Player Profile: Sean Murphy

This is Sean Murphy, cranking his first career MLB home run. (Photo Credit: Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

The 150-170 range is an appealing area for me to target a catcher in 2021. Travis d’Arnaud, Daulton Varsho, and Christian Vazquez all make for quality targets depending on team needs and league format. But I remain most intrigued by the bottom of this grouping, in Sean Murphy. On average, Murphy is being drafted closer to Austin Nola than he is to the above threesome, and I wonder if that is a mistake. So I’m here to explore.

Opportunity

2020 was Murphy’s first year as the full-time starter in Oakland, and he ranked 12th in games played (43) and 15th in plate appearances (140) among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances. So, not really setting the world on fire with his volume. Jonah Heim (13G, 41 PA) and Austin Allen (14G, 32 PA) took turns as his backup, as the switch-hitting Heim was called up once Allen was demoted.

There was some good: Among all catchers, Murphy tied for seventh in homers (7) and ranked eighth in runs scored (21), despite not having elite volume.

There was some bad: Murphy ranked 23rd in RBI (14) and his .233 BA ranked 19th. He mostly batted ninth (94 PA) and eighth (28 PA) in the order in 2020, so that can help explain the limited RBI count.

Entering 2021, Murphy is slated to bat fifth in the everyday lineup. His counting stats should increase relative to his peers due to batting higher in the order, and due to receiving more plate appearances. Murphy already contributed top 10 marks in homers and runs in 2020, despite hitting at the bottom of the order. If he bumps up to the heart of the order and increases his RBI totals (logical), he’s got the potential to also rank inside the top 10 in RBI. To make me feel better about that, let’s dig into Oakland’s offense on the whole a bit more, eh?

Team Context

The Athletics are surprisingly “up there” with regard to scoring. Here is the team’s performance over the last three years:

2018: 813 runs (4th)
2019: 845 runs (8th)
2020: 274 runs (16th)

So even in a down year, the A’s were still middle-of-the-road in runs scored. There was some bad luck involved, namely the losing of Matt Chapman to injury. There was also the continued erosion of Khris Davis’s power and an abnormally low BABIP for Matt Olson (.227). With a healthy Chapman and a full year for Olson to balance out some ill luck, one would think a better performance is on the horizon for Oakland in 2021. That, and I expect the A’s to make a move for a shortstop soon enough. Ideally that’s a bat that will lengthen the lineup a bit. And sure, they lost Marcus Semien. But Semien slashed a poor .223/.305/.374 with last year. I could see a trade for an Amed Rosario type–a player of that caliber should be able to approximate or exceed what Semien produced in 2020.

When you factor in that Murphy should regularly bat fifth or sixth instead of eighth or ninth, I’m bullish on his ability to generate counting stats in 2021. Steamer projects Murphy to rank ninth in runs scored and 10th in RBI despite projecting that he’ll finish only 13th in plate appearances. I’m not sure why Murphy is projected to play only 102 games, but the per-game punch that Steamer projects jives with what I’m expecting from him, skills-wise, in 2021.

The Skills

Over his 2019 debut and the pandemic-shortened 2020, Murphy has played in 63 career MLB games. He has slashed .237/.355/.491 with 11 homers over that stretch, along with 35 runs and 22 RBI. Even a rough doubling of that performance–to approximate a full season–is a nice stat line for a catcher. Say he plays in 125 games, bats .235, scores 70 runs, has 44 RBI, and slugs 22 homers…that’s a worthy season by a catcher. And don’t forget, a boost in the batting order means those counting stats could be more robust moving forward.

Murphy’s home run total isn’t staggering thus far in his big league career, and it may not ever be given his home park environs. But he made a noticeable batted ball change in 2021, or at least a departure from his 2019 sample. Whereas in 2019 he was pull-heavy with a whopping 56.8% pull rate, in 2020 that mark cratered to only 31.6%–while his Cent% leapt to a hefty 46.8%. Among all catchers last year (min. 100 PA), Murphy topped everyone in Cent%–and his opposite field rate was pretty static around 21%. So he essentially traded pulled balls for balls right back up the middle. It’s prudent to say that we’re dealing with two small samples here, but even if you average Murphy’s two partial seasons together, his 38.8% Cent% would have been a top 10 mark in 2020. And no matter the case, overall I think we have to like the changes in his batted ball profile. In 2020, he was far more selective, he had an elite 24.2% chase rate, and he lowered his swinging strike rate to an above-average 9.2% mark.

The shift in his approach also seemed to pay off with regard to his quality of contact, as his average exit velocity increased from 90.7 MPH to 92.2 MPH (top 9%). His hard hit rate increased from 37.8% to 49.4% (top 9%). And his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was 97.1 MPH, or a top 16 mark in the league (min. 50 batted ball events). That’s 16th among all MLB hitters, not catchers. For reference, Murphy was tied with Christian Yelich Jose Abreu in this metric. Murphy was in the same realm as noted basher Gary Sanchez, who ranked fifth in the league with a 99.0 MPH exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. Difference is, Sanchez had a 13.8% swinging strike rate, while Murphy was at 9.2%. Sanchez had a 68.4% contact rate, while Murphy checked in at a solid 77.4%. Lastly, Sanchez had a 36.0% strikeout rate, and Murphy was a far more tolerable 26.4%. I don’t think there’s a comparison to be made here. Sanchez hits the ball harder, but he hits it so much less frequently that my choice here is an easy one. And Murphy being essentially top 15 on fly balls and line drives…he obviously hits the ball hard, too.

The Batting Average

Given that we aren’t expecting steals from Murphy (or really any other catcher not named Realmuto) I think the last piece of exploration required is the batting average. Murphy has a .237 BA over his first 200 MLB plate appearances. But in the bulk of his 2018 Double-A season, he batted .288/.358/.498. And at Triple-A in 2019, he slashed .308/.386/.625. Given that he made the big leap in walk rate in Year 2, trimmed his swinging strike rate from 12.1% to 9.2%, improved his contact rate to a bit above average, AND scalded the mess out of the ball…I’m inclined to believe that we’ll see something at least in the .240 range moving forward. The league average for catchers in 2020 was a .229 BA, for what it’s worth. And some of the most owned catchers in fantasy baseball are really rough in this department. Gary Sanchez (.147 BA) hit a new low last year. Yasmani Grandal hit his customary .230 in 2020. And Willson Contreras batted a cool .243. Small samples abound, but if Murphy is getting opportunity in 2021, I’m just fine taking whatever he gives me in the batting average department. And I think he has a chance to improve upon what we saw in 2020, given his quality of contact.

Summary

Murphy seems ALMOST appropriately valued to me. For my part, he belongs in that d’Arnaud-Vazquez-Varsho range. He’s got a great floor, and his hard hit rates and minor league track record of hitting for average are encouraging to me. But he’s mostly being drafted a full round after that three-man tier, just ahead of Austin Nola. I have Murphy ranked as the seventh-best catcher in 2021, and I’ll likely have him on a lot of teams as a result.

What say you all? Is Murphy being undervalued at tad in 2021? And is there a catcher I should explore next? I’m leaning towards Austin Nola…

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