This Mariner has become an on-base machine

2 years ago

This story was excerpted from Daniel Kramer’s Mariners Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

HOUSTON — A 13-pitch sequence on Sunday in Miami encapsulated the overhaul that Mariners catcher Tom Murphy has made to his offensive approach this season.

Murphy walked against Sandy Alcantara, though the next two hitters struck out to end the inning, making the matchup far less flashy than some of his top-end power. But it was a microcosm of his significant improvement in swing decisions in 2022.

“I really started getting more aware of it just because I physically couldn’t do the things that I normally did in the box, so I had to try to adjust somewhere,” Murphy said. “And that was trying to tighten the strike zone up for myself a little bit. But, really, prior to coming to the Mariners, that was never even a thought.”

Murphy entered the week with a slash line of .357/.500/.536 (1.036 OPS) with a homer and two doubles. When he’s making contact, it’s among the Majors’ best. His 62.5% hard-hit rate would trail only Yankees star Aaron Judge for the MLB lead had Murphy accumulated enough at-bats to qualify.

Yet it’s his more disciplined approach that he and the Mariners are far more satisfied with. After Sunday’s lengthy free pass, which raised his walk rate to 21.6%, Murphy has seen 4.41 pitches per plate appearance, way up from the 4.07 he saw last year, and he’s swinging at fewer pitches on the edge of the strike zone, from 41% down to 35.6%, per Statcast. Moreover, he’s swinging at the first pitch 40.5% of the time because he knows it’s likely going to be the best offering he sees.

Murphy ditched his leg lift three weeks before the end of last season in favor of a toe tap, then he worked diligently on the mechanics all offseason. Doing so has allowed him to hold his load-up far longer, and as such, his timing against secondary pitches has been better. He has a .267 batting average against breaking balls and offspeed, up from .173 last year.

Put it all together, and Murphy has been a vastly improved hitter. His acumen with Seattle’s arms has essentially made him the third extension to pitching coach Pete Woodworth and bullpen coach Trent Blank, but his .655 OPS and 87 wRC+ (league average is 100) last season at times made him a consistent out and, in part, led the Mariners to carry three catchers before Cal Raleigh was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma earlier this week.

“It’s the best we’ve seen Murph controlling the strike zone,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He’s made it a priority. … He’s going to strike out once in a while, but he’s swinging at the right pitches for the most part and that’s what’s allowed him to get off to a good start this year.”

Yet the most significant factor in his 2022 turnaround has been health. Murphy missed all of the shortened 2020 season with a broken left foot. Then he suffered a rotator cuff injury last April that he and the team kept quiet about. He battled through it the entire year with ongoing Cortisone shots. 

After nearly one month in this refresh of a season, Murphy is happy, healthy and eager for what’s to come.