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John Ryan Murphy - is he better than JT Realmuto?

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Offensively, Murphy improved his swing so his xSLG ranks #1 of all catchers in the Majors. Defensively, Murphy is better in pitch framing.

John Ryan Murphy
John Ryan Murphy
Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

He improved his swing.

Before we compare the two catchers, let’s look John Ryan Murphy. In May, two writers noticed his great swing.

  • On 20 May, Zach Buchanan wrote, “His average launch angle of 26.3 degrees is the highest of any hitter in baseball with at least 25 balls put in play this season.” His increased launch angle explains why his fly-ball rate increased from 33% last season to 57.1% this season. (Source: FanGraphs through 14 June)
  • On 22 May, Sean Testerman wrote, “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.” His barrel rate explains why he has hit 8 home-runs in 116 at-bats. (Source: FanGraphs through 14 June)

He has consistently been a pull hitter through his career. This season that changed. He hits more evenly - pull 38.5%, center 33.3, opposite field 28.2%. (Source: FanGraphs through 14 June) . This even spread makes his hitting more sustainable.

Is his strikeout rate a problem?

Let’s consider whether his strikeout rate is a problem by comparing him to the other D-back position players. Three viewpoints follow:

  • Strikeout rate. This season through 14 June, his strikeout rate is 26.7%. Seven D-back players have a higher strikeout rate, including Avila and Mathis . Perhaps strikeout rate is not a problem.
  • Ratio of strikeouts to walks. Murphy’s 5.2 strikeout to walk ratio is the highest on the team. Avila’s ratio was 3.33 and Mathis’s ratio was 1.69 (only Dyson had a lower ratio than Mathis). Perhaps strikeout ratio is a problem. If he could improve his walk rate his ratio would improve. His walk rate is 5.2%, which is the lowest on the team.
  • Comparison to projections. Before the season started, ZiPS projected an 18.8% strikeout rate and a 6.8% walk rate. His actual rates (26.7% and 5.2%) are much worse than projected. That comparison looks like a problem until considering the overall projection - 308 plate appearances with 7 home-runs and 32 RBIs. With many fewer plate appearances (116 so far) Murphy has blasted through the home-run projection with 8 homers and has 50% more RBIs per plate appearance. Let’s move on to the real question.

Will his strikeout rate improve?

From 2013 through 2017 he bounced between AAA and the Majors. In AAA, his strikeout rate averaged 17%, which suggests his ceiling for strikeout rate. In the Majors prior to this season, his strikeout rate improved every year, from 33.3% in 2013, to 21.1% in 2016, to 14.3% in 2017. Caveat that 2017 was only 7 plate appearances.

More playing time and regular at-bats in the Majors, when combined with excellent coaching, could easily result in a lower strikeout rate. Because Murphy is young (27 years old), I don’t expect to see decline for many years.

Advanced stats indicate improvement will happen. Sean Testerman wrote that the advanced stat xK% indicated that his strikeout rate should drop to 20%.

Should he be the D-back starting catcher?

On 22 May, Sean Testerman wrote John Ryan Murphy Needs To Be The Everyday Starter At Catcher. He talked about offensive stats and defensive stats.

How does John Ryan Murphy compare to the other D-back catchers? Let’s take our own look with three weeks of additional data. For each row in the following table, I bolded the better stat.

D-back Catchers Compared

Stats John Ryan Murphy Jeff Mathis Alex Avila
Stats John Ryan Murphy Jeff Mathis Alex Avila
OFFENSE
Fangaphs - 2018 season through 14 June  
weighted runs created (wRC+) 118 58 21
Statcast - 2018 season through 14 June
Barrel % (Brls/BBE) 16.7% 5.0 7.0
expected batting average (xBA) 0.236 0.156 0.162
expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) .352 0.259 0.258
expected slugging percent (xSLG) .555 0.257 .293
DEFENSE
Baseball Prospectus pitch framing - 2018 season through 14 June
zBall percent 11.9 13.6 11.4
oStrike percent 9.1 12.4 7.7
Plus calls per game 0.76 2.36 0.11
Runs Above Average 1.2 4.2 0.3
Stat Corner - 2018 season through 13 June
Framing Runs 6.1 5.0 2.8
Blocking Runs 0.4 1.0 negative 0.1
Throwing Runs 0.1 0.1 0.1
overarching Fielding Runs Above Average 6.2 7.0 2.5

Offensively, John Ryan Murphy is clearly best by a wide margin in each of the five stats. After that, Alex Avila is slightly better than Jeff Mathis.

