”
Murphy is in A’s big league camp as a non-roster player. Depending on how the A’s spread out their three 40-man roster catchers at the start of camp, Murphy could end up in Nashville to start the year, but he is more likely to begin the year in Midland with a midseason promotion to Triple-A in the cards. He could compete for a big league spot as soon as 2019.
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