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Comparing Sean Murphy to Johnny Bench might not be ridiculous at all

Dusty Baker’s comment about the A’s catcher had more truth to it than intended

Oakland Athletics v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s won four out of five games over the Houston Astros in early September. By the end of the series, Astros manager Dusty Baker was not happy with his team’s performance, and Houston Chronicle beat writer Chandler Rome relayed the following quote:

Dusty Baker is very frustrated with his team’s walks. Eight-hole hitting catcher Sean Murphy drew three walks on Wednesday.

“We’re pitching Murphy like he’s Johnny Bench or something,” Baker said.

It was a reasonable criticism for his staff. It’s already tough enough to beat a top opponent with a powerful lineup, and it’s even harder when you’re walking the batters at the bottom of the order. It’s not unlike how Tony Kemp used to draw free passes from the end of Houston’s own lineup, before taking his talents to the East Bay.

But in this case, the example Baker used was Sean Murphy, the A’s new catcher. After a few seasons of plugging in veterans behind the plate on a year-to-year basis, Murphy represents a long-term plan at the position, as a Top 50 national prospect with highly rated skills on both sides of the ball. But still, Baker’s comment was fair enough at the time — the rookie is only 60 games into his MLB career, and his OPS this season was .695 entering that series (98 wRC+).

It’s no secret that Murphy has a ton of potential and a chance to be a future star, but little did Baker know how quickly his throwaway comparison would turn into a cold take. The A’s lineup has struggled this month, leaving fans a bit worried with the playoffs approaching next week, but Murphy has been a bright spot.

Murphy, Sept: .289/.438/.684, 203 wRC+, 5 HR, 20.8% BB, 22.9% Ks

As a catcher he doesn’t play every day, so this line only represents 13 games and 48 plate appearances. But that only makes the five dingers even more impressive, and remember this isn’t being fueled by a high BABIP (.273) — just a ton of walks and power, and an impressive .391 xwOBA, all with a reduction in his strikeout rate.

Overall, this surge has raised his season OPS up to .822, with a 131 wRC+ that leads the team other than Jake Lamb’s small sample. That fits nicely with the .899 (and 135) that he posted in his brief 20-game debut last year. Overall for his career he’s blasted 11 homers in 189 plate appearances — expressed as at-bats-per-homer, he’s roughly in Matt Olson territory.

In fact, Murphy is hitting the ball even harder than Olson this year. His 91.5 mph exit velocity trails only Matt Chapman and Chad Pinder on the A’s, and it’s a half-tick above Olson. Their xwOBA marks are separated by only two points as well. Murphy has the team’s two longest homers of the summer, at 464 and 455 feet, and the longest average homer distance at 418, five farther than Olson.

On top of all that, Murphy leads the team in walk rate by three full points, with a 17.1% mark that ranks ninth in the entire majors (min. 100 PAs). That’s why his .364 OBP is among the best on the club, despite a low batting average.

Overall, Murphy is arguably the best hitter on the A’s already, and certainly the hottest at this moment. And he’s already one of the better hitting catchers in the entire majors, on the short list with the likes of Gary Sanchez, Yasmani Grandal, and J.T. Realmuto.

And the best part? Murphy is a glove-first player.

Throughout his rise up the prospect ranks, he consistently drew praise as an elite defender. He would make all-defense lists, receive enormous grades on scouting scales, and draw raves from anyone who watched or worked with him. Those skills have already translated to the majors.

According to Mark Simon at Sports Info Solutions, Murphy is among the league leaders for catchers in Defensive Runs Saved, with five as of a week or so ago. The positive value comes from a combination of spectacular pitch-framing, allowing him to earn extra strike calls from umps; stolen base prevention, where he can use his extremely highly rated arm to shut down the running game; and another category called Adjusted Earned Runs Saved that measures “staff-handling.”

Add it all up, and Murphy is already panning out into the all-around star that A’s fans were hoping for. He’s been Matt Olson at the plate except maybe better, and he’s already one of the most productive defensive backstops in the majors. When he was developing I used to call him the Matt Chapman Of Catchers, but perhaps I should have just gone for the more direct comp.

  • Bench, career: .267/.342/.476, 125 wRC+, 22.3 PA/HR, 10.3% BB, 14.7% Ks
  • Murphy, career: .238/.354/.494, 133 wRC+, 17.2 PA/HR, 14.8% BB, 27.0% Ks

And remember, these are only the first 60 games of Murphy’s career. He hasn’t even gotten a full season in the bigs yet, and he’s only just entering his prime. He turns 26 in a little over a week, so there’s still room to grow.

Those batting lines aren’t identical, but there are some clear similarities. Both of them get on base and hit for power. There are different eras to account for, so it makes sense to see Bench with a higher average and fewer strikeouts, and Murphy with more dingers and walks, but it’s not like Bench was a .300 hitter or anything (.293 twice, and .309 in a partial season). His strength was cranking 25-45 long balls every year and drawing a bunch of free passes, just like Murphy is trending toward.

Of course, the other thing that made Bench the greatest catcher in history was his work on defense, where he earned 10 Gold Gloves. But Murphy is already well on the way to building that kind of reputation as well. Here’s a snippet from a 2016 ESPN story that ranked Bench atop their 10 best catchers ever:

Bench was the perfect archetype for his position, catching’s answer to Willie Mays, the guy whose game was all power. Power to the fences, a cannon behind the plate, the guy on the Big Red Machine who would beat at the plate after Morgan and Rose got on base.

Just replace Morgan and Rose with some combination of Chapman, Olson, Semien, and Laureano, and maybe you could write the same things about Murphy in 20 years. At the very least, he has the tools to do so and the early success to even make it a conversation topic.

Obviously it’s far-fetched to ever compare a rookie to an all-time great after 60 games, especially considering Murphy isn’t an uber-young prodigy like Trout or Soto or Acuña or Tatis, who are already legendary by age 22 — something that also described Bench. But, in the weeks since Dusty Baker used Bench as a standard to scoff at Murphy, it’s quickly becoming clear that the pair belong in the same sentence for different, more positive reasons.