Defensively, Baseball Prospectus and Stat Corner disagree on whether John Ryan Murphy or Jeff Mathis is the better pitch framer. Nevertheless, their overarching measures agree that overall Jeff Mathis is a better catcher defensively. Defensively, Alex Avila is in third place.

My choice would be to platoon two starting catchers - John Ryan Murphy and Jeff Mathis.

Sean Testerman ended his article with, “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.”

JT Realmuto adjusted his swing.

On 2 May, Colby Olson, SB Nation, wrote, “Adjustments to his swing path and approach make JT Realmuto an elite player.” He talked about three impacts that follow:

  • He increased his average exit velocity from 88.5 mph last season to 92.0 mph this season. That changed. As of 14 June, his average exit velocity was 89.7. (Source: Statcast data.) The increase is much smaller.
  • He increased his average launch angle from 9.9 degrees last season to 14.7 degrees this season. That changed. As of 14 June, his average launch angle was 12.3 degrees. (Source: Statcast data.) That drop is significant because that angle is well outside the 15 to 30 degrees considered the power zone.
  • He decreased his strikeout rate from 18.3% last season to 12.5% this season. That changed. As of 14 June, his strikeout rate was 17.6%. (Source: Statcast data.) The decrease is less than 1 % from last season.

How does JT Realmuto compare to John Ryan Murphy?

Let’s take the next step and directly compare JT Realmuto and John Ryan Murphy. Let’s look at some stats. For each row in the following table, I bolded the better stat.

Comparing JT Realmuto and John Ryan Murphy

Stats JT Realmuto John Ryan Murphy
Stats JT Realmuto John Ryan Murphy
Baseball Reference    
Age 27 27
Earliest Free Agent 2021 2022
Statcast - 2018 season through 13 June
Sprint Speed 28.2 ft/sec 27.4 ft/sec
Pop Throw to Second 1.83 sec 1.98 sec
expected batting average (xBA) .307 (#2 catcher in Majors) .242 (#17 catcher in Majors)
expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) .388 (#2 catcher in Majors) .357 (#7 catcher in Majors)
expected slugging percent (xSLG) .529 (#5 catcher in Majors) .569 (#1 catcher in Majors)
Baseball Prospectus pitch framing - 2018 season through 13 June
zBall percent 14.7 % 11.9
oStrike percent 6.4 % 9.1
Plus calls per game negative 1.17 0.76
Runs Above Average negative 3.4 1.2
Stat Corner - 2018 season through 13 June
Framing Runs 1.4 6.1
Blocking Runs 0.0 0.4
Throwing Runs 0.2 0.1
overarching Fielding Runs Above Average 3.0 6.2

Both catchers are fast sprinters and pop throwers compared to their peers.

Remarkably, John Ryan Murphy’s expected slugging percent ranked #1 of all catchers in the Majors. While John Ryan Murphy will have a better slugging percent, JT Realmuto will have a better on-base-percent. The critical difference is John Ryan Murphy is better framing pitches – a priority for the D-backs.

This comparison shows John Ryan Murphy is the better catcher. Why is that amazing?

  • In January 2018, Mike Petriello (MLB.com) ranked Realmuto as the 4th best catcher in the Majors.
  • When the Nats expressed interest in trading for JT Realmuto, the Marlins asked about two young players (each with less than 25 games in the Majors) who will almost certainly be All-Stars: Victor Robles (age 21) and Juan Soto (age 19). It appears that JT Realmuto is worth a king’s ransom.
  • John Ryan Murphy significantly improved his skills. “I don’t think we anticipated what [John Ryan Murphy] has done to date. He’s done a great job.” Mike Hazen