When most players are drafted by the Oakland Athletics, they know a couple of things will be true. Their home ballpark will almost never be full, and if they ever play well enough to be considered a star, they will most likely be traded before their services become too expensive for the A’s, the perennial cost-cutters.
For Sean Murphy, the arc of his career has developed in a similar manner to countless Oakland stars before him: traded away or given no choice to stay in Oakland in free agency. While Matt Olson and Matt Chapman were dealt in a notable fire sale before the 2022 season, Murphy was traded to Atlanta before the 2023 campaign, giving the up-and-coming catcher a chance to display his skills on a contending team.
Atlanta didn’t need any convincing to lock Murphy up long-term, signing the backstop to a six-year, $73 million extension just two weeks after acquiring him in a three-team deal that also included William Contreras and Esteury Ruiz, an agreement that many labeled as lopsided in favor of Atlanta and Milwaukee Brewers at the time.
Since the start of the 2023 season, Murphy has only become more of a bargain for Atlanta: he’s producing like a superstar. Through 43 games, Murphy is slashing .280/.397/.567 for a 159 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR, which ranks third among all position players and pitchers. How did Murphy arrive here? And where is he headed?
Murphy’s play has been lauded since he broke out at Wright State, where he was a walk-on three-year starter who excelled enough for Oakland to select him in the third round of the 2016 Draft.
As a prospect, he drew praise for his remarkable defensive skills behind the plate and burgeoning offensive ability; a 2019 MLB.com blurb said that he could be a big leaguer based on his glovework alone — but if you “add in his possible offensive production, he has the chance to be an elite-level, all-around receiver soon.”
He made an immediate impact in 2019 and 2020, in which he hit a 134 wRC+ and accumulated 2.2 fWAR over just 200 plate appearances. Over the next two seasons, he put together two mostly-healthy campaigns and continued to excel behind the plate while his bat regressed a bit, earning a 113 wRC+, good for 8.4 fWAR because of his superlative defense.
However, beginning in the second half of 2022, he began to flash All-Star potential. Over the last few months of last season’s campaign, he compiled a .811 OPS and raised his walk rate while lowering his strikeout rate, powering his best ever season that he ended as a 5 WAR player.
Here’s the thing about being a major-league catcher: you don’t always have to be an above-average hitter. In a world before robot umpires take over and pitchers have an ever-evolving mix of electric stuff, catcher defense is crucial.
In fact, plenty of winning teams prioritize catcher defense over offense. The Houston Astros, who won the 2022 World Series, gave most of their catcher plate appearances to Martín Maldonado, who owns a career 72 wRC+ (despite the 2022 Silver Slugger award nomination).
If you can even hit a little bit as a catcher and maintain elite defense, you’re going to be one of the better players at that position in the league. Murphy has already established himself as one of those guys: he barrels the ball more than Will Smith and has accumulated more framing runs than J.T. Realmuto. That’s an excellent combination.
Before we get to the adjustments that have led Murphy to his stellar 2023 start, it’s important to touch on just how elite his defense is. Since Statcast has recently made more catching defensive statistics public, we can more easily quantify the skills that have always popped out when you’re watching catchers.
Currently, Murphy leads the league in catcher defensive runs above average, a statistic that’s supported by his all-around proficiency. He blocks the ball more than average, helps out his pitcher with fantastic framing, and cuts down runners with ease. It’s a potent, athletic skillset that made Atlanta comfortable with unseating Travis d’Arnaud, already one of the better catchers in the league, from his everyday starting role.
how the hell did sean murphy catch this pitch?!? pic.twitter.com/xfetuZytlP
— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) May 23, 2023
Some people make good decisions.
Others run on Sean Murphy. pic.twitter.com/pzMDlFn4YF
— Justin Toscano (@JustinCToscano) May 20, 2023
Though Murphy’s always been a stud on defense, his offensive start to this season could stop you in your tracks. He has a better wRC+ than Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto, and Mike Trout. He has a higher expected wOBA than Yordan Alvarez and Freddie Freeman. There haven’t been many players who’ve had a greater impact on their teams this year than Murphy.
As Esteban Rivera covered at FanGraphs and Thomas Harrigan noted at MLB.com, Murphy has improved two key parts of his offensive profile. He’s begun to make better swing decisions on pitches he can crush, and he’s pulling balls at a rate close to his rookie season, which has proven to be a recipe for success.
But he’s also started to punish pitches over the heart of the plate, a skill that was never in his wheelhouse before this season. He had always been a good hitter of bad pitches, but controlling more of the plate has been vital to his success this year.
By getting back to the profile that powered his success as a rookie and improving his plate discipline to previously-unmatched levels, Murphy is reaching new heights. It’s also clear that he’s become better at adjusting to more pitches, as he’s started to crush breaking balls in the way he’s always hit the fastball.
With a revamped offensive profile and the power and defense that he’s always owned, Murphy has become one of the best players in the league. Though a slightly inflated BABIP and a sky-high ISO mean that some regression is likely, he hasn’t slowed down at all through the month of May.
For years, J.T. Realmuto was considered the best catcher in the league for his all-around brilliance. If Murphy keeps this up, he might be coming for that title.