The A’s used three different primary catchers in two-and-a-half seasons since cutting Stephen Vogt in 2017. Bruce Maxwell took over after the controversial decision was made that June. Jonathan Lucroy was the starter in 2018, and Josh Phegley took over the following year, though those three-plus options were never long-term solutions.
Maybe they were creating a bridge to Sean Murphy. The construction is now complete, as the 24-year old enters this season as the presumptive starter.
Frankly, Bob Melvin couldn’t be more excited. The former catcher and current A’s manager believes Murphy has the skills and work ethic required to excel at the highest level.
“We have been waiting for ‘Murph’ for a couple of years now,” Melvin said. “We have to keep him healthy – he has dealt with some knee injuries and hasn’t had a full workload – but this is the type of a guy a catcher [turned] manager waits for. He hit the ground running last year after the call-up. We have gotten to know him and believe in him. The catcher has to run the show. There are certain leadership qualities a catcher has to have. Sean has them.”
That’s not just a hunch. Murphy proved himself after being promoted in September, with a .245/.333/.566 slash line in 20 big-league games. His first professional at-bat was a home run, and he hit three more after that. He showed the organization he can handle a pitching staff and cares about game-planning. He was impactful enough in that short stretch that the A's had him start the AL Wild Card Game, which they ultimately lost to the Tampa Bay Rays.
That proved the A’s held great confidence in Murphy could be the primary catcher moving forward.
That belief is well known to all, including Murphy. Starter's status doesn’t add weight to his shoulders, nor will it change his approach to this spring training.
“No. Not at all,” Murphy said. “This is exactly what I had to do last year. The only difference is that I was learning the Triple-A pitchers then. I’m learning about the big-league pitchers now. It’s the same process getting to know this staff.”
That’s Murphy’s primary objective heading into the regular season. He wants to catch everyone he’ll work with during the regular season, to understand what they like to throw and how they prefer to navigate certain situations. He takes copious notes on each interaction, to ensure total recall and proper application down the road.
“I’m lucky enough to have come up with some of these guys so I know them like the back of my hand,” Murphy said. “Other guys are new and I really try to catch those guys in camp to get on the same page.
“You want to catch everybody at least once during the spring. You want to establish good lines of communication and keep them open, so you can build a level of trust that will help you execute a game plan as well as you possibly can. If you’re on the same page, you can do that.”
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Murphy has been catching bullpens and going through workouts, but his game action has been limited while returning from left knee surgery conducted shortly after the 2019 season. That same joint put him on the Triple-A injured list a few times last year, so the A’s are bringing him along slowly. His spring debut came Monday, he and told reporters he felt good afterward. He has played in one more game since.
Murphy has hit at every level. There’s little doubt that will come along. He takes more pride in work behind the dish calling a game, believing that’s where he can have the greatest impact.
“I have always enjoyed the game within the game,” Murphy said. “I take a lot of pride in understanding situations and what pitches work when for each guy on the staff. The goal is to throw a shutout every single night. Helping put up zeros is the most important thing I do. Getting a couple hits doesn’t guarantee a win. Throwing a shutout essentially does.”
Murphy has confidence in all aspects of his game and isn’t worried about playing his first full season at the highest level. Last year’s experience eliminated some jitters and taught an important lesson that will make this season easier.
“It’s the same game,” Murphy said. “There’s no big revelation to joining the big club. There’s nothing completely new. Once you realize that and the fact it’s no different than Las Vegas or Midland or anywhere else other than being a little bit faster, you can settle down and just play.”