Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

For Owen Murphy, It's About Growth

August 18, 2023

Owen Murphy walked off the mound at Carilion Clinic Field in Salem, Virginia with a smile on his face. Four days later, the smile would return as the Carolina League named him as their Player of the Week, Murphy’s first league-wide honor. The first full professional season for Atlanta’s 2022

Owen Murphy walked off the mound at Carilion Clinic Field in Salem, Virginia with a smile on his face. Four days later, the smile would return as the Carolina League named him as their Player of the Week, Murphy’s first league-wide honor. The first full professional season for Atlanta’s 2022 first-round selection is drawing to a close, and the 19-year old Murphy is reflecting on the last six months.

Murphy, or “Murph” to his teammates and coaches, has been the subject of media attention since his commitment to Notre Dame as a student at Riverside-Brookfield High in the Chicago suburbs. Named the Perfect Game Two-Way Player of the Year in 2022, Murphy excelled on the mound and at the plate, hitting over .500 while also striking out 75 percent of the batters he faced.

As the possibility of being drafted mounted and conversations with scouts intensified, he knew he might have to make a choice. “Scouts told me I had a fifth round bat, but a second round arm,” says Murphy with a laugh. He had dominated for his high school team, while also playing nationally with the USA Under-18 team and the prestigious Rake City and Canes travel ball programs. The Braves ended up betting on his arm in the first round, taking him with their first-round pick. After a brief cameo in Augusta to end his draft summer, Murphy broke camp and began his first full season as a professional back at SRP Park.

The first month was a breeze. In the early stages of every season, pitching tends to have an edge, and despite being nine months removed from high school classes, Murphy coasted. He boasted a sub-3.00 ERA while the strikeouts mounted, and seemed to be enjoying himself. Murphy earned his first professional win on a rainy night in Myrtle Beach in early May after giving up a homer to the first batter he faced. ("Solo shots don't mean s-–, uh, crap," he said in a postgame interview, in an admirable effort to self-censor for the camera.)

But heavy is the head that wears the crown. The expectations, both internal and external, were high, and after that dominant first month, batters began to catch up to his stuff, and so began a period of growing pains. “I didn’t know what made me good,” he said with a grin. “I thought my fastball was good because I threw it hard.” Murphy has long garnered praise for his intense competitiveness, but baseball is a long season and losses come just as frequently as wins.

“It’s beneficial to Owen, and to all of our guys, to learn how to lose,” noted manager Cody Gabella after a rough outing when borderline calls went against his starter, chasing Murphy from the game in the first inning. “It’s part of the game, and the best players are just as good at handling the rough spots as they are at finding success.” Murphy posted a comical line in his final season of high school baseball in 2022, striking out 137 of the 190 batters he faced while surrendering just 10 hits. In an five-inning outing against Carolina, the nadir of his struggles, he allowed one fewer baserunner than he had in his entire previous season.

Wes McGuire, Augusta’s pitching coach, shared more on their strategy. “In high school, Owen was able to get by on his fastball, because it was that much better than anything anyone else had seen. A lot of what we’ve done this year is diversifying from that pitch and working on building up his other offerings.” McGuire and Murphy frequently work individually, going over everything from pitching mechanics to mental strategies and even just tossing a frisbee to stay loose. He's often found with his headphones on listening to Mac Miller or deep in a book before his starts, part of the pronounced effort to strengthen those mental muscles.

Murphy, still two full years younger than the average player in the Carolina League, struggled with confidence. “I started overthinking, and that led to overthrowing, and changing up things I normally do well,” Murphy said. “But that’s part of the process of figuring out where you want to be.” Just as with Spencer Strider before him, the Braves honed in on the shape of the four-seamer, noting its flat path. Fastballs with a flat shape are often the ones that produce rise, crossing the plate while moving upwards and confounding batters. Murphy's vertical approach angle, the technical term for what makes his pitch play so well, already grades out at well above the Major League average. Learning what made his pitches work well was one step, and focusing in on his off-speed offerings was the next.

The growth was evident in spurts. The youngster fanned 12 Delmarva Shorebirds in a late June outing, becoming the first GreenJacket since AJ Smith-Shaver to K a dozen; two weeks later, he was chased after walking the bases loaded and surrendering a grand slam. In a game where five percentile points separate the elite and the average, consistency is the hardest skill to come by. Even with the ups and downs, Murphy entered the second half of the season leading Augusta in strikeouts and innings pitched, also carrying the intangible benefits of learning through struggles.

Something seemed to click in Murphy’s first August start, in which the Illinois native flashed a new-look curveball and fanned nine. One particular at-bat stood out, when Murphy flicked three straight curveballs (one at 66 miles an hour) to Jean Ramirez, a .300 hitter. With a 1-2 count, Murphy reared back and fired a fastball past the batter, nearly 30 miles an hour faster than the previous pitch to record the strikeout.

“That was pretty dang fun,” chuckled Murphy, no longer needing to consciously self-censor. The day after a start is typically a recovery day for a pitcher, but Murphy volunteered for an autograph session with fans less than 24 hours later. As he signed autographs for kids and collectors alike and even posed with a fan with a GreenJackets jersey customized with Murphy’s surname and number seven, his smile never wavered. He even met another Owen Murphy, an aptly-named fan ten years his junior. The generosity of spirit continued in the clubhouse, where he used his New Balance partnership to provide new kicks for his teammates. When he learned the author was a Mac Miller fan, he sent a link to his favorite unreleased album, and earnestly asked for feedback a week later.

“It’s more important to me to be a well-developed person off the field than whatever is happening out there,” Owen says with a wave towards the diamond. “My whole purpose in this game is to grow it.” Card collectors, whose presence around team buses and autograph sessions can occasionally commoditize prospects for their signatures, are never a hassle for him, nor are the myriad children who swarm the Augusta bullpen for pictures or free baseballs. "At the end of the day, I get to play a game. How could this ever get old?" Ever poised, it's hard to remember that Murphy could be wrapping up his freshman year in South Bend, until he is asked about what parts of his game still need growth. He answers literally: he's still waiting for the last vestiges of a physical growth spurt to help his body catch up to his mind and arm.

Call it karma, or call it the fruits of his labors. His next start following the curveball showcase against Columbia, Murphy carries a no-hitter into the seventh inning in Salem. He gives up his first and only hit to Mikey Romero — whom Murphy knew from his showcase days and from the green room at the Draft, when Romero went 24th overall to the Red Sox, four picks after Murphy and the Braves united — in the bottom of the seventh. The Salem fans salute Murphy with a round of applause as he exits the game after his eighth and final strikeout, a gesture of appreciation seldom seen for visiting players.

Murphy, a consummate competitor, is initially frustrated at having to come out of the game, but he then lifts his head and delivers a wry smile while trudging to the Augusta dugout. Even in the bad times, the smile never fades. He knows that this game is meant to be enjoyed, savored, appreciated for its fastballs and curveballs alike.