Later today, Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray is probably going to be announced as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and will likely finish in the top two, along with Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. He is an exhilerating football player, and he is the kind of dual-threat quarterback that has been increasingly coveted in the National Football League. Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN’s iconic NFL Draft analyst, referred to Kyler Murray two months ago as “one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks (he’s) ever seen.” And it is entirely possible that his appearance in this year’s Orange Bowl, one of the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, will be the final appearance he ever makes in a football game.
Kyler Murray is also a heralded baseball prospect. Murray was drafted ninth overall last June by the Oakland Athletics as a center fielder. The term “five-tool player” is overused and mostly irrelevant (by definition, statistically, the mediocre-armed Mike Trout isn’t one), but most scouts seem to believe that Murray has that potential. He’s still a bit raw as a prospect, but players drafted in the top ten very clearly have serious MLB potential. After he was drafted, Murray worked out an arrangement where he would play one more season as Oklahoma’s quarterback and then ditch the sport for baseball, though if Murray declared for the NFL Draft, this isn’t an especially binding agreement.
In theory, Murray could play baseball and football. This is especially plausible while Murray is in the minor leagues, where the seasons end right as the NFL season is beginning. But the path for this is more difficult than it was for Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, the two players in the (relatively) modern era who have had simultaneous careers in the NFL and MLB. All three were outfielders, so from a baseball perspective there isn’t a ton of difference among the three, but while Bo and Deion were, respectively, a running back and a cornerback, Kyler plays the most detail-oriented position on the field, one which requires extensive study and preparation off the field far beyond that of any other role.
Bo Jackson’s NFL career was hampered by injuries and thus his time as a two-sport athlete was unfortunately necessarily short-lived; Deion Sanders juggled the two, even playing NFL games in 1991 as a member of the Atlanta Falcons on the same day as MLB playoff games with the Atlanta Braves, but football always came first (and for good reason–Deion was a fourth outfielder-type in baseball but a Hall of Famer in football). Kyler Murray is probably better at either sport than Deion Sanders was at baseball.
Either side of Murray’s athletic coin would be an enviable position for almost all amateur athletes, but now, he will likely have to make a choice. It’s not an unprecedented conundrum even in the last couple decades. Joe Mauer was the #1 overall pick in the MLB Draft by his hometown Minnesota Twins, but he was also the nation’s #1 high school quarterback and would’ve competed for the starting quarterback job for the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles had he gone that path. Drew Henson, who had split playing time with Tom Brady at the University of Michigan, opted for pro baseball coming out of college, but when his MLB career was limited to a cup of coffee and began to stagnate, he went to the NFL and played as a quarterback for three seasons. Chad Hutchinson, who threw four innings for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001, similarly defected to the NFL. And that’s not to mention the Chris Weinkes and Brandon Weedens of the world who never made the majors out of high school and then stuck in college football as 28 year-old seniors.
One notable case in recent history which points in the direction of baseball as the more financially lucrative option is that of Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija was a two-time All-American wide receiver for Notre Dame and was regarded as as potential first-round pick in the NFL, but after being drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs, he chose baseball. He has been a basically league-average starting pitcher–by ERA+, Samardzija has been 4% worse than league-average at run suppression. Through 2020, the final year of Samardzija’s free agent contract with the San Francisco Giants, he will earn over $122 million. One of his fellow 2005 football All-Americans, Calvin Johnson, went on to become arguably the greatest NFL receiver of his era. He was unquestionably better at his job than Samardzija was at his. Johnson’s career earnings totaled under $114 million. And that’s not even giving consideration to Samardzija avoiding the long-term health issues associated with a career in professional football.
But it’s a bit short-sighted to look at the examples of Samardzija and Johnson as proof that you’re better off being an average baseball player than a Hall of Famer-caliber football player. Kyler Murray, as a quarterback, has more earning potential than wide receivers, and while no position at football is immune, quarterbacks suffer concussions at a lower rate than wide receivers. Unlike in baseball, where the gap between the most and least glamorous position is practically non-existent, the quarterback in football is clearly the starring role of most teams. And while I don’t quite buy the claims that baseball’s best center fielder/player, Mike Trout, is only as recognizable to the general public as journeyman NBA forward Kenneth Faried, I do buy that NFL quarterbacks like Blake Bortles or Kirk Cousins trounce far superior baseball players in national recognition.
However, unlike when Calvin Johnson was entering the NFL, high draft picks have highly structured, cost-controlled rookie contracts. Last off-season, for example, Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, a 10th overall pick, signed a four-year contract worth $17.84 million, with a $11 million signing bonus, which includes a team option for a fifth year. It pales in comparison with the rookie contract of St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in 2010, a six-year, $78 million deal with a $50 million guaranteed bonus.
But even if Rosen were immediately revealed to be a bust in training camp and were immediately cut, his $11 million in career earnings is still life-changing money. It is still enough on which to comfortably retire at 21. Kyler Murray earned a nice signing bonus with Oakland, of just under $5 million, but his future earnings in baseball are hardly guaranteed. Minor league baseball players are notoriously underpaid–the ludicrously titled “Save America’s Pastime Act” helped to assure that players can be regarded as seasonal workers and be paid, effectively, below minimum wage. A ninth overall pick has a well above-average chance at making the Majors, but it is not guaranteed. From 2000 through 2010, four #9 picks didn’t make it at all. This includes the #9 pick in 2006, the year in which Jeff Samardzija was drafted.
With regards to Samardzija, there is a certain amount of survivorship fallacy. Saying that Samardzija demonstrates that a player should choose baseball is a bit like those who insist that people need not wear seat belts because hey, they survived their childhoods without them–there are thousands of test cases unavailable to provide testimony on the matter for rather grim reasons. In retrospect, yes, Samardzija almost certainly made the correct decision in baseball–the most probable outcome is that he, like almost everybody else, would be a worse NFL player than Calvin Johnson and would in turn make less money–but many more NFL players make more money than that year’s #1 MLB pick, Luke Hochevar. Meanwhile, every 2006 NFL Draft first-round pick earned more in professional football than #9 overall MLB pick Billy Rowell did in professional baseball.
There is more high-end upside for Kyler Murray to report to the Oakland Athletics. But there is a level of security to a rookie NFL contract if he turns out to be a viable NFL prospect that baseball simply does not provide. Ultimately, there are pros and cons to both routes, and Kyler Murray will likely ultimately follow his passion, but if Major League Baseball teams were willing to pay fairer salaries to minor league players, this probably wouldn’t be an issue. Though in the end, as with those who survived without seat belts who view seat belts as therefore unnecessary, baseball fans won’t notice Kyler Murray’s absence, because they would never know what he could have been.