Toolshed: Murphy making good for Jays

No. 19 prospect overcame three surgeries to get 40-man spot

After a turbulent start to his pro career, Patrick Murphy was the 2018 Florida State League Pitcher of the Year. (Tom Hagerty/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | April 17, 2019 10:20 AM

On Nov. 20, Patrick Murphy was home in Arizona, working out with friend and Pirates prospect Cole Tucker, trying to make it an ordinary offseason Tuesday, when it had the chance to be anything but.

That date marked the deadline for Major League organizations to add eligible players to their 40-man rosters or else leave them unprotected for the following month's Rule 5 Draft. The official deadline time was 8 p.m. ET, 6 p.m. local. Tucker, a borderline Top-100 prospect, heard earlier in the day that he was being protected. Murphy had to be more patient -- a feeling he'd grown used to after three different surgeries had made the 40-man roster feel like a long-shot dream.

"I'd get some calls and texts from family or friends or whatever and think, 'Ah crap, that's not the one I want," he said. "Shortly before the deadline, that's when I finally found out."

After breaking out with a healthy 2018 season for Class A Advanced Dunedin, Murphy is not only on the 40-man roster -- he's also the Blue Jays' No. 19 prospect and sits two stops away from the Majors at Double-A New Hampshire. His rising stock is a testament to the 23-year-old right-hander's resiliency in his seventh year in Minor League Baseball.

Before Murphy's pro career even began, he was already behind the proverbial injury eight ball. Following a standout junior season at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona, in which he showed a low-90s fastball and good curve, the 6-foot-4 hurler needed Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2012. That knocked him out for his entire senior campaign, which he otherwise could have used to show Major League clubs what he could do heading into the Draft. He was able to throw some pre-Draft bullpens as part of his rehab, but a good enough Draft spot to lure him out of his commitment to the University of Oregon was far from a surety. 

Then Toronto came calling in the third round with the 83rd overall pick and talked Murphy into a deal with a $500,000 signing bonus.

"There was a lot of uncertainty," the righty said of the process. "I was told I still had a chance to get drafted, but what round or by who, I had no idea. Fortunately, the Jays liked what they saw and took me in the third. Unfortunately, I don't think they knew I'd have to deal with more crap."

Murphy didn't pitch for an affiliate in 2013 and made only three appearances in the Gulf Coast League in 2014 before his next injury issue popped up. He experienced arm and hand trouble, leading to a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome that would require surgically removing a rib to relieve pressure on a pinched nerve. While Tommy John rehab has a tried and true rehab procedure, recovering from thoracic outlet syndrome is much spottier, with Matt Harvey and Royals prospect Kyle Zimmer being some recent examples of pitchers who have struggled following the diagnosis. Murphy's own road back took another turn when his progress was so out of line with pre-surgery goals that doctors chose to remove a nerve from his elbow. 

When it was all said and done, Murphy missed the entire 2015 season. By the time he moved into the Class A Lansing bullpen in May 2016, he had pitched only four innings at the complex level going into what could have been his fourth Minor League season. One surgery could have been bad enough. Three meant long odds against completely rebounding.

"The [thoracic outlet syndrome surgery] wasn't too bad, to be honest, because of what came after it," Murphy said. "I had to deal with getting the rib removed and having some issues with my neck and breathing patterns. But Tommy John, I had to work on developing one movement, specifically, back. With [TOS], it didn't really take care of all the issues right away. There were still some nerve symptoms that I obviously needed to get straight with another surgery, and it's tough to say which one played the bigger factor in getting me back. But after all the surgeries and the process it took to get me here, I'm not looking back now."

Murphy slowly built up with 90 2/3 innings in 2016, finishing the season in the Class A Short Season Vancouver rotation after laboring to develop his control in Lansing. He added 106 2/3 more frames in 2017, most of which were back in the Midwest League, where he started to flash potential with a 2.94 ERA in 15 starts. 

His big breakout, however, came last season at Class A Advanced Dunedin. Three years removed from the nerve issues, the righty was given a full green light to take on a usual starter's load in the Florida State League, and he took advantage. Murphy ranked second on the circuit with a 2.64 ERA and 135 strikeouts, and third with a 1.20 WHIP. As such, he was selected as the FSL Pitcher of the Year and joined Top-100 prospects Andres Gimenez and Ian Anderson on the end-of-season All-Star team. 

