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2021 Fantasy Baseball Review: Sean Murphy

Heath examines what went wrong with Sean Murphy in 2021.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Initially I had a list of about five players to review, but I’m prone to getting REALLY into things and looking for year-to-year trends. In short, I can get wordy.

Therefore, I’m picking a guy that I was high on entering last year, and digging deeper. Today, it’s Oakland A’s backstop Sean Murphy, who I ranked seventh at the position entering 2021.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Though I ranked Murphy seventh among his peers, he finished 19th among them in 5x5 leagues. It wasn’t all bad, though.

He slugged 17 homers, a mark bested by only nine catchers. He also smacked 23 doubles...so the power was there. Additionally, his 59 RBI ranked ninth at the position. In short, those marks were not the issue. His 47 runs ranked 17th, and the .216 BA was atrocious. Apparently it is tough to score runs when one does not get on base.

Anyway, Murphy’s .257 BABIP was down compared to his previous two seasons (.273 and .278). He ranked 19th out of the 24 backstops who had at least 350 PA in 2021. For reference, his .273 mark from 2019 would have landed him 17th of 22, had he qualified. In 2020 he finished seventh of 22 (min. 120 AB in the pandemic season). Not sure of the takeaways there. If you scope out the 30 catchers from 2019 to 2021 who managed at least 600 PA, Murphy ranks upper third (13th) in both fly ball rate and pull rate. He does so while ranking 18th in hard hit rate (34.2%), and I question this being a good thing given that he plays half his games in Oakland. It’s not rocket science, but a cursory glance at his home/away splits confirms my assumptions. A career .228/.333/459 slash line and .231 ISO on the road is pretty solid for a catcher. But at home, Murphy’s performance dips dramatically, to a .210/.295/.369 slash and a .159 ISO. His 2021 numbers mirrored this reality, except his road numbers fell a bit (.317 OBP, .204 ISO) and Murphy didn’t have wiggle given his home struggles in 2021 (.194/.282/.347 and .153 ISO).

On the plus side, Murphy’s walk rate (8.9%), ISO (.188), wOBA (.309), and wRC+ (99) were all pretty solid, especially for a catcher. It should be noted that Murphy’s first two years were abbreviated—he had a 20-game cup of coffee in 2019, followed by a pandemic-shortened 43-game season in 2020. So 2021 could be as simple as things evening out for the young catcher. If so, his batted ball and Statcast data are encouraging...

Murphy’s line drive, fly ball, and pull rates all increased from 2020 levels (his larger sample compared to 2019). His hard hit rate (42.2%) and launch angle (15.4 degrees) were still solid. His 112.8 MPH max exit velocity was the best mark of his career. So what was the deal? One big change was a drop in exit velocity on fly balls and line drives—his 93.5 MPH mark in 2021 was tied for 29th, a far cry from his 97.1 MPH mark in 2020. That’s also pretty damning when you consider his unfriendly home park environment. If those balls in the air aren’t becoming homers, they’re obviously becoming outs in the big leagues, and his average is going to take a hit.

Murphy’s average hit distance was steady, 174 feet in ‘21 and 173 in 2020. His average homer was 411 feet, short of his 2020 mark (418) but still fifth-best in the MLB among catchers (min. 50 BBE). His plate discipline, too, was eerily similar to 2019. His swing rate of 47.6% was in line with the MLB average and similar to 2019. His 12.2% swinging strike rate nearly matched 2019’s (12.1%). He wasn’t far off from the 11.2% MLB average—again, not bad for a catcher. And despite swinging far more than he did in 2020 (only 40.9%), he increased his zone swing rate to 69.3% and decreased his chase rate to 31.6% (compared to 2019 levels, at least).

I mention 2019 so much because those years look pretty similar. It was 2020 that saw a much more passive approach at the plate, resulting in only a 9.2% swinging strike rate, a career-best 77.4% contact rate, and a career-best 17.1% walk rate. Maybe this was a role thing? Let’s check his plate appearances by batting order slot over his three years:

2019: 8th (28 PA), 9th (21 PA)
2020: 9th (94 PA), 8th (28), 6th (10), 7th (8)
2021: 7th (117 PA), 6th (115), 8th (106), 5th (62), 4th (32), 3rd (9), 9th (7)

I don’t have much from that. Maybe you can say that 2020 is the real Murphy? And that in 2021, he was pressing a bit due to batting higher up in the order? If so, and Oakland’s offense can rebound a bit, maybe we’d see more of the higher contact/higher walk rate guy from 2020.

I’ll be watching the Athletics’ moves this offseason and that catcher depth chart. Maybe there’s a reunion coming with the 34-year-old Yan Gomes, who split time with Murphy down the stretch. However, Gomes only slashed .221/.264/.366, and most of his value was tied to less of a workload on Murphy, which was a positive for Murphy’s production. It should also be noted that Murphy hasn’t had the benefit of a veteran backstop to learn from until Gomes arrived, so bringing back Gomes on a small deal makes a ton of sense for Oakland. Murphy won a Gold Glove in 2021, so if he can get back to better production with the stick, he’ll be one of the best catchers in the game. The catcher free agent market is abysmal, too. If I were Oakland, I’d have already signed Gomes. If/when that happens, I think we can feel good about Murphy’s opportunity to rebound in 2022. Gomes wouldn’t pose a threat to Murphy’s production.

For fantasy, I wouldn’t be worried about Murphy losing the gig—Oakland’s hope has to be that he continues to mature offensively and defensively. At 27 years old, his arrow still seems to be trending upward. After all, he’s only had one full season in the Majors. Lastly, one possible wrinkle could be an Oakland A’s fire sale. Let’s get crazy and say Murphy gets traded. If so, I’m probably all over him if that’s a positive shift for hitting—and it would nearly have to be, leaving Oakland.

Murphy is the 14th catcher off the board through nine Draft Champions drafts at the NFBC, with an ADP of 256. That’s a fair price to pay for his power, in my opinion. What say you, gamers? Are you buying back in for 2022?