By Lucas Casaletto
Canadian Baseball Network
Professional athletes are a unique breed. Often they're faced with obstacles, whether it be unfair biases cast upon their stature and appearance. Sometimes, it's emotional loss and issues entirely out of their control.
Then, of course, there are injuries. Some are born durable. Others aren't always as lucky. For pitchers, it's almost impossible to avoid an injury throughout the entirety of one’s career.
Patrick Murphy can attest to that. The Toronto Blue Jays prospect turned 23 years old in June, but already has three surgeries - Tommy John in 2012, thoracic outlet in 2014 and ulnar nerve transportation in 2015 - to his name. Seldom, pitchers are lucky enough to evade all of these conditions and diagnoses. More often, they experience only one of the three. Not Murphy.
"The biggest thing I took away from the extended DL stints was patience," Murphy told the Canadian Baseball Network. "You can’t rush the rehab process after any serious surgery. There’s going to be good days and bad days, so you have to take it day by day and be patient knowing that there’s a schedule in place. It also taught me to appreciate being healthy and not taking anything for granted because you don’t know when something is going happen."
Human beings, let alone athletes, struggle to embrace uncertainty. During the 2013 draft, the Blue Jays welcomed it, and took a risk. Intrigued with Murphy's arm and upside and unfazed that he was rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery, the organization selected him in the third round (83rd overall) out of Hamilton High School in Arizona.
With his torn ligament fully healed in his pitching elbow, Murphy made his long-awaited debut in 2014. Only four innings into his return, the right-hander began experiencing numbness in his arm. He was subsequently shut down from throwing.
Unsure of what was stalling his progress, Murphy sought a surgeon's opinion. Thoracic outlet syndrome was the cause, a dreaded condition that commonly affects, and drastically alters the development of pitchers. After undergoing surgery to remove one of his ribs, Murphy still didn't feel right. The discomfort prompted him to have a nerve removed from his elbow. Almost three full years after hearing his name called, Murphy had only four innings to his name. Uncertainty, he says, crept in.
"After the second surgery I had I was definitely unsure if I’d ever be cured of all symptoms because the thoracic outlet was supposed to take care of all my nerve issues," Murphy said. "Going into the third surgery, my mindset was that if this doesn’t take care of it, not sure if anything will. But I went into it hopeful, and it ended up taking care of all the symptoms. For a while, I was definitely unsure about my future but tried to remain as positive and hopeful as possible."
"...The most difficult part was just not being able to be on the field having fun and competing with the guys," Murphy added. "It’s tough watching practice or games every day knowing you can’t be out there and won’t be out there for a while."
With the injuries ostensibly behind him, Murphy returned to the mound with the Lansing Lugnuts (Class-A) in May 2016. He'd go on to pitch 90 2/3 innings split between Lansing and Vancouver. Results were mixed, but it didn't matter. Murphy was healthy again.
Looking to build off his new-found status, Murphy took another positive step in 2017. Despite bouncing between three levels, his most prominent and extensive stint was, once again, with Lansing. In 15 starts (88 2/3 innings), Murphy pitched to a 2.94 ERA and was particularly effective at limiting the long ball, with only five home runs allowed in that span. Still, Murphy's strikeout totals were down (5.8 K/9), and he struggled, at times, with his control.
It was then he decided to try and take another step in his offseason regime. He consulted trainers and therapists. He was careful, yet precise. If three significant surgeries taught him anything, it was how to manage his workload, and the toll it takes on his body.
"It’s learning bits and pieces from each of the numerous pitching coaches we have that have helped me get to where I am today," Murphy said. "Also, the managers and hitting coaches have helped give me the perspective from a hitters point of view to help me out knowing what hitters are trying to do in certain situations and how they think at the plate. As far as the rehab process, I spent the most time working with Jose Ministral, Jeff Stevenson, Scott Weberg, and Darold Knowles, so I have to give the majority of the credit to them. But there were other trainers and therapists that also helped along the way."
Murphy's performance with Lansing earned him a spot on Dunedin's 2018 Opening Day roster, one consisting of a few other notable Blue Jays' pitching prospects including fellow starters T.J. Zeuch and Nate Pearson. Though he struggled to get going in the first half, Murphy has been Dunedin's best pitcher down the stretch. Since June 2, the right-hander has limited hitters to .195/.263/.276 (.538 OPS), with 76 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings en route to an impressive 1.77 ERA. In contrast to years prior, Murphy has inflated his strikeout rate, improving from 6.5 K/9 in 2017 to 8.1 K/9 this season.
"So far this year I’ve been happy with the way my body has bounced back and recovered all year," Murphy said of his progress. "Making my scheduled start every fifth or sixth day with no setbacks and recovering well has allowed me to reach a new career high in innings already with still six to eight starts left which I’m really happy with.”
Murphy's dominance on the mound has coincided with a terrific run by Dunedin. After starting with a 31-37 record in the first half, the Blue Jays have gone 29-16 to date and currently sit atop the North Division. As Murphy awaits his next start, his season to date has firmly entrenched him as one of the Blue Jays' most improved prospects. This season, along with pitchers Sean Reid-Foley, Ryan Borucki, and Zeuch, coupled with the growth and stellar play of position players Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Montreal, Que.), Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, and Dunedin teammate Kevin Smith, Murphy has taken an enormous leap forward in his development, joining a new wave. In other words, he's making up for lost time.