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The Defensive Problem With John Ryan Murphy

Though he projects to be an offensive upgrade over Kurt Suzuki, John Ryan Murphy has a notable weakness in his defensive game compared to Suzuki.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

After signing Kurt Suzuki to a one-year contract, it appeared as though the Twins had found a steal when Suzuki slashed .288/.345/.383 back in 2014. Stats like wOBA ("weighted on-base average," an all-encompassing stat that assigns weights to each offensive event) and wRC+ ("weighted runs created plus," like wOBA but it adjusts for ballparks and leagues, and is also scaled where 100 is average and above 100 is above-average) rated it as Suzuki's best offensive season, while OPS said it was his third-best of his career. The Twins were so encouraged by Suzuki's resurgence that they gave him a two-year extension before his first contract ran out.

However, Suzuki crashed and burned last season. His triple-slash fell to .240/.296/.314 and he exhibited the worst power output of his career, according to ISO. Additionally, he struggled throwing out base stealers as they were 80-for-94 (85%). Among qualified catchers, Suzuki allowed the third-most stolen bases and his caught-stealing percentage was the worst by roughly 8% over second-place Francisco Cervelli. His struggles were so notable that the Twins felt it was necessary to trade away Aaron Hicks in order to secure Suzuki's replacement in John Ryan Murphy.

In Murphy, the Twins were hoping for two significant upgrades in the catching department: offense and shutting down the opposition's running game. In the first case, though FanGraphs' Steamer projections expected Suzuki and Murphy to hit an identical .251 batting average with Suzuki earning the slight edge in OBP at .306 to .304, Murphy was seen to possess more power with a .394 SLG to Suzuki's .353. As for the throwing arm, not only did Murphy allow a lower stolen base rate last season (72%) to Suzuki's 85%, but the Fans Scouting Report also rated Murphy's arm at  52 out of 100 while Suzuki had his rating drop all the way down to 25.

At first glance, it sure seems like the Twins accomplished what they wanted, even though the 2016 season is still young. Unfortunately, the one weakness in John Ryan Murphy's game came to light in Tuesday's loss to the Brewers and I'm not sure if anyone is truly aware that it's an issue.

In the 6-5 loss to the Brewers, Murphy allowed three - yes, three! - wild pitches and a passed ball. While some might chalk that up to some really bad luck, the truth is that Murphy has had problems with blocking pitches in his short career. Coincidentally, this has also been an area where Suzuki has excelled. This was something I never really thought over until I posted my editing of MLB: The Show, where I acknowledged that I didn't know how to account for the catcher's Blocking rating. I wanted to use a FanGraphs stat called RPP (catcher blocked pitches measured in runs above average) except FanGraphs hadn't released the players' ratings for the 2015 season. In Murphy's case, ignoring the 2015 season excluded roughly two-thirds of his career so I had to find another solution. I eventually settled on a flawed but fairly simple premise: the average number of wild pitches and passed balls per inning caught relative to the major league average from the prior season.

To make it easy, I will use UP - "unblocked pitches" - as the term for the sum of wild pitches and passed balls allowed. Last season, major league catchers allowed an average of about .04789 unblocked pitches per inning caught, or roughly 1 UP per 21 innings. Among qualified catchers last season, Buster Posey led the pack with just .02662 UP per inning which came out to 1 UP per 37.5 innings. Kurt Suzuki for his career has allowed 1 UP per 28.5 innings, while after Tuesday's game John Ryan Murphy lags behind at 1 UP per 14.5 innings. If you are a person that argues that Tuesday was merely an outlier game for Murphy, he still was at 1 UP per 15.6 innings in his career prior to the loss to the Brewers. Last year's worst qualified catcher was Russell Martin at 1 UP per 14.2 innings caught, demonstrating that Murphy wasn't too far off that dubious pace.

I should mention that this number is flawed because it doesn't account for the number of pitches that the catcher successfully blocked in the dirt. Playing Devil's Advocate, perhaps Posey ranked so well simply because he faced fewer pitches in the dirt. Additionally, a passed ball sometimes happens when a catcher gets his signs crossed up with the pitcher and there's a chance that Russell Martin (who led the league with 19 passed balls last year) was rarely on the same page with his pitcher. Unfortunately, we do have an easy excuse for Martin and sadly it only makes John Ryan Murphy look worse as a pitch-blocker: Martin has to catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, while Murphy did not.

This does not mean that Murphy can't be a successful catcher. However, it does add a wrinkle that perhaps adds an explanation as to why the Yankees were okay with giving up Murphy in the offseason trade with the Twins. I'm hoping that the coaching staff works with Murphy to improve his skills, or else the organization will be tasked with identifying whether Murphy's pitch-blocking or Suzuki's throwing arm is the lesser evil behind the plate.