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Why Mariners are confident with their catching

After strong ’19, Murphy ready for No. 1 role after Narváez trade
@DKramer_
January 27, 2020

SEATTLE -- When the Mariners traded away arguably their best offensive player from 2019, they did so with the conviction that they had the guy who could fill that void. Tom Murphy -- a trade acquisition after being designated for assignment by the Giants last March -- assumed Seattle’s No.

SEATTLE -- When the Mariners traded away arguably their best offensive player from 2019, they did so with the conviction that they had the guy who could fill that void.

Tom Murphy -- a trade acquisition after being designated for assignment by the Giants last March -- assumed Seattle’s No. 1 catcher role after the club dealt Omar Narváez to Milwaukee on Dec. 5. And by all measures, Murphy validated the club’s decision with his turnaround 2019.

Here are five reasons why Seattle is confident with Murphy and its catching situation heading into 2020:

1) Murphy plays good defense for a club that really needs it

Murphy was quietly one of the better defensive backstops in baseball last season. Statcast shows that Murphy converted 50.5% of non-swing pitches in borderline areas into strikes, which correlated to him being worth plus-five runs from extra strikes. Those figures ranked 15th and 18th best, respectively, among 64 qualified catchers. And they represented a huge improvement from Murphy’s four seasons in Colorado.

“I think the biggest kind of reason for that was the Mariners' openness to allow me to catch the way I need to catch to be successful,” Murphy said. “Some of the stances that I would get in, some of the positions that I would get in, are typically unnatural and sometimes don't fit into 'what a catcher should look like,' but they made me feel like I was in control of myself back there, which as a catcher, the last thing you want to do is worry about something you're doing physically when so much of it rides on being mentally strong back there."

For a defense that was among the Majors’ worst, the Mariners are hopeful that marginal improvements at any position could carry significant impact -- specifically with run prevention.

2) His bat has legitimate pop

Murphy’s rise through the Minors was predicated on power, and he hit 18 homers last year in just 75 games, which also put him in elite territory among other hard-hitting catchers.

Highest average exit velocity among catchers, 2019
Min. 100 batted balls (49 catchers)
1) Jason Castro (MIN): 91.5 mph
2) Gary Sánchez (NYY): 91.0
3) Mitch Garver (MIN): 90.9
4) Jorge Alfaro (MIA): 90.8
5) Tom Murphy (SEA): 90.7
6) Yasmani Grandal (MIL): 90.6

Murphy’s .858 OPS was more than a 100-point jump from his career average, and it trailed only Edwin Encarnación among Mariners with at least 250 plate appearances. His strikeout rate dipped from a jarring 45.8% in 2018, but it was still an alarming 31.0%, which is where the Mariners are hopeful that he makes significant strides.

“Tom Murphy last year made more improvement in one season for a Major League player than anybody else I'd ever seen,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And that's credit to him. The work he did with [hitting coach] Tim Laker … oftentimes, guys would work really hard for a short amount of time. They don't get the results they want, and they bail. He didn't do that.”

3) Murphy communicates well with young pitchers

… which is vital, given that Seattle used an MLB-record 42 pitchers last season, only 17 of whom are still on the 40-man roster. And for a club that intends 2020 to again be a “season of opportunity,” as Servais calls it, the Mariners could conceivably use a large number of pitchers again. Top prospects Logan Gilbert and George Kirby are on the way, too.

"We are going to have such a young group of pitchers, and not just the guys that are going to start the season in Seattle, but the guys that we anticipate will arrive, and we want to make sure that those guys get every advantage that they can, and felt like Murphy and Austin [Nola] were our best bet to do that," Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto said.

“I would say it's always nice to know who the person is ahead of time going into it,” Murphy said. “Making sure that I'm watching how they pitch when they throw so that conversations aren't just generic and it's more kind of right there, right now, game type of information. So, I like going into new conversations with information already on that guy. How I can make this guy improve and make him feel like there is a vested interest from my end in his career.”

4) Don't forget about Austin Nola

No player embodied the “season of opportunity” more than Nola, whose defensive versatility and effective bat over 79 games last year essentially earned him a job for 2020. Nola posted a 115 OPS+ as a 29-year-old rookie after 7 1/2 seasons in the Minors.

Though he largely played first base in 2019, Nola logged his most Minor League playing time as a catcher (1,436 innings over 171 games). He figures to see his most action in ’20 behind the plate sharing duties with Murphy, with top prospect Evan White in line to make his MLB leap to first base by Opening Day.

“Austin Nola is wired very similarly [to Murphy],” Servais said. “To see what Austin did with the bat last year was remarkable. He's never done that before. I know you guys didn't see him catch much. He can catch, I have no concerns there at all.”

Murphy and Nola also don't cost much -- they’re pre-arbitration players projected to earn just over $1 million combined -- which will allow Seattle’s front office to earmark more money toward rosters that the club fields when it hopes to contend in 2021 and beyond, Dipoto said.

5) The projections are realistic, yet favorable

Even if Murphy regresses with the demands of a more taxing workload, Seattle’s catchers are collectively projected to rank 13th in the Majors in WAR by FanGraphs. That’s a step back from 2019, when they ranked fourth with 5.0 Wins Above Replacement, but Narváez accounted for 1.8 WAR, and he’s projected for 0.5 WAR in ’20 -- again below Murphy, who led the Mariners with 3.2 WAR last season (fifth best among 36 qualified catchers, despite playing in just 75 games) and is projected for 1.7 WAR this year.

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.