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2018 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews: #30, John Ryan Murphy

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He was the best hitting head of our catching Cerberus. Not that this is saying very much...

John Ryan Murphy Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images
  • 2018 rating: 3.89
  • 2017 rating: 3.11
  • 2018 salary: league minimum
  • 2018 performance: 87 games, 223 PA, .202/.244/.375 = .619 OPS
  • 2019 status: 1st-year arbitration

The 2018 Diamondbacks had a roller-coaster season. But of all the players, few had a more roller-coaster season than John Ryan Murphy. On June 1, he had a .950 OPS, having hit eight home-run in just 83 plate-appearances. With Alex Avila’s OPS on the same date being less than half that (.453), the fanbase were increasingly vociferous for Murphy’s playing-time to replace that of Avila. But then the script flipped: Murphy batted only .155 the rest of the way, with an even lower OPS of just .418. At one point John Ryan went six and a half weeks between hits (July 6-August 21), going 0-for-33 over a 14-game stretch - one of the worst streaks by any position player in franchise history.

The rise and fall of Murphy can be seen in the number of starts he made each month behind the plate. It’s hard to fault manager Torey Lovullo for his usage: trying to ride the catcher while he was hot, then cutting back on playing time after JRM apparently fell into a vat of carbonite at the All-Star break.

  • April: 5
  • May: 8 (plus one as DH)
  • June: 14
  • July: 9
  • August: 4
  • September: 4

Yet, when all was said and done, Murphy’s OPS on the season was .619, compared to his career OPS of... .618. Yep, despite the torrid pace of April and May, followed by the frozen wastes thereafter, at the plate, he ended up being offensively almost exactly who he had been over his previous five seasons in the majors. Which would be “not very good”, though the Murphmaster still ended up with the highest OPS of any of the catchers used by the Diamondbacks this year, ahead of Avila (.603) and Jeff Mathis (.544). Still, never let it be forgotten that in 2015, the Twins traded Aaron Hicks - who got mentioned on an MVP ballot this week - to the Yankees in exchange for Murphy.

However, Murphy was never expected to be much offensively, and much like Mathis, his value was seen to be on defense. In pitch-framing this year, he was seen as somewhat positive, at +3.8 runs added (well below Mathis’s MLB-best figure of +14.1). However, broadening his catcher’s skills out to include controlling the running game and blocking, Baseball Prospectus overall rated Murphy the 10th-best defensive catcher this year, worth 9.9 FRAA_Adj. That’s a good deal closer to Mathis’s 14.1, the second-best figure in baseball behind Yasmani Grandal, with Avila some way back at 4.4. [Playing time for the three was roughly comparable: Mathis caught 523.2 innings; Avila 488.0; and Murphy 446.2]

Here’s a play I’m sure we particularly enjoyed. Yasiel Puig grounding out to the infield, but the throw to first was errant. Fortunately, Murphy was backing up, and because Puig turned towards second, John Ryan was able to throw the ball back to Goldschmidt to get the out. A reminder that every player always has somewhere to be, on every play.

With the departure of Mathis for pastures Texan next season, it’ll be interesting to see what the team does. Avila and Murphy are both under team control, with the latter being considerably cheaper - MLB Trade Rumors predicts a salary of $1.1 million for JRM, in his first season of arbitration. Given those defensive skills, it seems possible he might end up replacing Mathis as Zack Greinke’s personal catcher for 2019, if Greinke stays with the Diamondbacks of course. Will the team be satisfied with two catchers this season? There would appear to be platoon possibilities, with Avila a left-hander hitter and Murph batting from the right. But that may depend on good - or, at least, half-decent - Avila showing up.

I wasn’t impressed with the three catcher approach taken last year, especially since none of them hit worth a damn. The NL line at the position last year was .238/.316/.382 for a .698 OPS. The D-backs were at .189/.270/.319, an OPS 109 points worse than average, ranked last in the league by 35 points. While there’s reason why catcher should remain a defense-first slot, this was a year where our offense struggled at too many positions. That side of the equation is likely more on Avila than Murphy, and if JRM remains as defensively solid as he appears to have been in 2018, I’d be happy if he is our worst-hitting catcher next year.