(Photo via the OUDaily, seen here)
It’s not exactly unprecedented for football players flirt with professional baseball. Former NFL running back Ricky Williams played a few seasons of minor league baseball before he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1999, while Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson played a half-season of minor league ball in Boston’s system after being drafted by the Red Sox in 2012. Even star quarterback Russell Wilson made a moonlight appearance for the New York Yankees in spring training this season.
Oklahoma outfielder and quarterback Kyler Murray is the latest amateur baseball prospect with a chance to come into professional baseball with that sort of background.
However, Murray presents a different challenge to professional teams and Oklahoma football as his opportunities to play both sports grow. He was a standout quarterback at Allen High School in Texas, winning three state titles and scoring 186 touchdowns in his three years as a starter, as well as a highly regarded outfielder who could have gone early in the 2015 draft if not for his football aspirations. Murray made his was to Texas A&M to play both football and baseball, but transferred to Oklahoma in 2016 after appearing in just a few football games and zero baseball games in College Station.
Murray is a great football player, and it’s been his priority as an athlete during high school and college. But his success on the diamond has come first in Norman. Murray sat out the 2016 season in both sports per NCAA transfer rules, and then backed up Heisman winner Baker Mayfield last season on the football squad. Though the potential for Murray as a QB in Oklahoma’s high-powered offense is sky high, he’s excelled in baseball this spring, suggesting that a future in pro baseball is legitimate.
There are certainly many factors that will go into Murray’s decision – future earnings, longevity to play each sport and health all present different outcomes between professional baseball and football. There’s no indication that Murray will try to play both at the professional level, and even if he did teams could question his commitment. But his .276/.374/.487 slash line in 37 games as a Sooner in 2018 has prompted these questions, and that success could ultimately push him towards baseball.
Murray’s best tool is his raw athleticism, which he’s backed up with a move to center field this season and a willingness to run when he gets on base with 18 steals over the last two seasons. He’s viable up-the-middle defender with time spent at second base as well. Murray’s ability at the plate is less polished, but still has a lot of upside. His aforementioned .487 slugging percentage is second on the team at Oklahoma and he gets good reviews on raw power potential in his 5-foot-11 frame. It’s likely that many scouting departments have Murray’s athleticism as near the top of the 2018 draft, but whichever team drafts Murray will need to be sold on future development in his hit tool and the ability to tap into that raw power more consistently.
Murray’s frame and general size could be another factor in deciding what his future looks like. Successful quarterbacks under six feet are more outliers than anything, even accounting for Murray’s NFL-caliber athleticism. Murray probably hasn’t played enough football to determine his future at the pro level yet, but his measurables stack the odds against him.
It is increasingly likely that Murray will be drafted in the June amateur draft, and could go relatively high. He has a combination of talent and upside that fits in the top two rounds, but could go a bit lower due to uncertainties about his future playing football. Which begs the question: What if major league baseball did more to incentivize a player like Murray to commit fully to a career in baseball, instead of pro football? To an unbiased viewer, the appeal of baseball seems clear. Pro contracts are guaranteed, longevity in the sport is higher than in the NFL, and long-term health risks from playing football can be scary. But football still reigns in certain parts of the country, and it can’t be easy for Murray to give up a sport he’s excelled in since he was young.
Murray’s looming decision presents a fascinating case study in pro sports’ organizations competitions for promising talent. Major league baseball should want a player with Murray’s background and potential to devote himself full-time to the game. If that means changing the financial structure for amateur players (removing limits from draft bonuses or raising minor league salaries) or encouraging teams to develop minor leaguers faster for earlier promotion to the majors to keep Murray and future prospects like him, the benefits for the league would be tangible.
For now, Murray is juggling Oklahoma’s spring baseball schedule and football workouts, where he played quarterback during the Sooner spring game on April 14th and then in the Oklahoma baseball game that night against Texas. Whichever team drafts Murray will probably have to offer a considerable financial commitment to at least lock him in to an organization; in theory, Murray would be able to return to Oklahoma in the fall and compete for the starting QB position even with a pro contract and a few months of minor league experience in hand. Murray could sign a pro contract with an MLB team this summer and not look back at football, or he could bypass baseball for another year and focus on playing quarterback for Oklahoma in the fall with multiple scenarios in between. Eventually though, Murray will have to decide if his future will be on the diamond or gridiron.