The Curving Path of Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy’s bendy path to the majors is currently in New Hampshire at Northeastern Delta Dental Stadium. (via Waz8)

On June 6, 2013, Bud Selig’s carnival had pitched its June tent in Secaucus, New Jersey for another year’s MLB First-Year Draft, and the 1K lights of Studio 42 were ready to shine on the future of baseball. The cameras, the media, and baseball lovers around the world had been following the top draft prospects for months, all leading up to this — the big day, now finally arrived. Mark Appel, Jon Gray, Kris Bryant, Clint Frazier, Kohl Stewart, and Austin Meadows were the big names on Baseball America’s Top 500 list. And with the first overall pick, the Astros, sure enough, chose Appel — the right-handed pitcher and Houston native in his second year as the draft’s top prospect.

Appel isn’t in baseball anymore. After years of tough luck and injuries, he left the game in 2018. He is the third No. 1 overall pick to never set foot on major league soil, joining Brien Taylor of the New York Yankees (‘91) and Steve Chilcott of the New York Mets (‘66). Barring a miraculous return, Appel will never see his name in big-league neon. His name will never be written in major league headlines celebrating his achievements — only in discussions of top prospects who failed.

The Stanford pitcher, who grew up in Houston dreaming about pitching for the Astros, was once called “as risk-free a pitcher pick as has ever been made” by Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated. I’m not sure anything in life is “risk-free,” and I’m sure Ben Reiter will never refer to any prospect using those words again. But in fairness to Reiter, the scouting report on Appel was nothing short of prodigious: 60/60 fastball, 60/60 slider, 45/45 change-up, 45/45 command, future value of 40. Appel’s ETA in the majors was 2017. Instead, it was his last year of professional baseball.

With the 10th overall pick in the same draft, the Blue Jays chose Phil Bickford. Bickford is in Milwaukee’s system now, pitching for the high-A Carolina Mudcats. He has thrown only 21 pitches this season. And two rounds after Bickford, the Jays selected Patrick Murphy. There was no circus following him like those  of Appel, Bryant, or Bickford. He wasn’t even in Secaucus. He was at home in Chandler, Arizona, and he had no idea when he was going to be selected. His agent had told him that he wouldn’t be chosen before the fifth round. That was all he knew — that he wasn’t a top-100 pick.

***

The morning of June 7, 2013, was like any other for the Murphy family, greeted with orange juice and the Arizona sun in the sky. Everyone went about their normal routines, combing hair, brushing teeth, heading out the door. Everyone, that is, except son Patrick, three days removed from his 18th birthday. He stayed at home, waiting for the draft to resume.

As the sun moved across the wide desert sky, teams kept pulling names off the board: the Houston Astros selected Kent Emanuel (74), the Chicago Cubs picked center fielder Jacob Hannemann (75), the Mets invested in Ivan Wilson (76). Murphy sat in front of his screen watching it all happen. No media people surrounding him. No 1K lights ready to be lit. No camera crew waiting with his family and friends for his big moment. And with the Sonoran Desert only miles away, it sure didn’t look like Studio 42 of the MLB Network.

The afternoon waned. Murphy’s dad came home. And a few minutes later, the Toronto Blue Jays selected his son with their third-round pick – 83rd overall, far above where he had expected. It was hardly a perfect, photographable family moment: As father and son celebrated in their living room, mom was oblivious at a fitness class. She was notified of the news of her son’s lifelong dream coming true by a flood of text messages.

***

The Blue Jays weren’t the only team interested in Murphy — the Phillies had been courting him, as well. It was a matter of what team was going to draft him first. And the Blue Jays did not want to risk losing him to any other organization. Blake Crosby, who was a part of Alex Anthopoulos’ scouting department, believed in Patrick Murphy — in spite of all considerations to the contrary.

Murphy had missed his senior season in high school because of the ruthless Tommy John. Six or seven years ago, a surgery like that would have scared organizations away, especially away from a high school pitcher who had missed his senior year as a result. But Crosby and the Blue Jays scouting department weren’t afraid to invest in Murphy’s future. And Murphy wasn’t interested in taking the college avenue. He was set on working with a professional staff to rehab and begin his development.

It was an arduous stretch of pavement for Murphy to get to where he is today. The surgery sent him hard into the asphalt, but that surgery would end up being a little scrape compared to the physical problems that he would deal with over the next three years. First came thoracic outlet syndrome, which led to a rib being removed. Then came a persistent tingling in his fingers — at times, he couldn’t feel them, a terrifying absence of sensation for a pitcher. He needed a nerve in his elbow surgically moved. Once that nerve was moved, Murphy could finally feel the red cotton thread stitches in the baseball without any numbness, feel his fingers grip the cowhide cover: no tingling, no lack of feeling, just his hands on the baseball — the way they were supposed to be.

And this, more than anything, felt like a milestone. Because after all of those surgeries, it wasn’t about pitch development or working on his change-up. It wasn’t about working on different grips, or an outlier, downward break. It wasn’t about having his pitch sweep away from the batter. It wasn’t about a slide step instead of a stretch – it wasn’t about his mechanics. It was about getting healthy. It was about working toward leaving all of that pain behind.

***

Pickled Tink in Portland
The Pickles are a dilly of a team, even though they're not professional.

And then the big day came in May of 2016.

Murphy was in Florida, where he was rehabbing in at the Jays’ complex in Dunedin. He was asked into the Blue Jays’ office. Anyone in the baseball world who mattered to Murphy was in the room, from strength coaches to rehab trainers. He wasn’t sure what the meeting could be about, but he knew that the organization had something important to tell him. He feared he was going to be released.

