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John Ryan Murphy’s unique take on the backup role

The backup catcher: it’s not the most glamorous role on a 25-man squad. But it’s an important one.

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

At 27, this is John Ryan Murphy’s seventh season in the big leagues. Together with Alex Avila and newcomer Carson Kelly, he is one of three catchers on the Diamondbacks’ 25-man Opening Day roster. For a catcher vying to see more playing time, it’s not an enviable position to be in.

But Murphy will likely get more opportunities to contribute than one might expect on a team carrying three competent backstops. Considering Kelly’s relative inexperience (he has logged just 70 games in the majors as of April 10) and Avila’s recent placement on the 10-day IL, Murphy could secure more playing time in 2019, especially if his bat gets hot.

“It’s one of those positions where you really need to stay ready every day,” Murphy said. “Especially in the National League, you have to be ready to play in more games, late in the game, because of the pinch hit. It’s a role where your job is to stay ready each day. ”

Murphy points out that it’s become more common for teams to rely on multiple catchers, even if it’s unusual for the Diamondbacks to have three. It’s a necessity, as catchers play in fewer games than they did, say, 20 years ago. Managers and coaches now recognize the value of resting players to reduce fatigue and their risk of getting injured.

But for players like Murphy, who may only get a few at-bats per week, maintaining consistency at the plate is challenging. To keep his swing sharp, he has developed a routine to practice on the days when he’s not starting.

“I try to simulate game speed as well as I can,” Murphy said. “When I’m not starting I use the velocity machine in the cage and will take extra BP.”

Erica Block

Maintaining his swing isn’t the only responsibility on Murphy’s plate. In this era of analytics, being a catcher requires a new kind of cognitive dexterity, particularly as teams leverage increasing volumes of data in their scouting reports on pitching matchups and opposing batters’ strengths and weaknesses.

Murphy makes an effort to work with all pitchers on the Diamondbacks--even those he doesn’t catch on a regular basis--as often as possible. As a backup catcher, Murphy explains, he needs to stay in tune with the team’s pitching staff and develop a familiarity with how each guy throws.

“It’s a really hard thing to do. I try to catch as many guys as I can between their starts,” he said. “That’s the only way to do it.”

As Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo decides how to divvy up catching duties among the three players (assuming Avila returns from the IL), he will need to factor in a number considerations, including the potential for mid-season injuries and veteran pitcher Zack Greinke’s predilection always to work with the same catcher.

Last season, Greinke enlisted defensive specialist Jeff Mathis, who’s now with the Rangers, as his batterymate. In spring training, that job appeared to be up for grabs--and now, increasingly, it looks like it’s Murphy’s for the taking.

Will Murphy excel in his new role as Greinke’s personal catcher? It certainly seems possible, and Murphy’s ability to work strategically with pitchers will benefit his candidacy.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

That Murphy understands the catcher’s role is unsurprising when you consider the big-name catchers who were around to act as role models and mentors while he was coming up in the minors in the Yankees’ organization.

“Yogi [Berra] was there. [Jorge] Posada was there. [Joe] Girardi was there. [Brian] McCann was there. [Francisco] Cervelli was there,” Murphy said. “We had a lot of coaches in the minor leagues that helped me a lot. I had an infinite amount of help within that organization.”

Now that he has a few major league seasons under his belt, he likes working with younger players on the Diamondbacks, too.

“Young guys are always exciting because they’re new. Any time I get to catch new guys, whether they’re young or old, I enjoy that,” Murphy explained. “We have really good veterans in here who interact really well with the younger guys and everyone in between.”

Younger players can learn a lot from the way Murphy hustles and plays the game. And players who are baseball fans themselves can appreciate Murphy’s unique distinction of catching the last pitch thrown by Mariano Rivera at Yankee Stadium.

Rivera’s election into the Hall of Fame earlier this year evoked special memories for him.

“When he was voted in unanimously it did make me recall some cool moments and a lot of fun emotions I was experiencing on [the day of Rivera’s final pitching appearance],” Murphy said.

Anyone who has watched that game in 2013 will remember Murphy’s facial expression as Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter convened on the mound to take the ball from Rivera, their longtime teammate. Murphy says he knew he was witnessing a historic moment unfold before his eyes.

“My jaw was on the ground. It’s a special memory and I’ll have it forever,” he said.

Erica Block is a journalist who likes telling stories about baseball and lumberjack sports. Aaron Judge and Erica played a very brief game of catch once. You can follow Erica on Twitter @ericadaleblock.