How Sean Murphy Will Win MVP in 2023

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves
Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves / Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/GettyImages

Adjusting to a new team can be tough. So why is it that Atlanta Braves catcher Sean Murphy has made it look so effortless? Perhaps the comfort of knowing he will be here for the long haul has allowed Murphy to simply go out and play ball. It was just two weeks after he was acquired via trade from the Oakland A’s that Murphy inked a six year $73 million contract extension. Alex Anthopoulos has to be enjoying his return in investment thus far.

We are just over a month of baseball into the 2023 season, but as things stand you would be hard pressed to find a better offseason acquisition than Sean Murphy. Only 14 times has a player won MVP in his first season with a new team (nine via trade/five via free agency) and it has not been done since Christian Yelich’s first season with the Brewers in 2018.

Interestingly enough, two of those are former Braves; Terry Pendleton, 1991 (free agency) and Bob Elliot, 1947 (traded from PIT) via a list put together by Sarah Langs. As the season progresses let’s take a look at how Murphy can become the fifteenth.

Platinum Glove Season

When the Braves got Murphy from Oakland, they knew they were getting an elite defensive backstop. Murphy won a gold glove in 2021, and has been among the best framers and erasers of baserunners since he entered the league. However, so far in 2023 the defense has been other-worldly. It’s not that he’s just continuing to do all of the things that make him an elite catcher, but Murphy is doing it better than anyone else in baseball.

As things currently stand he leads all of MLB in defensive fWAR (6.4) via Fangraphs. He has thrown out six baserunners attempting to steal, good for sixth best in the league. He leads all catchers in framing according to Fangraphs. Both of those elite qualities make a case for not only best defensive catcher in baseball, but best defender in baseball period.

Murphy is truly a weapon behind the plate. He calls a great game with the pitching staff, he blocks well, and he can frame and throw. He’s everything you want defensively behind the dish. Murphy is currently in the 86th percentile in pop time and 92nd percentile in framing via baseball savant. The catcher position has seen only two different individuals (Yadier Molina 11, 12, 14, 15 and Jose Trevino 22) win the platinum glove since the awards introduction in 2011. Only once has a Brave won the award (Andrelton Simmons 2013). If Murphy can continue this production defensively he certainly will be in the conversation to break Nolan Arenado’s run of six consecutive platinum glove awards.

Silver Slugger Season

It was just a week into the season and way too many Braves fans were panicking about a slow start from Sean Murphy. He started the season with just three hits in his first 28 plate appearances; I even had one fan tell me that Sean Murphy is terrible and “He hasn’t shown me anything yet.” All I could reply was “Just give it time, by seasons end you will love him.”This was yet another reminder to those fans that forming an opinion of a player over such a small body of work is ludacris and baseball isn’t a sport you can afford to lose long-term perspective on. All that fan had to do is watch Murphy’s three-hit game against the Cincinnati Reds on April 10th and they would’ve seen exactly what I was talking about. That game ended in extras when Murphy hit his first homer as an Atlanta Brave to walk-off the Reds in ten innings.

Since that moment the Braves catcher has arguably been the best hitter in baseball. Murphy’s batted ball profile on baseball savant is just absurdly good. He doesn’t chase much, he walks a ton, and when he puts the ball in play it is almost always hit very hard. Murphy currently ranks in the 91st percentile in avg. exit velocity, 100th percentile in xwOBA, 98th percentile in xBA, 100th percentile in xSLG, 99th percentile in Barrel percentage, and 94th percentile in walk percentage. Like I said, ABSURDLY good.

As of May 10th Murphy owns a .299/.440/.636 slash line. He ranks 4th in wRC+ (187), first in xwOBA (.482) and wOBA (.456), second in slugging (.636), OPS (1.076) and on-base percentage (.440), 4th in RBI (32), T8th in HR (9), and 6th in hard hit percentage (45.6%). Ranking high in counting stat numbers as well as more modern baseball analysis numbers always bodes well for MVP votes. There is just nothing pitchers can go to in order to get out Sean Murphy right now. He currently owns a .735 xSLG against fastballs, .679 xSLG against breaking balls, and .640 xSLG against all other offspeed pitches.

I mean let’s talk about how incredible his slash line really is. A .300/.400/.500 player is such a rarity in itself, but .299/.440/.636 is prime Mike Trout, best hitter in baseball type stuff. No seriously, Trout has only posted a .300/.400/.600 slash line three times (2017-2019) in seasons in which he has played at least 110 games via baseball reference. Murphy is flirting with next-level hitting production to begin 2023 and it’s the leading charge in his MVP campaign.

