The Case for Sean Murphy

Trades

Players

Here at BTV, fans may be surprised when they see that Sean Murphy’s median trade value is $51.3M. 

Why so high? We get that question a lot. We also see a lot of trade proposals on our site that disagree with it, and more on Twitter as well. Clearly there’s a disparity here between what the numbers say and what people think. So let’s figure out why that is.

What the numbers say

Murphy put up 5.1 fWAR in 2022, on one of the worst teams in baseball. That’s somewhere between all-star and elite, and was a slight improvement over 2021, when he put up 3.3 fWAR. But note that WAR is cumulative, and he played in only 119 games that year, compared to 148 in 2022, due to a minor injury. Adjusted to the 2022 scale, that was the equivalent of 4.1 fWAR – once again all-star level. So he’s been playing at an average 4.6 WAR level the past two years.

He was 27 in 2022, typically the peak age for most players. Note, however, that catchers tend to debut at a slightly older age, which means they also tend to peak a bit later – age 28 is more common. At the very least, when projecting his 2023 performance, he doesn’t figure to regress much. He’s still very much in his prime. And that means you can expect similar production from him in the next three years of team control.

What’s behind the numbers?

That 2022 fWAR was fueled not by any one thing, but by a combination of a lot of things. He’s not hitting 40 home runs or winning any batting titles. He’s not a one-trick pony in any category. Rather, he’s a sum-of-the-parts player who does everything well. 

Defensively, he’s one of the best in the game. He won a Gold Glove in 2021, and provided 8 catcher framing runs in both 2022 and 2021. His pop time to 2B is in the 96th percentile, meaning he is one of, if not the, best in the majors at that skill. He’s got a quick arm and a gun, which means opposing teams rarely run against him.

Offensively, he’s consistently above average. He had his best year ever in 2022, putting up a 122 WRC+ (22% above average for all major league hitters). He also hits the ball hard: his max exit velocity of 114.0 was in the 94th percentile. His xwOBA was .344 (the average MLB hitter is at .313 historically), and he’s been very consistent throughout the years (.337, .348, .344 for the three prior years, respectively). According to Baseball Savant, similar hitters to Murphy in 2022 were Carlos Correa, J.T. Realmuto, and Francisco Lindor. Looking ahead to 2023, Steamer projects him for 4.3 fWAR and a 118 WRC+.

What the fans see

Despite all that, what we consistently see in comments and on Twitter is, effectively, “Eh, he’s good, but not that good.” I suspect they’re basing this on Murphy’s traditional stats. His batting average in 2022 was .250 (decidedly mid), after a .216 average in 2021. His OPS in 2022 was .759. Most stat-conscious fans want to see an OPS over .800 before calling a guy a good hitter.

He hit 18 home runs in 2022, after hitting 17 in 2021. That’s okay-ish; maybe good, but certainly not great. He hit 66 RBIs in 2022, after 59 the year before. Same issue.

So by traditional stats, he looks somewhere between average and good. By advanced stats, he looks great. 

Based on what we often see, there’s a vast difference between how players are perceived by front offices and how they’re perceived by fans. Team executives and analysts look deeply under the hood to get a better view of what’s going on. Most fans don’t. Teams care far more about process than results; most fans don’t.

Here at BTV, our model is designed to correlate to the front-office perspective. So that’s why we’re high on Murphy.

There are two more reasons he may be underrated. First off, consider his ballpark. He plays all his home games in the vast, pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum. Hard-hit fly balls often get caught at the wall in Oakland (especially after getting sunk by the marine layer in the spring months). Murphy hit 8 “doubters” – fly balls that might have gone out in more hitter-friendly parks. Statcast numbers bear this out: If he had been on the Reds in 2022, he would have had 26 HRs; 23 if he were an Angel; 21 if he were a Ranger, Dodger, or National.

Second, consider his team. He was, by far, the most productive player on the A’s, and it wasn’t even close. He was surrounded by journeymen and unproven rookies, often coming to bat with no one on base, and trying to have competitive at-bats when the game was out of reach. You can’t collect RBIs if there’s no one on in front of you.

This is where good process can translate into good surface-level results. If Murphy is traded to a more competitive team, which plays in a more hitter-friendly park, his traditional stats should spike.

Surplus value

Given all that, what is he worth? 

Murphy is a player in his prime, at a premium position in a market where demand outweighs supply. There are few alternatives for all-star-to-elite level catchers. Yes, Toronto will likely trade one from its surplus; yes, Willson Contreras is available in free agency, but he’ll cost a lot in salary terms, and he may be more of a DH going forward. After that, it gets pretty spotty.

