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Prospect ‘masks’ a question

J.R. Murphy is an IMG Academy alumni

TRENTON — The question isn’t really whether J.R. Murphy can hit.

A convincing answer on that subject came Thursday night, when the Yankees catching prospect homered in three consecutive at-bats for Double-A Trenton. Through 11 games, Murphy — the usual cleanup hitter for the Thunder — had a .364 batting average, .442 on-base percentage and .682 slugging with nearly as many walks (six) as strikeouts (seven). He has demonstrated patience and gap power at every minor league level.

The only uncertainty — and coaching focus — follows Murphy’s defense and game-calling. He had just two years of catching experience as an amateur, taking up the position as a high school sophomore in Bradenton, Fla., missing his junior season and resuming as a senior before the Yankees selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft. As Murphy, who turns 22 next month, puts it, “I did the majority of my learning here in pro ball.”

Murphy raved about his experiences working with Joe Girardi and Tony Pena — with 33 years of big-league catching wisdom between them — during Yankees spring training and talked about polishing his receiving skills.

“Learned a lot from being over there with the big guys,” Murphy said. “Chris Stewart and [Francisco] Cervelli, all those guys were really great with me, helping me out. A lot on the mental side: how they’re thinking, what they’re thinking when they’re calling pitches, how to deal with the pitching staff, different personalities and stuff like that. I took a lot from that and I’m applying it now, so I’m starting to see some results.”

Murphy had thrown out 6 of 14 opposing base-stealers for Trenton through Thursday (43 percent, after nabbing 32 percent last year and 23 percent from 2009-2011, when he also spent time at third base). Stolen-base attempts against him cooled to 1.20 per game in 2012 after a rampant 1.69 the two years prior. He also had committed three errors in the opening two weeks of this season.

“We need to work on some things defensively,” Trenton manager Tony Franklin said, before disguising a critique as a compliment. “His hands are so good, he’s bad — sometimes he tries to pick balls in the dirt and not block them.”

Murphy, listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, entered the season as Baseball America’s No. 15 Yankees prospect, vaulting over Austin Romine at No. 17, although ranking behind No. 3 Gary Sanchez, the 20-year-old who is at least a year behind at High-A Tampa. Strides in glovework and game management will determine whether Murphy is the first to earn a real look in The Bronx.

“I’ve come a long way in the past three years, but I have a long way to go,” he said. “There’s so many little things in catching.”

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