Sometimes, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. For Tanner Murphy, that right time happened on a baseball diamond during his sophomore year of high school. The catcher on his travel team broke his thumb, prompting the coach to ask for a volunteer to put on the tools of ignorance. Murphy, a shortstop, went behind home plate and immediately threw out a greedy base runner trying to take advantage of the new catcher. For Murphy, it was a match made in heaven and would soon help him catch the eye of major league scouts.
Born on February 27, 1995, Murphy will turn 22 tomorrow. He graduated from Malden High School in southeast Missouri. A small city of just 4,275, Murphy was a star athlete who earned a scholarship to Southern Illinois University. However, the Braves came calling in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. The Braves had already taken Victor Caratini about 80 picks before Murphy, but were going to try Caratini out at third base, which made Murphy their top catching prospect from the draft by default. Murphy was also an option as a pitcher as he possessed low-90’s velocity, but catcher seemed like his calling. Shortly after the draft, they inked the young man to a minor league contract with a $250,000 bonus – about $125K below the slot value.
At the time, Murphy may have been considered a stretch at #133. Ranked #488 in Baseball America’s Top 500 rankings before the draft, Murphy fit the bill during the Frank Wren era. Safe, calculated picks that wouldn’t demand the world and had pretty decent floors. Murphy’s defense was pro-worthy, but could he hit?
After the draft, the 18-year-old headed to Florida to join the Gulf Coast League Braves in Lake Buena Vista. His bat never seemed to catch up, as he managed just 22 hits in 97 AB (.227 average). Only three of those hits went for extra bases – all doubles. He did on-base .313, which is solid enough considering where his average was. He did cut down 42% of potential base stealers (13-of-31). The next season put Murphy on the map a bit as a prospect. He hit just .242 with Danville, but bashed 5 homers in 191 PA. He showed an exceptional understanding of the strikezone with 30 walks, or a 16% walk rate. He did much of his best work over his final 29 games, slashing .292/.389/.438.
His quick rise in prospect status continued the next spring. Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez took an immediate liking to the country boy from Missouri. “When you look at this kid, you know something good is going to happen,” the former long-time personal catcher of Greg Maddux said. It was Murphy’s first training camp with the big league club, an award for his strong 2014 campaign. At the time, the Braves were breaking in Christian Bethancourt as their new starter behind the plate and hoped they wouldn’t need Murphy for a few years. Former Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez noted, “He’s got some talent and he’s got some ability…(Catching instructor) Joe Breeden has seen him the most and Joe likes him a lot.”
Not only would 2015 be Murphy’s first big-league camp, but also his first taste of full-season ball. Former Fangraphs prospect guru Kiley McDaniel ranked Murphy as the #22nd best prospect in an improving system, noting that, “The Braves really like this kid and see a breakout year coming in 2015 at Low-A, praising his makeup, receiving ability, solid average arm, average raw power and flashes of hitting ability and an approach.” Murphy headed to Rome to join another catcher picked with a high-round choice the year before Murphy in Bryan De La Rosa. The two shared the position and shared in the misery of an awful season at the plate. In De La Rosa’s final season in the system, the former third-rounder hit .205/.277/.322. That’s bad, but slightly better than Murphy, who slashed .193/.277/.312. His walk rate dropped 6% while his K-rate spiked 4% to nearly a quarter of all plate appearances. Just 20 years-old, it was the kind of ugly campaign you hope is the strange outlier in an otherwise productive minor league career.
Most of the time, a prospect that has such a down year would get a repeat assignment, but traffic was getting crowded behind Murphy. With 2015 draftees Lucas Herbert and Jonathan Morales joining Rome, Murphy moved up the ladder to the Carolina League. The league is known to favor pitchers, which did not improve Murphy’s chances for a big bounceback season. Some of his metrics did improve (12.6% walk rate, 16.5% K-rate), but what Murphy did with his swings were less than thrilling. He hit just .214 with 15 EBH in 334 PA.
But…that’s not the complete story. Murphy got off to an epically bad start to open 2016. It was the kind of start that often gets players cut. Over his first 30 games, Murphy had just 12 hits in 100 AB (110 PA). It doesn’t take a mathematician to know how bad that is. He wasn’t walking, had just one extra base hit, and was K’d a fifth of the time. He started to get some of his power back over his next eleven games and then, on the day before the All-Star Break, his stance was altered to loosen him up at the plate. The results were pretty immediate. He walked twice in his first game with the new stance and hit a homer in his second game. Over his final 48 games, Murphy slashed .288/.412/.390 with 3 homers. No longer pressing, he walked 30 times to 26 K’s over his final 182 PA. Murphy’s bat, for the first time in two years, was an asset to his team.
As we move into 2017, it doesn’t get any easier for Murphy. Mississippi’s catching situation seems packed. Kade Scivicque was added to the organization late last year and finished with a cameo in Pearl. Joseph Odom also played 39 games in Mississippi after a callup from Carolina while the Braves added Armando Araiza this offseason. With little room at Triple-A, the Braves could opt to keep Murphy at the High-A level, though how much time is available there is also suspect. The aforementioned Morales and/or Herbert could be moved up the chain – especially with Brett Cumberland coming up from Danville. Further, Alex Jackson is moving to catcher and will demand much of the playing time with whatever A-level squad he starts with. Despite Murphy’s strong finish, he could find it difficult to find at-bats once the 2017 season begins. The fact that Scivicque and Odom were non-roster invitees while Murphy wasn’t does not bode well, either.
Whatever the case, Murphy is easy to root for. I’ve linked to a recent interview he did with Talking Chop earlier in this profile and it’s an eye opener into the struggles he went through over the last two years and how he kept striving for success. However, the name of the game is production. Murphy will need to get off to a good start to avouid being forgotten in the rapidly improving catcher depth Atlanta now has. If he continues to hit like he did in the second half of 2016, he’ll definitely be hard to forget.
Follow Murphy on Twitter @tsmurph14