Keep a few things in mind. This past June, when the Athletics selected Murray, a center fielder from Oklahoma, with the ninth pick in the MLB draft, he was coming off a football season in which he was a backup to the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, undersized at that. The 21 passes he threw in his sophomore season for the Sooners came at inconsequential times. He is listed at 5-foot-10, and if your instinct is to raise an eyebrow at that, please do. If a casting call went out for a traditional NFL quarterback of, say, five years ago, Murray would be passed over.
The Athletics’ bet at the moment of that draft: Murray won’t be so good at football that he would turn his back on baseball. So they gave him a $4.66 million signing bonus.
And then Murray threw for 4,361 yards, ran for 1,001 more, accounted for 54 touchdowns and won the Heisman.
So when Murray declared himself eligible for the NFL draft earlier this week, it was easy to pit the two sports against each other. He was already a first-round talent in baseball. Most NFL experts expect he is a first-round talent in football. One sport will win, and one sport will lose.
I’ve ventured down this rabbit hole before, and my instinct — my strong instinct — is to choose baseball over football in almost every case. The money, particularly for non-quarterbacks, is more. The long-term health issues aren’t likely to be as grave. Major league contracts are guaranteed; NFL deals aren’t. Your career likely will last longer as a shortstop than a defensive back.
But Kyler Murray should choose football. And if he does, don’t view it as a slap in the face of an entire sport. This isn’t football > baseball. This is about Kyler Murray, quarterback > Kyler Murray, outfielder.
I asked some baseball scouts who saw Murray play at Oklahoma for an evaluation. Here is one that jumped out: “2-3 round. Fair baseball instincts with good tools. 5-foot-8, 185 lbs., really athletic.”
Now, clearly, the A’s saw something more, and another scout said simply, “I loved him!” But I asked if, in the first guy’s opinion, Murray was a big leaguer.
“I can see that,” he said. “Probably a left fielder. I don’t think he’s a star. Just an average major leaguer that under normal circumstances takes some time to get there.”
One man’s opinion. But it’s weighty. A key element: “under normal circumstances.” Murray’s circumstances aren’t normal.
Murray is 21, and even though he would be invited to Oakland’s major league spring training camp next month, he is behind players of similar age. In two seasons playing baseball for the Sooners, he totaled 238 at-bats — roughly half a minor league season. Yes, he spent part of one summer in the elite Cape Cod League, gaining valuable experience (but hitting just .170).
The point: At 21, he doesn’t have the requisite number of plate appearances — at any level — to warrant a fast path to the majors. And that throws off everything about potential earnings over the course of a career. Bryce Harper may end up being the best-paid baseball player ever as much because of when he became a big leaguer — at age 19 — as his skill-set.
Murray, if all went perfectly, likely wouldn’t be a full-time major leaguer until, say, 24. That puts his first free agent contract at age 30. And that limits how much he can make in a career.
Three baseball offseasons ago, I wrote about Jeff Samardzija, a free agent right-hander who had just signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. That contract, I believed then and believe now, was such a good example of why baseball is generally a wiser choice. Samardzija had been an all-American wide receiver at Notre Dame. He could have played in the NFL.
But with two years left on his deal, Samardzija, a mediocre starting pitcher who had been durable until an injury-riddled 2018, knows he will have earned just shy of $123 million over the course of his career, which may not be over. Know how many NFL receivers have made more in history? One: future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald.
There, in a broad sense, is the argument for baseball > football. But Murray’s situation isn’t broad. It’s narrow.
The most important element in all this: Murray plays quarterback. That changes everything. The top-10 earners in NFL history play quarterback. In 2018, according to the website Spotrac, which tracks salaries, the top 14 salary cap hits came from quarterbacks. Endure as a starting quarterback in the NFL, and you will get paid.
By declaring for the NFL draft, Murray hasn’t quit baseball. Not yet, anyway. But his evaluation of his situation — not the two sports, but his place in them — must include the worst-case scenario: What if he fails in either?
In baseball, failing would be never making the majors — and therefore never making more money. For the purposes of this argument, let’s say “failing” in football means falling in the draft. Last year, the final pick of the first round — quarterback Lamar Jackson, once a Heisman Trophy winner at Louisville, to Baltimore — received a four-year contract potentially worth $9.47 million but guaranteeing Jackson $7.58 million. According to Spotrac, the last pick in the second round of the upcoming 2019 draft should make $4.57 million, slightly less than Murray’s signing bonus with the A’s.
Football seems safer in his earnings from the team. But what about outside earnings? Kyler Murray, Heisman-winning NFL quarterback, has more appeal on a cereal box or in a tire ad than Kyler Murray, outfielder for the Class A Beloit Snappers.
There is another broad issue here: MLB’s long-dissected inability to effectively market even its biggest stars. Test case: Would you know if Mike Trout was sitting next to you at Starbucks? How about Aaron Rodgers? Harper, who has a number of national contracts, has railed against this in the past. In general, he is right.
But this decision is about Murray at this point in his own development — further along in football than in baseball, widely known in one sport and all but anonymous in the other. It’s also about the position he plays and the evolution of that position at the moment, where 5-foot-10 (or 5-8) players don’t have to be larks. They can be stars.
One last point, and this is important: What sport does Murray burn to play? Does he have a preference? If his passion is in one direction, that’s where he should go. He can’t be in two-a-days wishing he had four at-bats coming to him that night. He can’t be on a bus between Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids wondering how dangerous he might have been in a run-pass option. Yearning and commitment trumps so much else in an equation such as this.
But if that’s a flip of a coin, there’s so much evidence Murray should pick football. And if he does, resist the urge to point a finger at baseball and say, “You lost.” The next nine guys might be advised to make the opposite choice. This is about Kyler Murray and Kyler Murray only. What a problem to have.