Last week I wrote about some regression for the Dbacks offense and overall concluded that most of the team had been underperforming year-to-date. However, one player in particular stood out to me; that would be John Ryan Murphy. What was interesting to me was that JRM was already boasting a solid wRC+ above 100 at the time, yet he was underperforming in both BABIP and HR/FB%. His BABIP was .024 below his xBABIP and his HR/FB% was a whopping 8.1% the expected value. From just watching the games, JRM has looked like a very good hitter to me, with a lot of hard contact and solid defense behind the plate. So I decided to do a little digging. And the results are in:
It’s time to fire up the John Ryan Murphy bandwagon.
Now, to be fair, he has been getting more starts lately. After getting only 20% of the starts in April (5 out of 25 games), he has gotten a little over 26% of them in May (5 out of 19 games). But, in mind, this number should be higher. He should be our everyday starter at catcher. But why?
This is the obvious area where John Ryan Murphy stands out and this is where the bulk of the article is going to focus. In many cases, this should already be obvious: JRM has a wRC+ of 112 so far this season, which is more than Jeff Mathis (43) and Alex Avila (33) combined. However, SSS caveats certainly apply Avila has a track record of being a fairly decent history.
The real question, however: is John Ryan Murphy’s 112 wRC+ sustainable? I think the answer to this question is yes. Actually, I think that he might be better than this.
I’m not going to look further into his BABIP as the gap between that and his xBABIP isn’t too large and the inputs into the stat are pretty volatile. However, per Shoewizard’s recommendation, I’m going to dive further into his xHR/FB% because it is pretty telling.
The xHR/FB% is a semi-complicated stat, but it has three basic inputs (bear with me, please):
- Barrels/True Flyball%
- Pull + Oppo% on Flyballs
- Average flyball distance
To make things simple: The frequency at which you hit barrels, the frequency at which you hit your flyballs to LF or RF, and the average distance your flyballs travel are the main inputs into determining your home runs per flyball rate. This should make a lot of sense: barrels and flyball distance are both measuring exit velocity and launch angles to be “ideal” for home runs and LF/RF have shorter fences than CF.
Harder flyballs + ideal launch angles + shorter fences = more home runs.
Try and picture the above sentence in real life, not as stats. That is what the xHR/FB% is trying to tell you.
So let’s start with barrels. To do that, let us hop on over to the Statcast leaderboard and it should tell you right away:
So far, to date, John Ryan Murphy has hit “barreled” balls at the 9th-highest rate among hitters with at least 30 batted balls. There are 373 hitters on that list and JRM is 9th. That doens’t mean that JRM is going to necessarily sustain this specifc rate but it does show you that, hey, John Ryan Murphy is making good contact so far. This is a really promising sign.
Next up on the list is the Pull% and Oppo% for flyballs. Combined, JRM hits 68.2% of his flyballs to LF or RF. He doesn’t really stand out here - he ranks 77th and out 284 hitters. So he may be above the MLB average, but he’s not really above average for a power hitter. Still, this is a positive sign to his potential power output.
Lastly, let’s look at his average flyball distance. To do this, we go back to the Statcast search feature. Lo and behold, JRM is 11th in baseball with an average flyball distance of 352 feet.
So, now we have some of the validation in his xHR/FB% rate. He seems to be hitting a lot of hard and deep flyballs. He does have 4 home runs in only 60 PA which is actually a really good rate. And that’s where xHR/FB% doesn’t account for something: the actual rate at which you hit flyballs.
It’s probably at this point that you’re going to start laughing when you see that John Ryan Murphy has the second-highest rate of flyballs in baseball (min: 50 PA):
Frankly, this is almost crazy how under-the-radar that JRM is flying right now. Here we have a guy that hits a ton of flyballs and hits them far and hard. Yet, he’s sitting on the bench for 80% of our games?
I guess it’s time to look at the negatives of JRM and that would be, of course, his 3.4% BB% and 30.5% K%. I chalk some of this up to very limited playing time - it’s gotta be hard to be patient when you keep getting called up as a pinch hitter needing to hit a homer late in games. His minor league track record suggests he is better than this: he posted sub-20% K%’s and a ~7-12% BB%s all through his minor league career. Furthermore, if we look at xK% (R^2 = .8147), it suggests he should be around 20% (it’s literally at .1999) so far this season. So in addition to some potential positive regression to his power, he should also see some batting average regression (positive) from his xBABIP and xK% stats.
So here’s the thing: JRM can go a lot of ways from here. He may not regress in any of these stats or maybe MLB pitchers figure out a way to expose him. But you can’t “fake” power. There is some serious potential with JRM’s bat. He may not be a great for-average or on-base hitter, but his power upside is really really high. And considering that he’s a catcher, he’s got all-star potential written all over him.
I’m not going to put a lot of time into the defense because, frankly, I don’t think we have enough information to properly judge catcher defense and I certainly don’t consider myself an expert. From the eye, JRM looks rather athletic (much more so than Mathis and Avila). Per Statcast, he has the strongest arm and fastest pop time among our three catchers (read more here). And lastly, per Baseball Prospectus, the most thorough source of catcher defense, he is at 2.1 fielding runs above average (FRAA), which is good for 17th out of 84 catchers. Of note, Mathis is 3rd at 4.0 FRAA and Avila is 20th at 2.0 FRAA.
The moral from this: all of our catchers rank among the top 25% in the MLB, so far, in defense. Mathis probably has a slight edge over JRM in this regard, but not nearly enough to compensate for the massive difference in their bats.
This Move Helps Both Now And The Future
I think the case is pretty compelling that JRM has shown enough to deserve significantly more starts. He looks to be an average or better defender behind the plate, which is something our team highly values, while also showing considerably more upside with the bat than Mathis or Avila (at this point). And considering the massive funk that our offense is in right now, I think it’s time to thrust him into the lineup every day.
But what about the future? Mathis is a free agent after this season and frankly isn’t that good, even when you factor in his defense. Avila has one more year under contract and has been abysmal at the plate so far. We have Daulton Varsho killing it in the minors but he is still a few years away.
John Ryan Murphy is only 27 years old (as of 9 days ago, in fact). He’s under team control for 3 more years after this year. He’s showing impressive power potential at a premium position while also being a plus defender. So not only can he help out our team now, he has the potential to be a huge asset for us for the next three years as well if we would only give him the opportunity. Maybe he doesn’t have that power breakout but why waste games with Avila and Mathis who can’t hit to save their lives?
Remember how many fans wanted the Dbacks to trade for JT Realmuto in the offseason due to our glaring hole at the position? Well, JRM has the potential to be our JT Realmuto. Except better.