MANCHESTER — Patrick Murphy no longer had a choice.
After being warned in May about a potentially illegal hitch in his delivery, umpires pulled him aside following his June 2 start to let him know it was official. Major League Baseball had banned pitchers from “toe-tapping” before throwing the ball. No longer could a pitcher raise his plant leg, return it to the ground, and lift it again prior to letting the ball go. Anybody who did so was now subject to their pitch being called an automatic ball if the bases were empty or a balk if there were runners on.
Unfortunately for Murphy, the starter in Sunday’s 7-2 victory over the Portland Sea Dogs, the toe-tap had become an integral part of his delivery. It was something he relied on to help him with his timing. Now, he had to go back to the drawing board and iron out the kink.
“I kind of saw it coming,” Murphy said. “They had been talking about it but were waiting on a decision from the MLB, so I wasn’t totally caught off guard. It was definitely frustrating to deal with mid-season, but I had to roll with the punches.”
The worst part about it was Murphy was just starting to find his groove before being notified. In five May starts, he recorded a 3.52 ERA over 30 2/3 innings, striking out 36 while holding opponents to a .193 batting average.
Things went south following the June 2 start. Rather than take time off, Murphy tried to make his adjustment on the fly, and the results weren’t promising. He lasted 2 1/3 innings against the Richmond Flying Squirrels on June 7, allowing three runs on five hits and three walks. Murphy then followed that up with a four-inning performance in which the Bowie Baysox got to him for eight runs on 10 hits. In two starts, his season ERA had ballooned from 3.69 to 4.78.
“After (those starts) I just decided to take a couple weeks off,” Murphy said. “I started throwing a lot of bullpens and simulated games to kind of get comfortable with (my new delivery). Now it’s just about building back up, getting game reps, getting comfortable with base runners on and with hitters, all that. It’s starting to come along.”
Murphy returned to the mound on June 28 with a one-inning appearance against the Trenton Thunder. Five days later he made his first start with the new mechanics and went four innings while striking out four and allowing three hits against the Reading Fightin Phils, and on Sunday he tossed three frames, again striking out four while surrendering two runs against the Sea Dogs.
The short stints are by design as the Fisher Cats work to stretch him back out, but the progress is already noticeable.
“Every time he’s gone out there it seems like the striking of the ground has become minimal,” pitching coach Vince Horsman said. “(Sunday) I didn’t see any. The start prior when he went four innings in Reading he only did it twice, and the first game he did it about three or four times. It’s not like a change of direction, it’s more just a scrape on the ground. I think he’s still aware of it, but I think the more he gets out there, the better he’ll feel (about the new delivery).”
Murphy says the toe-tap was something he originally added when modeling his delivery after the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw. The three-time National League Cy Young winner does something similar where he lifts his plant leg, returns it to a hover a few inches above the ground, and then stretches out toward home plate. Unlike Murphy, Kershaw’s foot never actually makes contact with the ground once he makes the original leg kick.
“(Back then) I was tripping a little bit, like my spike would get caught in the ground when I started towards home,” Murphy said. “It kind of started with it being a timing thing and to prevent the trip. I watched Kershaw and thought he tapped but he just hovers. I ran with it though and got comfortable over the years and it became muscle memory.”
It’s been a tough adjustment period, but the early benefits have been obvious. Horsman believes Murphy’s fastball has gained some additional life, and he was already consistently throwing it around 97-98 miles per hour to begin with. Overall, Murphy is satisfied with the differences he’s seeing.
“It’s still early, I’ve only gotten to throw three, four innings at a time right now,” he said. “Everything has definitely had more life, I think, which is exciting to see. Hopefully I can lock everything in; changeup, curveball and better command of the fastball. I think all that will come with reps, but I’m happy with the way everything’s coming.”
The Toronto Blue Jays’ No. 16 prospect will have a few days off this week due to the All-Star break and will likely get in some more work during that time. When teams reconvene, he’ll put his new delivery to the test down the home stretch.
New Hampshire leadoff hitter Forrest Wall had a homer and two singles, scoring three runs in Sunday’s game. Chad Spanberger also homered for the Fisher Cats, who will continue the post-All-Star break portion of their Eastern League season on Thursday at Hartford.
Wall, Nash Knight, Santiago Espinal and Zach Logue will represent New Hampshire in the All-Star Game on Wednesday in Richmond, Va.