DUNEDIN, Fla. — You may have missed it, as the vapour trails left in Nate Pearson’s wake Tuesday shrouded much of what came after. But another top Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect who you could see in the majors this year spun a gem against the New York Yankees that was just as impressive.
Two innings after his close friend blew away three hitters on 12 pitches in the first, Patrick Murphy took the mound and retired three batters of his own with only 10. He struck out the first two and got the third to roll over a two-strike curveball, earning a chirp from Pearson who hung back in the dugout to watch Murphy’s outing up close.
“I came off the field and Nate was joking like, “Oh, you didn’t want to punch out that third guy, huh? You didn’t want to bury that curveball?” Murphy said. “That guy’s always messing with me, giving me crap.”
Murphy was electric, throwing 9-of-10 pitches for strikes, six of them swinging. Yankees hitters had no idea what to do with the array of mid-to-high 90s heaters Murphy offered, along with some biting curveballs and a single change-up which he used to generate a swing-and-miss from a left-handed batter.
“He was just in attack mode. It was like he fed off of Pearson,” said Reese McGuire, who caught Murphy’s inning. “He was just getting ahead of guys and trying to put them away quick. Just one strike, two strike, boom.”
Murphy’s curveball is his calling card and the pitch that will be most important to his success going forward. He’s had tremendous command of it since he was a kid, altering its shape and bite depending on the situation. He’ll drop it in to steal an early strike. He’ll bury it in the dirt for swing-and-miss. And he’ll even pick a corner with it on either side of the plate.
But what was most encouraging Tuesday was the way Murphy repeated his delivery. The six-foot-four right-hander spent the last eight months remodelling it after a toe-tap he used as a timing mechanism was found to violate an MLB rule against pitchers resetting their pivot foot during delivery. Not that you’d notice if you weren’t watching closely.
“It feels like I’m doing something drastically different from what I’ve done in the past,” Murphy said. “Even though, if you watch video, it doesn’t look entirely different.”
The delivery issue was the latest instance of Murphy’s career being stalled by almost ridiculous bad luck. There was Tommy John surgery as a high school senior, an operation to remove a rib that was thought to be causing thoracic outlet syndrome during his first season as a professional, and another procedure to address a pinched nerve in his elbow the year following. By his fourth season in the Blue Jays organization, Murphy had thrown only four innings.
He finally got his career underway at 21 and progressively improved his ERA as he climbed the minor-league ladder. He peaked with a 2.65 mark over 27 starts split between high- and double-A in 2018, carrying that success over into his first nine outings of 2019 back at double-A after being added to Toronto’s 40-man roster. But that’s when the latest bizarre adversity hit.
Another lights-out performance from a top @BlueJays pitching prospect!
— New Hampshire Fisher Cats (@FisherCats) May 9, 2019
After he threw six innings of one-run ball against the Altoona Curve last May, dropping his season ERA to 3.14, that day’s umpire approached Murphy in the parking lot as he was climbing onto the team bus for a road trip.
“He comes over and he’s like, ‘Hey, sorry to break it to you, but MLB called down and your delivery’s illegal — effective immediately,’” Murphy remembered. “’So, good luck figuring it out.’”
Imagine that. You’ve been pitching with one delivery for your entire life and then, in the middle of your most successful season yet, have to change it entirely. It’s a next-to-impossible ask when you’re competing against professional hitters every night.
And Murphy’s results his next time out demonstrated that. He walked four — Murphy walked only two over his prior four starts combined — and allowed seven runs on seven hits. It was the worst start statistically of his career. That record didn’t last long. Two outings later, he allowed eight runs on 10 hits.
Not long after that, he was shut down due to shoulder fatigue he figures developed due to throwing too many bullpens between starts while trying to learn his new mechanics. It’s a fine instrument, a pitcher’s arm. And Murphy put his under too much stress.
After the season, Murphy took an extended break from throwing to allow his shoulder to recover, and his mind to get away from the game. When he got back to work, he pored over video with Blue Jays developers identifying cues and movements he could focus on to make his transition smoother. When he finally started throwing again, he worked methodically through each pitch, trying to make his new delivery second nature. It wasn’t easy.
“Once we really started working on things, I realized it was going to be a long process,” Murphy said. “They told me, ‘Just take your time. Figure it out. It’s not a quick fix. It’s going to be frustrating. You’re going to have days when you think you’ve got it. And then you’re going to have set-backs.’ And I definitely did.”
Tuesday was Murphy’s first time trying the new delivery in a game since his repeated failures to adopt it last season. The results were spectacular. The process was imperfect, but it felt more comfortable than it ever had before.
“I’m still close to kicking the ground — but I’m not doing the deliberate toe tap any more, which is good,” he said. “It’s getting there. I wouldn’t say it’s 100 per cent natural. But it’s getting there.”
Murphy’s focus now is staying over the middle of his foot before driving towards the plate, keeping his weight back and riding the slope of the mound rather than dropping and driving over his toes. The new mechanics are activating Murphy’s lower half more than prior to the change, which he thinks has added a bit of power to his fastball.
That’s a nice bonus. But the process is ongoing. Murphy’s muscle memory will still take over every now and then during a side session, reverting him back to his old delivery. He’s particularly susceptible to that when his adrenalin gets going, which is why this spring’s live reps in Grapefruit League games are so crucial for him. That’s where he’ll encounter those situations of heightened stress. And that’s where he’ll learn how to deal with them.
Outings like Tuesday’s help. It shows Murphy all his hard work is getting him somewhere — that he can still mow down hitters like he was before. Well, a little differently than he was before.
“It’s just another bump in the road. Obviously, it’s strange. Not many people have had to change their deliveries mid-season. But you just roll with the punches,” he said. “I guess the good thing is I’m getting it out of the way now. So that once I hopefully get up to the majors, hopefully sometime soon, I don’t have to worry about it.”