Impressing the Voters

Catcher is not normally a position that breeds MVP winners. In fact, since we entered the 21st century only two catchers have captured that award, Joe Mauer AL MVP in 2009, and Buster Posey NL MVP in 2012. MVP voting has changed a lot in recent years and position players who can amass 15 to 30 more games played than the best backstops have a real advantage. Thankfully, with the introduction of the DH in both leagues, the few catchers like Murphy who are productive in the batters box should see action at a regular clip. This is how Murphy stacks up with the last five guys to win MVP as a catcher.

In comparison to previous MVP winners that caught games, Murphy stacks up pretty well. But as the voting has changed Murphy will need to continue his success in the categories that new-age voters tend to put emphasis on. One being WAR. As of today Murphy leads all of Major League Baseball in fWAR (2.4). Each of the last four MVP winners from both leagues has finished in the top 5 that season in fWAR. As long as Murphy continues his success at the plate he should figure to stay among the league leaders in this category. Those numbers along with being on a first place team (something a few voters still value, just look at Mike Trout) could be the combination needed to secure the first MVP award for Mr. Murphy.

What Could Stop Him

As mentioned the production at the plate for Murphy has been astounding. With that being said, it isn’t necessarily something we can bank on continuing. Although Murphy is still early in his career, his highest wRC+ in a season with over 50 games played is just 122, which came last season. He’s never slugged over .426 in a full season. So a regression to the mean is to be expected. However, the signs of being an elite hitter has always been there. Getting out of playing half his games in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum figured to do wonders, as it has. Being inserted into a lineup with multiple threats at the plate has to take a lot of pressure off as well. So I don’t expect a plummit back to his previous career numbers, but instead expect more of a happy-medium between both versions of the offensive Sean Murphy we have got to witness thus far in his baseball career.

Unfortunately one obstacle that could fall into Murphy’s path is out of his control. That being how often manager Brian Snitker decides to play him. In the early portion of the season when the Braves had both Murphy and Travis d’Arnaud healthy Murphy was completely sitting in a few games. Murphy is certainly a player that doesn’t warrant any type of platoon role. And now with d’Arnaud back healthy off the injured list, that worrisome trend can come back into play. Hopefully, Murphy has proven his bat belongs in the lineup every night and he gets that chance. Murphy’s value is so high defensively that being behind the plate at a fairly high rate should be the obvious choice.

Although, d’Arnaud is an excellent framer in his own right, he does not have the ability to cut down baserunners at the clip Sean Murphy does, so for that reason d’Arnaud shouldn’t really be catching much outside the day game after a night game situations. Not only does that benefit the Braves by allowing Murphy to give them the most possible value, but it protects Travis a bit more and keeps him healthy throughout the season. Seems like an obvious win-win to me but I’m not the one in charge of making that happen.

Lastly, and most importantly there is other players who can simply outplay Murphy and just take the MVP award away from him. Regardless of how well Murphy continues to play, if another NL player goes on a heater the MVP poll could look a lot different very quickly. Not only that, one of the early candidates for this award is another Atlanta Braves player himself. Of course I’m talking about our superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. After a recent poll asking about the early season MVP it was actually Acuña Jr. who is the leading candidate. Ronald is a strong candidate in his own right, and our own great writer Mitchell Barbee wrote a great piece explaining Ronald’s path to the MVP award.

When you look at the betting odds for NL MVP, Murphy looks like even more of a second tier candidate. The odds actually projects guys who have more of an established history of being a top player than buying into the great production from the early season sample size. Also the value guys can provide on the bases as well, which is the only part of Murphy’s game that doesn’t result in a positive value, plays into a season award. Just look at the current favorite in Ronald who has dominated the basepaths to begin the year. Him finishing with a season of 30 plus homers and 50 plus steals would be hard to overcome, no matter how much value Murphy provides behind the plate.

When the regular season has ended we may look back and see Murphy didn’t really factor into the final voting despite his incredible start. Or we could see a strong finish and the establishing of another Braves star and the label of the best catcher in baseball. This is what makes baseball so fun. It’s going to be an awesome ride throughout the 162 game grind, so let’s just sit back and watch a great team filled with great players do their thing. And perhaps when it’s all said and done, we will be calling an Atlanta Brave named Murph the NL MVP.