The Oakland A’s called up one of their very best prospects at the beginning of September, in catcher Sean Murphy. He made every national Top 100 list before the season and ranked third on our own Community Prospect List, behind only pitching phenoms Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk.
On Wednesday, Murphy made his MLB debut, in a start against the Angels. Athletics Nation has waited a long time for the Catcher Of The Future to arrive, and he did not disappoint. By the end of the evening he’d collected his first hit, which happened to be a home run, and on the other side of the ball he caught a shutout.
Let’s start with a look at what Murphy did at the plate. It was a relatively quick, low-scoring game, and there was no need for a bottom of the 9th inning, so he only got three plate appearances.
- 1st PA: Strikeout. Facing lefty starter Patrick Sandoval in the 2nd inning, immediately after a Jurickson Profar dinger, Murphy worked a 1-1 count. He then chased a fastball out of the zone for Strike 2, and got eaten up by a nice changeup for Strike 3. Not a great at-bat, but also not terribly representative of a guy who has consistently shown good plate discipline and low strikeout and swinging-strike rates throughout the minors. Everyone whiffs sometimes.
- 2nd PA: Home run. Now facing righty reliever Jake Jewell in the 5th inning, with none on and one out. He fouled off a slider on the first pitch, but then Jewell grooved a 95 mph fastball almost perfectly down the middle of the zone, slightly toward the inner-half of the plate. Murphy stayed inside it and put a perfect swing on it, and instead of rolling over it and pulling a grounder he drove it the other way. The smash registered a 105.8 mph exit velocity, and it cleared the tall part of the wall in right-center, for a 409-foot no-doubter.
- 3rd PA: Groundout. Now facing righty reliever Trevor Cahill in the 7th inning, leading off the frame. He took the first pitch for a generous strike call at the top of the zone, and the second for another strike at the bottom of the zone. The third pitch was a nice cutter, and this time he did roll over it. He chopped it to third base, where Matt Thaiss made the routine-but-not-easy play to throw him out.
Overall, a good day at the plate. He got beat a couple times, but he punished a mistake pitch when he got the chance. You’ll always take 1-for-3 with a homer, much less in a debut performance. Here’s the long ball:
✅ First @MLB hit!— Oakland A's (@Athletics) September 5, 2019
✅ First @MLB home run!
Welcome to the bigs, Sean!#RootedInOakland pic.twitter.com/PiMWHLyNET
The last A’s player to hit a homer in his MLB debut was Franklin Barreto, as noted by the NBCS broadcast. That was the 2017 affair in which Barreto, Matt Olson, and Jaycob Brugman each hit their first career homer in the same game, which hadn’t been done in the majors in over a century.
Even better, Murphy’s family was in attendance to see his dinger. He planned to give the ball to his dad, reports Ben Ross of NBCS. (Check out Ross’ full writeup for more quotes.)
Sean's family is here, and we catch stop watching this #RootedInOakland pic.twitter.com/zJdkcLxmmp— Oakland A's (@Athletics) September 5, 2019
“It was awesome. You know, it’s just as much their night as it is my night,” said Murphy, via the team’s Twitter account.
As fun as the homer was, though, Murphy’s calling card is his defense. He’s billed as being game-changing behind the plate, with elite scouting grades for both his overall glovework and his throwing arm.
I was at this game sitting in Section 128, so I wasn’t able to get much of a look at Murphy’s catching work. However, there were a few notable plays.
In the first inning, starter Tanner Roark struck out Shohei Ohtani swinging for the third out. The pitch was right down the middle, but Murphy got crossed up and it bounced off his body rather than settling in his glove. The ball rolled more than halfway back to the mound, but he retrieved it and threw a dart to first base. Ohtani didn’t seem to be running full speed and might have made it if he’d hustled harder, but either way we got a brief glimpse of Murphy’s fabled arm. Overall chalk this one up to debut 1st-inning jitters and unfamiliarity with the pitcher he was catching.
He had another whoopsie in the 3rd inning. Roark buried a curve in the dirt and Murphy mostly got in front of it, but it glanced off his glove and squeaked through the gap between his right arm and his body. The ball didn’t bounce too far away, but David Fletcher was able to advance to second base. It went down as a wild pitch, which is correct, but you’d really like your catcher to block that one.
Finally, later in the 3rd inning, Murphy was called for a catcher’s interference. Ohtani was in protection mode with a 2-2 count, and Roark dropped a nice curve right into the middle of the zone. Ohtani was fooled on the pitch, but was able to get off a late swing on what would otherwise have been Strike 3. However, instead of hitting the ball, he knocked Murphy’s glove right off his hand.
Frankly, I don’t think Murphy did anything wrong on this interference play — he didn’t seem to be reaching too far forward, but instead I thought Ohtani was way too far back. His back foot was on the chalk at the back of the batter’s box, or maybe even slightly behind it, which for some reason is a thing that just never gets called in baseball. Furthermore, it was an awkward, late swing, as if he was trying to hit a ball that was already past him (which he basically was). I don’t know what has to happen for the call to be “that’s not catcher’s interference, that’s the batter’s fault,” but it can’t be much further than this. I’m at least 20% annoyed that this got called at all, and if you’re allowed to just swat the ball out of the catcher’s glove to turn a strikeout into a free base then I don’t know why hitters don’t do it more often.
However, despite those imperfections, Murphy still caught a shutout. The Angels aren’t exactly a powerhouse offense, but they do have the best hitter in the sport plus three more legit stars. Who knows how much credit to give the catcher for this result, but it’s surely more than zero.
It’s also not something that happens often. Here’s some more history, via official scorer and stats guru David Feldman: “The last Athletics catcher to catch a shutout in his Major League Debut: Jack Lapp in the 2nd game of a Doubleheader on September 11, 1908!”
Put it all together, and it was a debut to remember for a player that hopefully becomes the next big star in this young A’s core. It wasn’t perfect, but it was more good than bad, and the flaws all felt more like rookie jitters than anything we need to worry about being problems moving forward. Welcome to the Show, Sean!