All this suggests that Murphy is going to come at a high cost in trade capital. That becomes even clearer when you compare how his field value compares to his salary estimate:

Year

Field value 

Salary 

Surplus 

2023

25.8

3.5

22.3

2024

25.3

7

18.3

2025

24.7

14

10.7

Total

75.8

24.5

51.3

Despite being an elite catcher coming off of a 5.1 WAR season, Murphy is only projected to make $3.5M in salary. That’s a ridiculous amount of bang for the buck.

And our estimates here, if anything, may be understating his surplus. We’re assuming his salary ticks up a bit higher than most (doubling each year, rather than a more typical 50% raise in his arb years), because it’s starting off from such a relatively low level. So that may be a tad high. And if his process numbers translate to higher surface-level numbers in a different ballpark, his field value could easily climb higher. So that may be a tad low.

All of which means that any team that trades for him now is not only getting one of the best all-around catchers in the game, they may be getting him at a bargain price in trade.

Fans who think Murphy is attainable for a light return should think twice. He’s not. The A’s would be foolish to accept anything less than what he’s truly worth.

About the Author

John Bitzer

John Bitzer

Founder and editor of baseballtradevalues.com
9 Comments
      • Dougald Parkinson

        Great stuff as always. If only Frost would higher you to help make his trades……but I still think you have Puk too low, but that is for another day….thanks again.

        Just read this funny thing, Frost was born in May of 1976, three weeks later, A’s draft Ricky Henderson.

  1. Aaron Sapoznik

    Regardless of favoring traditional or advanced stats, Sean Murphy is a stud because he is a supreme defensive catcher above and beyond all those numbers. He also just turned 28 and has 3 more years of team control for any contender contemplating a trade.

  2. DJ dajuba

    To me this article screams extension for Murphy, not a trade of Murphy. The A’s should get him locked up.

    • Austin Pak

      Unfortunately, they have two catchers in the pipeline behind him: Tyler Soderstrom and Shea Langeliers.

      • DJ dajuba

        They have 3, don’t forget Susac, but he’s probably 3 years away. But that shouldn’t be an impediment to signing Murphy. Soderstrom entered pro ball without a ton of catching experience and that part of his game is still behind the bat, leading to a move to 1B, a position he saw some time at in 2021 and played a lot more of in 2022. Langeliers can DH and get some time at Catcher. The A’s should lock up Murphy.

    • Nathan Thompson

      Why would the A’s want Murphy in jail?

      And what is this “extension” you speak of?

      • DJ dajuba

        I asked about extending Murphy and you inspired my name;

        Jailbird;

        2:17 The A’s should lock up Murphy not trade him, what’s an extension look like?

        Steve Adams;

        2:19 The A’s haven’t signed a pre-arbitration player to an extension in almost a decade — since Sean Doolittle. I suppose Murphy is technically an arbitration player now, but the point stands. They extended Khris Davis, got immediately bitten by it, and otherwise have made no real efforts to extend their core players in the past ten years.

        I don’t consider a Murphy extension plausible unless it’s with a new team.

        2:20 That said, we can look at a possible extension under that guise, sure!
        I won’t call them direct comps, but for the sake of quick-and-dirty comparisons, let’s look at JT Realmuto’s arb years.

        2:21 The two are somewhat comparable, statistically speaking (at least through three years of service). Realmuto got $2.9MM for his Arb1 season and $18.8MM for his three arb years combined.

        2:22 Murphy is projected to start at $3.5MM in Arb1. Add in the bigger starting number and some inflation, and you can probably say Murphy has a shot at clearing $20MM in his arb seasons. Let’s call it $21MM.

        2:25 From there, free-agent valuations for catchers have ranged pretty substantially in recent years. Realmuto set the standard at $23.1MM, but then you’ve had Grandal in the $18MM range and solid but not necessarily high-end guys (e.g. Travid d’Arnaud) at $8MM. Granted, TDA is older.
        If you put down $21MM for the arb years and, something close to Grandal’s 18 per FA season, Murphy comes in somewhere around 5/57 or 6/75.

        2:26 That’d be a sizable record for a catcher with his service time, but we haven’t seen a three-plus catcher sign an extension in quite some time — Christian Vazquez did in 2018, but that was before he’d really hit. Same with Barnhart in 2017.

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