Instead, he learned that he was going to get out of Florida. He learned he was finally getting sent to an affiliate. Patrick Murphy was going to pitch for the low-A Lansing Lugnuts.

The Blue Jays’ low-A affiliate is located in the capital of Michigan, a city with 116,000 inhabitants. It’s also the home of Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, the voice of the Lugnuts. Jesse remembers first meeting Murphy in 2016 when he was “Thunder Buddies” with fellow pitcher Ryan Borucki — a reference to the movie Ted, which had recently been released. In the movie, Mark Wahlberg’s character and the titular Ted were ‘Thunder Buddies,” so Murphy and Borucki, as best friends, got matching “Thunder Buddies” shirts. In the short time Jesse saw Murphy play in 2016, he threw 400 pitches, 50% hit on the ground. Just three left the yard.

Murphy would have to leave his close friend in Lansing, as he was sent to short-season with the Vancouver Canadian after pitching 21 innings in Lansing. He flew to Vancouver, where he would toe the slab at “the Nat” – an old stadium set in front of a wall of trees that can be seen behind the outfield fence. As the sun moves across the Pacific in the evening, dark evergreen shadows are cast across the outfield, slowly swallowing the entire park as the game wears on. It’s a scene that deserves the descriptive prose of Earle Birney. Murphy threw 825 pitches that summer on that beautiful stage, 546 of them strikes. 127 turned into ground balls. None of them left the park, swallowed by the shadows of the trees. Murphy became a Northwest League All-Star.

In 2017, Murphy was back in Lansing where he would become the ace of the staff. And this time Jesse Goldberg-Strassler watched him pitch 88.2 innings. When I asked Jesse to share a few words about Murphy, he described him as a fun guy with fire in his belly, velo in his arm, and a wonderful curveball.

And that it is. It’s a breaker that bends. Murphy told David Laurila of FanGraphs in early 2018 that he doesn’t throw distinct variations of a curveball. Laurila wrote that Murphy, like most pitchers, has both “a get-me-over” curve and one that he tries to bury for a whiff. Murphy himself described the curve of his favorite pitch as “not quite 12-to-6, but not like a slurve either; it’s kind of in-between.” Its arc is unusual, bending in a way that one might not expect – but ending up in its intended destination, all the same.

***

Murphy spent most of the 2018 season in Dunedin pitching in the Florida State League, which is where he would work on his change-up — a pitch that could end up becoming a key to the Blue Jays’ rebuild. In a second interview with FanGraphs, nine months after his first, Murphy said that his change-up development was huge for him in Dunedin. He added that it was his biggest need for improvement. He knew that he needed to add a third pitch into the mix, an effective off-speed pitch. And that he did. Murphy commands his high-90s fastball, as he can keep it out of that launch angle territory where hitters look to barrel baseballs, and his curveball could be major-league-ready. But it’s that third pitch that he needs if he’s going to join his best friend, Borucki, in the Blue Jays’ starting rotation.

Goldberg-Strassler told me that Murphy cares, works hard, and has a good idea of what he’s doing. He never stops trying to improve, whether he’s working on his pitches coming from the same release point, or getting tunneling with his fastball, or having his breaking ball bend to the outlier part of the zone generating whiffs. His determination and work ethic has resulted in him being clocked at 100 mph with his fastball, maintaining the upper-90s velocity deep into ball games.

Murphy threw 2,212 pitches in 146.2 innings for the Dunedin Blue Jays. They weren’t all fastballs and curveballs. He had a 14.1 K-BB% in Dunedin – 135 strikeouts against 50 walks. 59.4% of the contact he gave up hit the infield dirt. What’s most impressive, though, was his continued ability to prevent the long ball; he allowed only five home runs.

Murphy is in New Hampshire now, taking the ball every fifth day for the Fisher Cats. Northeast Delta Dental Stadium is his new home, which is set along the quiet Merrimack River. It’s also the old stomping ground of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette – the bloodline bashing Double-A trio of 2018. (And the birthplace of the legendary Plakata.)

Murphy has dominated Eastern League hitters this season. He says that his change-up feels great, and that he has three pitches that he’s comfortable going to in any count. He has become the ace of the ‘Cats staff, even with the new addition of Nate Pearson, who is the Blue Jays’ second-ranked prospect. Murphy will be promoted to the Buffalo Bisons this year. He’s only a pile of tomorrows away from playing at Sahlen Field, which means that he is only a pile of tomorrows away from being a stretch of pavement away from 1 Blue Jays Way. And he’s only a pile of tomorrows away from seeing his story arc in the way he hoped it would, as good old-fashioned hard work has shaped it.

***

From 2014 to 2016, Patrick Murphy pitched only four innings. He threw just 39 pitches. The rest of his time was spent in rehab, in hospital rooms, and fighting internal monsters that, of course, come with the struggle of recovering from injuries. They’re monsters that we have all fought — some days more than others.

Murphy’s mom told me she was in tears when she heard the news that her son was going to be pitching in Lansing in 2016. She had spent endless hours worrying about him, as all good mothers do, praying for him to be able to do the one thing that he loves more than anything else in life — and, what’s more, praying for him to succeed. And he has. Since 2016, Murphy has thrown 414.2 innings. He’s struck out 354 batters. From his living room in Arizona, alone and hitting refresh on a screen, through surgeries and injuries and years spent in arduous recovery, he has made it this close to the biggest stage in baseball.

Patrick Murphy is on his way to seeing his name in neon lights. And his story is just beginning. The arc is just starting to bend towards home.


Ryan is a lover of birds and all things minor. He writes for Blue Jays Nation dot com.
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Nice article Ryan. As a Jays fan I sure hope he continues to progress to the majors quickly because… Well let’s just say they are running Edwin Jackson out there every 5th day. Ugh.