But if there was a stat that he was most proud of from that campaign, it was his 146 2/3 innings that ranked first in the league and cleared the closest competition by 11 2/3 frames. Including his six-inning cameo with New Hampshire, his 152 2/3 innings were tied for 25th-most in all of the Minor Leagues. He didn't spend one day on the injured list.

"The biggest thing, for me, is just being healthy," Murphy said. "The beginning of my career was tough, as pretty much everyone knows now. With the injuries and the surgeries, it was a lot of dealing with adversity. It was a lot of trusting doctors, training staffs, everyone working with and having faith in what I was doing. Last year was really my first full season, in terms of making every start, pitching every fifth day. Reaching 150 innings is a huge accomplishment for me. I didn't have to worry about body recovery, not anything out of the usual. I could just work on my game."

With continued trips to the mound, Murphy's development throughout the 2018 season was easy to track. The Arizona native posted a 3.33 ERA, 1.48 WHIP and 19.5% strikeout rate over 13 starts (70 1/3 innings) in the first half with the D-Jays but improved those numbers to a 2.00 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 25.5% K rate in another 13 outings (76 1/3 innings) from mid-June onward. Not only was he working deeper into games -- as evidenced by the jump in innings over the same amount of starts -- but he was becoming more and more difficult to touch.

Murphy's fastball (now in the low to mid-90s, even ticking into the upper-90s at times) and curveball still get the biggest praise, but the development of his changeup is what he credits the most for helping keep FSL batters off-balance in 2018.

"Early in the season, I was just getting a feel for my changeup," he said. "I just wanted to get a certain number of them into every game to develop a feel for it and get at least somewhat comfortable with it. In the second half, I was throwing it in counts that I never thought I would. It actually became a bailout pitch for me at times. ... I knew I needed a third pitch to be a starter, and to get that comfortable with the changeup was huge for me."2019 MiLB include

As he developed into a well-rounded starter, Murphy was also a bit of an oddity last season -- in a good way. While successful pitchers are typically effective at either striking out batters or getting them to hit the ball on the ground, Murphy was the rare hurler who ticked both boxes. His 59.1% ground-ball rate was 10th-best among Minor Leaguers with at least 100 innings pitched last season. His 22.5% K rate didn't stand out quite as much, but it did trounce his previous career high of 17.2% from 2017 and place him in roughly the 70th percentile of Minor League qualifiers in the stat.

Groundout or strikeout, Murphy's mode of attack still has one goal, which makes sense for a pitcher whose innings were once limited.

"I'm always trying to be aggressive early in the count, because my ultimate goal is to go deep into games," he said. "You have to be efficient to do that. Sometimes, that means getting early ground balls. I'll take those. But if I get to two strikes, it can be most efficient to just put them away. I know in years past my strikeout rates weren't the best, but now with three pitches, I'm mixing it up to get some strikeouts."

That aspect of his game has been clear in the early days of 2019. Murphy has fanned 15 batters in 15 innings and struck out 21.7 percent of the batters he's faced in his first three starts with New Hampshire. There have been some other bumps, as he's yet to allow fewer than three earned runs in an outing and stands with a 4.20 ERA following his outing Monday at Binghamton. It's going to take further development of the changeup, along with improved command of all three pitches, for Murphy to take off in the Eastern League like he did in the Florida State League.

But the Jays system is the strongest it's been since he entered it in 2013, and Murphy is poised to play a big role, now that he's healthy. And that's a fact he keeps thinking about. He's healthy. He's healthy. He's healthy. And on the 40-man and one more call away from the Majors, he should keep his phone handy like he did last November, even if he's going to be focused on getting out there every fifth day again.

"You can't get caught too much in thinking about [a callup]," Murphy said. "The moment you do is the moment you start pressing, and then you'll never get there. You have to stay focused on the field and get your results there. If they felt pressure to add me after all that, then that's awesome. It's just another accomplishment on the road to where I want to go."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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