LAKE ELSINORE – When Fort Wayne TinCaps outfielder Kai Murphy arrived at Oregon State in 2019, he had expectations of winning national championships. The 5-foot-8 Murphy came to Corvallis as an undersized but talented pitcher who also could play in the outfield. During his senior year at Red Mountain High School in the Phoenix area, Murphy was the #1 ranked pitcher in Arizona, according to Perfect Game rankings.
“I’d go to these showcases – Perfect Game, whatever,” said Murphy earlier this year in Lake Elsinore. “Most of the time, it was as a pitcher. I felt really confident as a pitcher. I was short and didn’t throw super-hard, but for whatever reason, I really resonated with Marcus Stroman and guys like that. I had a lot of confidence and did well on the mound. I always loved the hitting stuff, but at that point in my life, I was probably going to be a pitcher.
“I got to Oregon State and committed there as a sophomore. They said I was going to be a two-way guy, and that was my dream; to be a two-way guy in college.”
As Murphy made the move to play for the Beavers in the Pacific Northwest and fulfill his dream of playing both ways at a prestigious program, some adversity struck.
“I committed to coach Pat Casey and Nate Yeskie, who just took a job at LSU,” said Murphy. “When I got to campus, they ended up leaving. There was a whole new staff – a whole new regime. The new staff wanted me just to be a pitcher, so I spent my freshman year of college just pitching.”
During his freshman season with Oregon State, Murphy pitched in four games for the Beavers, pitching to a 6.23 ERA in 4.1 innings in a season that was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite getting the message that the program saw him solely as a pitcher, Murphy was determined not to let his dream die. While he didn’t take traditional batting practice, he found ways to sneak in some hitting.
“I’d have to sneak into the cages at night because they didn’t want me to hit,” said Murphy. “I’d sneak into the cages at 10 pm or 11 pm with my roommate, and he’d feed the machine for me. I’d try to keep the thing going.”
After his first season with Oregon State, feeling like he wasn’t making the progress wanted, he decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal.
“I came home, and I wasn’t happy with where I was at. I was pitching, and I didn’t completely love it anymore. Someone at Oregon State told me they didn’t think I was a good hitter, and that was the best thing that ever happened. I just went home and went to work and went crazy at getting stronger and being a better hitter.”
While Murphy found motivation in his experience at Oregon State, he was thankful for the opportunity and didn’t hold any grudges.
“We had some meetings; to preface this, I have great relationships with the people at Oregon State to this day, but from a business standpoint they had said, without saying explicitly, you aren’t going to hit for us. You are going to be a pitcher. I appreciated that in the aspect that I was good enough to pitch there. At the end of the day, [being doubted] fueled me and got me going. To their credit, I probably wasn’t a great hitter. I worked at it, but I wasn’t great. I went into the quarantine year of 2020, and I made an exponential jump, and I continue to make those jumps.”
Murphy’s next move in his baseball career took him back to a familiar place: Arizona State. Murphy signed on to play for the Sun Devils, where the Murphy name is the stuff of legends. Murphy’s father, former San Diego Padres interim manager Pat Murphy, led the ASU baseball program from 1995-2009, finishing with a 629-284-1 record.
“It was an easy decision to attend ASU,” said Murphy. “It was a crazy time. When you factor in being a freshman in college, entering the transfer portal after I committed to OSU when I was 16 and they won a National Championship [in 2018]. That was my dream life. I’m committed to Oregon State, they are really good, and I am going there. It was a big moment for me because I got [to OSU], and everything didn’t go as planned. So that’s your first reality check that this is the real world, kid. Things are going to go awry.”
“You factor going into the portal; you factor the global pandemic; there were many moving parts. I talked to many schools and was lucky enough to get a lot of interest and offers when I put my name in, and every coach was really cool.”
“I had this [idea] in me that attending ASU would be awesome. I had two little brothers at home – they are nine and three, and they are really important to me. My dad is who he is, but he’s raising them somewhat on his own. Obviously, he has a lot on his plate raising those kids. With me being at home and being able to hang out with them as I could, as well as helping out around the house. It was a no-brainer to be around family, and obviously, the ASU connection was really special.”
Murphy’s first year at Arizona State also led to an additional change – he was solely focused on being a position player. He won the right field job going into the season and ended up playing in 57 games for the Sun Devils, where he hit .230/.267/.378 with four homers. However, due to circumstances, Murphy was able to make his two-way player dream come true, even if it was briefly.
