The 2016 season is more than halfway complete, and while the Colorado Rockies have been better than some expected, their 45-51 record means their playoff hopes looks bleak. Colorado shouldn’t give up yet (the 2014 Royals looked like they were toast in late July, and ended up in Game 7 of the World Series), but they should be realistic and think about their future. Luckily, there’s a move that allows them to do both.
When the Rockies signed catcher Nick Hundley before the start of the 2015 season, they were likely hoping they could get league-average production out of him. In seven MLB seasons before coming to Colorado, Hundley hit .249 or lower in all but one, and his defense has always been just adequate.
In the first year of his contract, Hundley outplayed those expectations, hitting over .300 for the first time in his career and making his salary of $3.1 million look like a great bargain. But there were signs it wasn’t likely to continue in 2016.
Hundley had a .352 batting average on balls in play in 2015 after a career of being right around .300, a strong indicator that his season was improved by good luck (deviations in batting average in balls on play, or BABIP, are often temporary and usually regress to the mean over long periods of time).
You probably already know that Hundley has indeed regressed this season. His average heading into Saturday’s action is .252, and while he’s offset that somewhat with an increase in walks, Hundley mostly looks like the guy he was before 2015.
Under some circumstances, there would be nothing wrong with paying Hundley a little over $3 million to be a mediocre starting catcher. However, in the Rockies current situation, playing Hundley every day seems like a costly mistake, not because of financial loss, but because of opportunity loss.
The Rockies drafted Tom Murphy in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft and he immediately started crushing homers in the lower levels of the minor leagues. After a down year in 2014, Murphy got back on track last season before taking it to another level in 2016.
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After struggling with injuries at the start of the year, he’s returned and is currently slugging a ridiculous .640 for the Albuquerque Isotopes in Triple-A (that would lead the league if he had enough at-bats to qualify). Murphy has only played 82 total games at the Triple-A level, but it appears he has little left to learn from hitting against pitchers in the Pacific Coast League.
Back in February, Dan Farnsworth wrote an evaluation of the Rockies top prospects for Fangraphs. In that evaluation, Farnsworth listed Murphy as Colorado’s ninth-best prospect. His review of Murphy is best encapsulated by this paragraph.
"“Murphy is an offensive-minded catcher with enough defensive skills to be around average in the field. How much he hits will be determined by how much he improves his approach. He carries some risk of being a low-average, moderate-power catcher due to some strikeout concerns, but he may just hit for enough power that it won’t matter.”"
Murphy has responded to the concerns about him being a low-average hitter by posting the best batting average of his career (.296) in 2016, and the power definitely hasn’t gone anywhere either. It’s time for the Rockies to find out if it will translate at the highest level.
Murphy made his MLB debut last season and responded well in limited action, popping three homers in just 35 at-bats. If Colorado called him up today and made him the starting catcher, Murphy could probably log between 200-250 MLB at-bats before the end of the year.
Hundley isn’t giving Colorado anything they can’t live without right now, and we all know he’s not going to be the long-term solution behind the plate. So why not try a guy who looks like he could be, especially when he’s proving he’s ready for the challenge?
The Rockies probably aren’t going to the playoffs this year. Whether they do or not though, Hundley will not be the reason. If you call up Murphy, there’s a chance (albeit it a slim one) that his bat could get the lineup going and start a hot streak. It would also give him a chance to continue building a rapport with some of the pitchers that will be part of the MLB rotation in 2017 and beyond.
Murphy, like any other prospect, is not a sure thing. He strikes out a lot, a problem that’s not likely to get better against MLB pitching. But no matter what happens, Murphy will still be well under one year of service time, and have a better idea of what it takes to be successful in the big leagues.
That’s a win-win for the Rockies, and for Murphy. It’s time for Colorado to make the call.