In an organization that has seen former top prospect Jesus Montero rise through the ranks in recent years and touts Tampa Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez as one of the top-rated prospects in baseball, Trenton Thunder backstop J.R. Murphy has been underrated by those evaluating the New York Yankees farm system. Being underestimated has been a challenge for Murphy ever since he became the organization’s second round draft choice in 2008.
Part of the reason for this in the past has been his defense, which had been a weakness of Murphy, who entered the season ranked as Baseball America’s 15th best New York Yankees prospect. Last season, Murphy got the call to Trenton around midseason and made his debut on Independence Day. In 43 games with the Thunder, Murphy hit .231 at the plate, and appeared to struggle a bit behind the plate.
Murphy’s two-month stint with the Thunder last season helped to lay the groundwork for 2013, especially on defense. This is one aspect of the game where Trenton manager Tony Franklin has noticed a great difference in Murphy when compared to last year.
“Greatly improved, particularly in the area of blocking baseballs,” Franklin praised his catcher. “Major league catchers don’t let balls go to the backstop, so (he and coach Luis Dorante) went out and they worked on blocking balls and caressing balls and having balls fall in front of them, which he’s done very well.”
Murphy credited his improved defense to the time he spent in major league spring training to begin this season.
“Getting to work with all the big-league guys, and also just any time you get to work on your craft like that on a daily basis…it’s really just repetition,” Murphy told me. “I think that in time, the more you catch and the more games you catch, it’s going to come, and I think I’m getting better. But, I’d have to say, a lot of (my improvement) was from spring training.”
Murphy indicated that his physical work with Tony Pena and Joe Girardi certainly played a role in his defensive improvement, but it was his peers who helped him with the mental side of catching.
“I talked to Bobby Wilson a lot, and Chris Stewart and Cervelli,” Murphy said. “Those guys really helped me learn about the mental side of the game, the pitching staffs, and stuff like that.”
Murphy’s improvements behind the plate have helped him to improve significantly in the batter’s box as well. After getting his feet wet at the Double-A level last season, Murphy is sporting a .284/.375/.457 batting line through 31 games this season. Tony Franklin commented that he has seen a difference in Murphy’s approach at the plate.
“Murph has learned how to adapt and adjust to the fact that this could be a breaking pitch, could be something off-speed, let me wait and see where this ball is going to go,” Franklin told me in an interview. “His general knowledge of how guys are going to pitch at this level has been a big plus for him. His ability to put a bat on the ball, that’s easy. All (hitters at this level) have the ability to put the bat on the ball, but do they have the ability to know what the pitcher is trying to do to them? That is, I think, where Murph has excelled.”
When I asked Murphy about the correlation between his work behind the plate and his improvement at the plate, he concurred with Franklin’s assessment.
“I think being a catcher, when you’re up there hitting, you’re kind of not necessarily guessing, but you think along with what their catcher is thinking and you get to learn sequences and stuff like that,” Murphy commented. “I think all of that is helping me offensively.”
One thing that Murphy indicated he focused on during the offseason was hitting the weight room in an effort to hit for a little bit more power. This became noticeable during the season’s first month when Murphy set a team record, becoming the first player in the Thunder’s 20-year history to hit three home runs in one game back on April 18 against the Erie Seawolves.
“I may be the first guy ever to hit three home runs in a game and not hit one for the rest of the season,” Murphy joked during the interview. “I haven’t hit one since then.”
Murphy has had a knack for coming through in big situations for the Thunder during his time in Trenton, a trait that will certainly help him as he continues his progression through the organization. According to Franklin, Murphy has the ability to “play in the moment” as one who can consistently be counted on for a big hit.
For Murphy, keeping with his normal routine in those situations is the key.
“I think you gotta approach each at-bat as the same,” Murphy said. “You can’t get really too high when the game is on the line… because as soon as you start pressing, you’re going to probably mess it up.”
The way Murphy has played so far this season, it does not seem likely that he will be in Trenton for much longer. A true star in the making, Murphy has the natural baseball ability, work ethic, and mental makeup to thrive at all levels, including the pressure-packed arena that is New York City. As long as Murphy continues to improve on his game and come through in key moments as he has consistently this season, it will not be long before we see the 22-year-old catcher behind the plate in the Bronx.
Dan is usedview.com’s beat writer for the New York Yankees and the Trenton Thunder. Follow him on Twitter at @danpfeiffer74 for all the latest Trenton Thunder news.