By Tyler Maun / MiLB.com
TEMPE, Arizona – As an undersized prep player at Centerville High School, Sean Murphy didn’t turn a lot of heads. Lightly recruited by colleges and undrafted by big league clubs, the catcher had limited options. He settled for a walk-on spot at Wright State University.
Five years later, Murphy is one of the premier prospects in baseball. He enters 2019 as MLB Pipeline’s No. 45 overall, the fourth-best catching talent in the Minors and ranked third in a stellar Athletics system. Looking back on those days when he was just a high school kid with an uncertain baseball future, what advice would Murphy give his younger self?
“I wouldn’t say anything, because it put a chip on his shoulder,” Murphy said Tuesday, walking to the bus after catching nine innings against the Angels in a backfield game under the Arizona sun. “I wouldn’t tell him it was going to be all right.”
Murphy has rocketed to elite prospect status in just two full seasons since he was drafted by Oakland in 2016. He’s overcome those size questions, turning from a 5-foot-9, 145-pound high school junior, according to the Dayton Daily News, into a 6-foot-3, 232-pound wall behind the plate. He’s overcome doubts about his body of work at small major program, riding a .309/.407/.464 collegiate slash line and two All-Horizon League selections to a third-round Draft selection. He’s overcome broken hamate bones — once in each hand — including one in his left that cost him some Draft position three years ago. Now he’s on the doorstep of the big leagues, mindful of how far he’s come.
“When I was younger, I felt like I was always overlooked by guys,” he said. “I saw teammates and guys I played against getting recruiting offers and all this cool stuff. I ended up walking on, and shout-out to the guys at Wright State and the coaches over there for seeing what I could do and knowing I would eventually grow. Once I grew, it came together.”
Murphy has shown few flaws since rising to the professional ranks. Already a terrific defensive product, the question marks tagged to the backstop upon his entry into the A’s system were around his bat. Despite his solid college line, Murphy connected on just 14 homers in three seasons, and industry observers were unsure whether his power would return or progress after the broken left hamate bone during his junior year.
Three seasons into his pro career, Murphy has certainly hit. The 24-year-old sports a .261/.331/.430 slash line with 23 homers and 98 RBIs against Minor League pitching. He was on his way to a breakout season at the plate last year, batting .288/.358/.498 with Double-A Midland, when he suffered an injury to his right hamate and missed seven weeks after surgery. Still, Murphy managed to return and finish the season with Triple-A Nashville.
Not much has slowed him down, and the A’s have taken notice. Last Spring Training, Oakland manager Bob Melvin called Murphy’s 70-grade arm “electric” and described him “like (A’s third baseman) Matt Chapman behind the plate.” This year, Murphy was back for his third Major League camp, soaking in everything possible.
“I got a lot more playing time this year,” he said of his Cactus League time. “I’m grateful for that. I got in almost every game, it feels like, at the end. I got more at-bats this year, and you just feel more comfortable there every year. Obviously, the more comfortable you are, the more relaxed you’re going to be. I could tell a difference this spring as opposed to springs past. My first spring, I was nervous doing anything. Now you get comfortable around the guys, and they just have a core, and you get to know that core and feel more at home.”
Spring Training is a bear for any prospect in big league camp, but particularly so for catchers, who work with dozens of pitchers, many of whom they won’t see during the season.
“As far as new guys coming in, especially older guys who know what they want to do, getting on the same page as them and being able to fold into what they want to do [is key],” Murphy said. “You don’t want to impose your style of game plan on a guy who’s been around a while, who’s done his own thing. Learning those guys is probably the most important because those are the guys who you might meet later in the season.”
A catcher like him would excite any organization, but carries special weight with the A’s, whose system is led by Top 100 left-handed pitching talents — and Murphy’s 2016 Draft classmates — Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk.
“I’m lucky to catch guys that talented,” he said. “Puk’s coming back (from Tommy John surgery last year) and looking good. He’s looking in shape, best shape I’ve ever seen him in. I think he’ll be back better than ever. I think Luzardo is an unbelievable talent, mature beyond his years. It’s a blessing to work with guys like that. Not every catcher has the luxury of working with top-of-the-line arms almost every night out. Coming up in the system, I’ve been very lucky and they’ve made me look very good.”
For an Oakland team that won 97 games and an American League Wild Card berth a year ago, the vision of that trio looking good together at the big league level is as tantalizing as any.