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This wasn’t how it was supposed to go for Tom Murphy.
The third-round-draft-pick-catcher dotted Rockies top prospects lists every year he was in the minors. After a full season adjusting to Double-A pitching in 2014, he broke through in 2015, advancing not only to the next level but the big leagues as well, just three years after being drafted.
Murphy’s marketed power that we were promised shined in Colorado. It seemed the Rockies had their next No. 1 catcher knocking on the door, in time for an easy changing of the guard with Nick Hundley the next season. But then Tony Wolters arrived, relegating Murphy to a second consecutive September call-up role. And then, in 2017, a fractured forearm in spring training cost him the starting job out of camp, and played a factor in a season-long lack of production.
In 2018, he once again lost a MLB roster spot to Wolters, finding himself in Triple-A even though many thought he would be assuming a position in the starting lineup at Coors Field regularly by now.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go for Murphy, but he’s taken it in stride—and then some—as he begins the season with the Isotopes, getting off to a scorching hot start in the first few weeks.
Through 13 games, Murphy is hitting .388/.456/.755 with four home runs and 12 RBIs. While it may be easy to speculate that he’s trying to force his way onto a power-starved Rockies roster, his attribution of the early success is much simpler and doesn’t involve playing the chess game that is navigating the 25-man roster.
“Just supreme focus,” Murphy told BSN Denver. “Coming in here wanting to win every game. That’s what drives me every day; just do my job.”
Now at 27-years-old, the prospect clock is running out on Murphy, but it’s hard to call what he’s done to this point of 2018 anything other than exciting. He’s spraying the ball hard to all parts of the field, reaping the benefits of that deep focus and emphasis on just winning. Albeit in a small sample size, he’s cut his K-rate more than in half this season from the mid-30s percentile he’s hovered around since reaching Triple-A in 2015 and the 38.8 percent he saw in his second MLB stint in 2016.
But as impressive as his bat has been, Murphy is a catcher, and he knows that the position is one of the most important on the field and deserves to be treated as such.
“Defense is always first, regardless what time of year it is,” he said. “That’s where I have the biggest impact on the game, by far. So as long as I’m clean back there, anything that’s added offensively is kind of an icing on the cake type scenario.”
Murphy’s receiving and throwing have both been suspect at the MLB level during his 44 games there. But without the luxuries of hitting left-handed and playing multiple positions, like Wolters has in his repertoire, Murphy will need to improve to a big league level if that’s where he wants to play.
In the meantime, however, he may not be playing at 20th and Blake, but he is still making contributions to the big club. Recently, this meant helping starting pitcher Jeff Hoffman rehab in the minors. Murphy had, just as he does with every pitcher he receives, a plan for Hoffman’s outing.
“Strikes. That’s what’s important for our whole team, whether it’s Triple-A, big league level. We have to get ahead of guys, we have to execute pitches, and that’s really all I ask of my pitchers is to give their best in that area, and from there we’ll make judgments based off that.”
While Hoffman struggled to match that plan—he threw 33 strikes in 62 pitches and gave up three earned runs on April 15—Murphy is coordinating his pitchers’ outings or at least being a part of that discussion. He’s flexing the mental parts of the game, which sometimes can fall by the wayside in favor of hitting or defensive mechanics with players trying to push their way on the roster.
Murphy isn’t the light at the end of the tunnel for the Rockies that he once was. His struggles last year pushed the team’s hand into trading for Jonathan Lucroy and signing Chris Iannetta this offseason. He’s clearly no longer the priority. Plus, with the likes of Chris Rabago, Jan Vazquez and Dom Nunez nipping at his heels on the organizational depth chart, he could fall even more out of favor with a slip-up.
But if that pressure has been getting to him early in 2018, he certainly hasn’t shown it.