Murphy Coming of Age as Athletics Catcher in the Middle of a Playoff Push

John Hickey

There was something of a surprise in the 2019 American League Wild Card game when Oakland manager Bob Melvin had Sean Murphy in the starting lineup as the A’s catcher.

The A’s had a veteran, Josh Phegley, who’d caught 106 games. But 51 weeks ago, in the game that counted the most, a win-or-else game against Tampa Bay, it was Murphy, who had just 18 September games to his credit after the rosters expanded, was the choice.

The A’s didn’t win, but the mere fact that Murphy started spoke voluminously about just how much the A’s saw in Murphy. He framed pitches well. He had a strong arm that would challenge opposing base runners. And he seemed to handle pitchers well. He was their catcher of the future.

Fast forward to now. Murphy is the A’s catcher of the present. Two other rookies, first Austin Allen and more recently Jonah Heim, have caught, but Murphy is the main man, catching in 39 of 55 games, including 30 starts.

And the A’s pitching staff has completely bought it to Murphy’s game style.

“I haven’t had many guys yell at me mid-game to say `Stop shaking me off,’” Chris Bassitt, who will start Friday’s game against the Mariners in Oakland said on a video conference call Wednesday, said. “I’ve been beaten a couple of times when I’d shake to a pitch, get hit and have him say, `You could have thrown anything else there.’

“It’s just the confidence that he has in his pitch calling. Why he has that is because of all his homework. It gives me the confidence. People will say you’ve got to throw every pitch with confidence. When Murph says we’re going to throw this pitch, I know for a fact that it’s the right pitch. Murph is just unbelievable.”

Maybe some of that confidence comes from Murphy telling his pitchers how much he believes in them. Asked Thursday about the A’s pitching prospects heading into the postseason, Murphy minced no words, saying the six starters and eight relievers line up “great.”

“Obviously our depth in the starting staff is awesome,” Murphy said. “Our bullpen is as good as they come. The pitching will be there. Whoever takes the mound on any given night will be great.”

Often when a Major League team has a player it has deemed as its catcher of the future, the club will bring in a veteran as a backup, someone to school him on the ways of the game. The A’s didn’t do that, instead having bullpen coach Marcus Jensen, a former catcher for seven big league organizations, work with him. And manager Bob Melvin, himself a former catcher, has always helped with the learning curve.

“TI think there’s a great coaching staff and a pitching staff that’s willing to work with me and be patient with the whole group of young catchers,” Murphy said. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a group of catchers more inexperienced than what the A’s have had this year, but you boil it down to the coaching staff and the pitchers making sure were at the top of our game.

“Bob understands the game; he understands the stuff we’re dealing with every day. And his patience, because he understands the position, has been important. And on top of that, Marcus Jensen and Emo (pitching coach Scott Emerson) have been the tools most at our disposal when it comes to prepping for games.”

The A’s see Murphy as a home run hitter and run producer down the line. He comes into Thursday with six homers and a slash line of .231/.365/.433 batting mostly in the bottom third of the order. He can be a frustrating man to face, as his on-base percentage suggests and as Astros manager Dusty Baker said two weeks ago after Murphy drew three walks.

“We’re pitching Murphy like he’s Johnny Bench or something,” Baker said in lament.

Bench he’s not, but the offense will come, the A’s say. For now, it’s the defense that has him here now.

“My favorite part of baseball is being on the same page as the pitcher and kind of cruising through the game,:” Murphy said. “I love it when that happens. It’s a satisfying feeling when you know that your reports are right and the pitchers are executing while you’re on the same page.

“My goal first and foremost is to win. If I could catch a shutout every day, I’d take that over hitting a home run every day. We’re going to win a lot more games when our pitching staff is doing well. I’m only one-ninth of the offense. I feel my job holds more value on the pitch-calling end.”

The A’s can live with that.

Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3

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