“I pitched a couple of times during the fall and went okay; it was whatever. As the season started, they said I was going to play outfield and not pitch. I said, ‘Perfect.’ As things went on, the last bullpen I threw was in the fall, and then towards the season, we just ran out of pitchers. On a Sunday at Cal, they were like, ‘Here you go, you are starting today.’ I hadn’t thrown in months, but I ended up making the start, and I made a few more after that.”
In his first career start against Cal, Murphy pitched seven scoreless innings, becoming the first Sun Devil in nearly four years to go seven innings and allow one hit or fewer. Despite the success on the mound, Murphy forged ahead with his mind set on becoming a better hitter and a more capable outfielder.
“Over time, I put every ounce of my being into becoming a better hitter, outfielder, and position player,” said Murphy. “I wouldn’t say I soured on pitching; it just kind of took a backseat. I became obsessed with hitting. When you have that crazy love and obsession with something, everything else becomes less important. I wouldn’t say I have a distaste for pitching. Hitting is so hard anyway. Props to [Shohei] Ohtani or anyone that can do both. Hitting is extremely difficult. I want to focus on that.”
In 2022, his final season in college, Murphy showed considerable improvement at the plate. He produced a .791 OPS and hit five homers for the PAC-12 school. Murphy didn’t hear his name called in the draft, but he ended up signing a free-agent contract shortly after the draft.
Murphy made his professional debut in 2022, seeing time with the ACL Padres and the Lake Elsinore Storm. In 22 games, he produced a .658 while playing part-time down the stretch for a Storm team that won the California League championship.
This season, Murphy opened up in the outfield mix, seeing time in right field. His April numbers were respectable (.274/.375/.403), but he hit a snag in May. He went on the injured list for three weeks with an oblique strain. Initially, he struggled before finding his stride again in June.
“I’ve had no setbacks, issues, or anything,” said Murphy. “Thankfully, everything has been great. I’ve been staying on top of it and doing maintenance.”
Murphy picked things back up in June and hit .284 with seven doubles and a homer. As Murphy has gotten regular playing time, the better he has looked.
“He’s a guy who has waited for his turn,” said Lake Elsinore Storm manager Pete Zamora shortly before Murphy’s promotion to Fort Wayne. “[With injuries], Kai stepped up and took the opportunity. He’s a consummate professional. He was brought up in the game and does things the right way. Guys follow him – Samuel Zavala follows what Kai Murphy does. When he got his opportunity, he squares the baseball up and hits lefties and righties. He’s taken advantage of his opportunities.”
“There’s a lot more in there. I think there’s a lot more strength [to come]. He’s very mature. You don’t need to tell him to do things twice. I think we’ll see it as he learns and plays more. He’s playing a hell of a left field. [Lake Elsinore] is not the easiest place to play left field with all the space and the wind we get.”
Murphy’s breakout in Lake Elsinore was completed in July when he hit .338/.378/.559 with four doubles, a triple, and three homers, including his first multi-homer game of his career on July 20 against Rancho Cucamonga.
“First of all,  is really the first time I have had everyday at-bats,” said Murphy. “I am really thankful for the Padres and [Pete] Zamora for believing in me and giving me these at-bats. It’s cool that I am able to learn on the fly, get these at-bats, and put things together. I’ve put a lot of work and preparation into it. I trust my work and the abilities I have. I’m just letting it fly every day. It’s been working.”
Murphy’s offensive production with the Storm led to a promotion to High-A Fort Wayne. Overall, Murphy finished his time with the Storm with a slash-line of .287/.361/.435 – good for offensive production, 16 percent above league average. If there is one advantage to being promoted to the Midwest League, it’s that his father can catch more of his games without burning the midnight oil.
“[My dad] and I are about as close as two people can be, which is really special to me. We talk almost every day. It doesn’t matter if he is on the East Coast and we have a game that starts at 7 pm out west; he’s watching every pitch. He’ll text me after every game ‘Hey, I am still up if you want to talk. He’s busy, and he’s got a lot on his plate. It makes me feel special because he really cares about the Brewers, but he really cares about how I am doing every day. We have a great conversation, mess with each other, and bounce ideas off each other. He’s my number one supporter.”
Thus far in Fort Wayne, Murphy has struggled a bit out of the gate as he adjusts to the higher level. Still, the fact he got promoted based on merit is an excellent sign for an undrafted player in his first full professional season. For Murphy, he will look to continue to build on the success he had.
“I try to stay away from statistical goals. That stuff is fun to look at when the year ends. Every day, I look to build on what I am doing. Every day I can make things simpler and be more consistent. I think I am a really good player, but I got a long way to go. Just build ‘my player’ for lack of a better term, and raise the roof on what I am doing.”