John Ryan Murphy never expected to be drafted in the second round, never guessed he would someday receive cut fastballs from Mariano Rivera in Yankee Stadium, and certainly never foresaw graduating to what the Twins hope and project will be a long tenure as their starting catcher.
See, when this whole fast-forward adventure started, shortly after he graduated from high school in 2009, Murphy was acutely aware of one complication that he figured would make this whole scenario impossible. He was excited to be a professional, but he realized that … well, let’s let Murphy give his own scouting report.
“The truth is, I wasn’t very good at catching,” Murphy said on the eve of meeting his new teammates at this weekend’s TwinsFest. “I mean, I had only been a catcher for two years, and I made a lot of mistakes. My mechanics were a mess.”
Yet shortly after his 18th birthday, the Yankees made Murphy the 76th player, and seventh catcher, taken in the draft. And if they hadn’t, the Twins might have a round or two later because, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. Minnesota scouts had a similar high opinion of the Bradenton, Fla., native — and a similar impression of his catching skills.
“He was raw, that’s true. But he showed a lot of the skills you need as a catcher. He was athletic back there, he could move around, he had a good arm,” said Ryan, who traded away outfielder Aaron Hicks last November to acquire Murphy from New York. “I don’t think any scout worries about what a catcher looks like at 18. You understand that, especially at that position, he’ll need to develop, and learn, and improve. And he did.”
In fact, only three of the catchers chosen ahead of Murphy have reached the major leagues, and only Oakland’s Josh Phegley has played more games than Murphy’s 115-game career. And when the trade to Minnesota was announced, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said, “The Twins got themselves an everyday catcher.”
That will be up to Ryan and manager Paul Molitor, but Murphy, who spent last season as the principal backup to All-Star catcher Brian McCann, has the pedigree for it. He’s a graduate of the Pendleton School, which is the academic arm of the famed IMG Academy founded by tennis coach Nick Bollettieri. His classmates were world-class junior soccer stars, top football recruits and tennis savants from around the world, all drawn to Bradenton just as Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles once were.
Wait, isn’t it difficult for a young athlete to enroll at such an exclusive athletic seminary?
“I wouldn’t know,” Murphy deadpanned.
That’s because he had an advantage that countless teenage ballplayers would envy. His mother had known Bollettieri since she was a child, and when the famed tennis coach opened the academy in 1978, he asked her to help. “She’s been there since Day 1,” Murphy said. “I grew up around that place” and was attracted to its sports-intensive schedule.
His high school days were spent in classrooms with teens from all over the globe before lunch, then doing weight training, skills development and playing baseball afterward. “It’s definitely not a high school atmosphere, it’s more like college. You do your work, then you get training in your sport,” Murphy said.
For Murphy, that meant pitching or playing third base. Then his IMG coach approached him before his sophomore season with some advice. “He said, ‘There aren’t many 5-10 third basemen. Maybe you should try catching?’ ” Murphy recalled. “I liked it right away, and I’ve been a catcher ever since.”
Well, almost. The Yankees, concerned about his mechanics, tried him again at third base briefly in Class A in 2011. But Murphy, with the help of Yankees catching instructor Julio Mosquera, intensified his work behind the plate, learning to block pitches in the dirt with his body rather than being, as scouts worried, “a reacher.” As his catching improved, his hitting did, too, as he learned to think along with pitchers and anticipate what was coming.
“All the mind games, to me, that’s the best part of the game. I like to read people, read the hitters, think about what they’re thinking,” Murphy said. “It’s made me better at the plate, too.”
Murphy, 24, is a gap-to-gap hitter with only occasional power, but the Twins believe his hitting will improve with experience. He batted .277 in 172 plate appearances last year, and hit a ninth-inning home run at Target Field to beat closer Glen Perkins in July.
That homer wasn’t the reason the Twins wanted him to supplement — and in all likelihood, eventually replace — veteran Kurt Suzuki this winter. But “it’s a memory our fans have of what he can do,” Ryan said. “We needed a catcher, and we think we got a good one.”