Health issues have thrown Patrick Murphy a curve. Toronto’s pick in the third round of the 2013 draft has had Tommy John surgery, thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, and a nerve moved in his elbow. As a result, he went into last season having amassed just 94.2 professional innings.
He more than doubled that total in 2017. Four years into what had been a frustrating career, the 22-year-old right-hander was finally able to cast aside his injury demons and demonstrate an ability to flummox opposing batters. Featuring a hook-heavy three-pitch mix, Murphy fashioned a 2.94 ERA with the Low-A Lansing Lugnuts, then finished up the year by making two starts for high-A Dunedin.
Late in the season, I asked the 6-foot-4 curveball specialist about the arduous path he’s taken to what now qualifies as promising prospect status.
“There’s definitely been adversity, with the three surgeries and some other unfortunate stuff,” Murphy told me. “But I’ve learned a lot about my body — how to recover, and how to gain and maintain strength — and [in 2016] I was able to get back on the mound. This year, I’m just excited to move forward and build on that. One thing adversity has taught me is patience.”
Patience is undoubtedly a virtue, but as many pitchers can attest, surgery isn’t always a panacea. I mentioned to Murphy that Mike Pelfrey had recently told me he’s never completely regained feel after undergoing similar procedures. (Two years after having Tommy John, the veteran hurler had his ulnar nerve repaired in 2014.) The young Blue Jay has been far more fortunate.
“I feel good now,” expressed Murphy. “The two nerve surgeries relieved a lot of numbness and tingling throughout the arm and into the hand when I threw, or even had my hand above my head. The thoracic outlet was causing nerve symptoms and that didn’t take care of it all, so I had the nerve moved. It did take a little time to get comfortable with it — there was still some numbness right after the surgery — but since then it’s felt great.”
The quality of his curveball is evidence that his feel has returned. When I asked Lansing broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler about Murphy, he spoke highly of the righty’s breaker. Gil Kim, Toronto’s director of player development, echoed those sentiments, calling it “one of the better curveballs in the organization.”
Murphy called the pitch his “go-to.” Interestingly, a pair of former big leaguers helped him develop it.
“Growing up, it was always my favorite pitch,” said the Chandler, Arizona, native. “I’ve been throwing it for a while. Omar Daal was one of my coaches in club ball — this is when I was around 12, 13, 14 — and he helped me out with it a lot. Blas Minor was my high-school pitching coach, and I learned a lot from him, too.”
His education has continued in pro ball. Recognizing that an extra level of sharpness is needed against more advanced hitters, Murphy has worked to refine the shape and firmness of his bender. It’s a pitch he characterized as “not quite 12-to-6, but not like a slurve either; it’s kind of in between.” He’s succeeded in making it “a little tighter, so it’s not as loopy and [telegraphed] to the hitters.” Thanks in part to improved arm strength, he’s seen its velocity climb to “around 77-79.”
Murphy told me that he doesn’t throw distinct variations of a curveball, although like most pitchers, he has both a get-me-over and one that he tries to bury for a whiff. Each is delivered with the same grip.
The studious hurler augments his signature pitch with a fastball that Kim says possesses “good life in the low-to-mid-90s” and an improving changeup. Stretching back to his days as an Arizona prep, Murphy has monitored the pitch mixes of MLB’s elite.
“I used to watch Felix Hernandez a lot,” explained Murphy. “I’ve paid attention to when he used his pitches — how he uses them to set hitters up, and when he uses them to get strikeouts. And even though I’m not a lefty, I watch Clayton Kershaw, because he’s got a big curveball. Kind of the same thing — I look at how he throws it and when he uses it.”
How Murphy would utilize his repertoire against Cody Bellinger is something both would like to see. The two “started hanging out in elementary school” and went on to play together in Little League, high school, and travel ball. They stay in touch during the season, often via group messages within a circle of baseball-playing friends that includes Jordan Luplow (Pirates), Scott Kingery (Phillies), Cole Tucker (Pirates), and Jamie Westbrook (Diamondbacks).
“Cody has the upper hand right now — he was on the fast track and got there first — but I can’t wait to get there so we can play against each other,” said a smiling Murphy. “Getting to strike him out would definitely be fun. Most of our group is hitters, and it would be fun to strike them out as well.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.