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Would You Rather Be An Outfielder For The A’s Or A Quarterback For The Sooners?

Kyler Murray, a student-athlete at the University of Oklahoma, is facing a very good dilemma right now. Murray plays outfield for OU’s baseball team, and he was taken ninth overall in the MLB draft by the Oakland Athletics on Monday. Murray also plays quarterback for Oklahoma’s football team — and he’s currently the heir apparent to the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL draft, Baker Mayfield, under center.

Murray won’t have to choose between baseball and football right away, but eventually, he will have to pick a path for his athletic future. (Or at least, the immediate future.) What’s a two-sport star to do?

Murray is already in lofty company as a multi-talented athlete, since few players have ever been good enough to potentially start at QB for a top college team while also hearing their name called among MLB’s top 10 draft picks. But if you were in Murray’s position, which path — baseball or football — tends to offer the most success, historically speaking? This decision could mean the difference between Murray becoming the next Russell Wilson or the next Drew Henson.

To help do the math on Murray’s decision, I used wins above replacement1 to measure the careers of similar baseball players and Approximate Value2 to measure the careers of similar football players.3

Who counts as “similar”? For baseball, I looked at college hitters since 19654 who were drafted between picks No. 5 and 15 overall. For football, I gathered data since 19905 on college quarterbacks who started6 for a team that ranked in the preseason top 10 going into the year. (AP hasn’t released its preseason rankings for 2018 yet, but the Sooners seem like a safe bet to be included.) Because I looked at the first 10 years of a player’s career, those who were drafted by MLB or started at QB in college after 2008 were not included in the study.

Broadly speaking, these groups represent Murray’s current status in each sport. I then broke their careers down into four categories based on their WAR/AV: “never made it” (players who never played a game in the big leagues),7 “scrubs” (guys who played in the bigs but weren’t regulars and had little impact), “decent” players (those who were regulars but not stars) and “good/great” players (generally All-Star level players and above). Here’s how the players comparable to Murray ended up panning out in the pros:

Which sport should Kyler Murray choose?

Probability of reaching various performance levels in MLB or NFL for players similar* to Kyler Murray, by sport

chance of reaching level
Sport Never made It Scrub Decent Good/Great
Baseball 14.7% 43.1% 29.4% 12.8%
Football 43.2% 39.1% 13.0% 4.7%

* Similar players in baseball are college hitters selected between no. 5-15 in the draft (since 1965). In football, they are starting QBs for a team ranked among the AP’s preseason top 10 going into the season (since 1990).

Performance metrics cover the first 10 years of a player’s career.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, Fangraphs, The Baseball Cube, Pro-football-reference.com, sports-reference.com/CFB

Neither path to stardom is guaranteed; in both cases, more than 50 percent of comparable players either failed to play in the big leagues at all or made a minimal impact once there. But the chance of washing out completely are much lower — by a factor of about three — for highly drafted baseball prospects than for college quarterbacks at top programs. Likewise, the odds of stardom, or simply having a solid career, are much higher for baseball players like Murray than for football players like him.

As my research has shown in the past, college hitters (like Murray) tend to be very reliable picks relative to the rest of baseball’s draft crapshoot. Meanwhile, top-level starting college QBs can range from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to Gino Torretta and Thad Busby. Add in Murray’s MLB draft signing bonus (the No. 9 slot carries a value of about $4.8 million), the higher average salary for MLB vs. the NFL in general (even the average QB makes only about a half-million dollars more per year than the overall MLB average) and the concerns that Murray’s height — he’s 5-foot-10 — might prevent him from playing quarterback in the NFL, and it seems obvious that Murray should pick baseball.

In fact, to cut down on the injury risk, perhaps Murray should forgo football next season, even though the NCAA does allow players to retain their amateur status in football after signing in baseball. (I realize the temptation to put up ridiculous, Mayfield-esque stats in Oklahoma’s offense is difficult to resist.)

Of course, if he doesn’t want to choose, Murray can always take the Tim Tebow path — the Mets are always looking for former QBs who are turning back to baseball in the twilight of their athletic careers.

Footnotes

  1. In this case, an average of the versions found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com.

  2. Pro-Football-Reference.com’s rough gauge for NFL productivity)

  3. Specifically, I used a weighted sum of a player’s value produced in the first 10 years of his career, giving a player 100 percent credit for his value in his best season, 90 percent credit for his second-best season, 80 percent credit for his third-best season, and so forth.

  4. The first year of MLB’s amateur draft.

  5. Roughly when the modern era of college offenses really began.

  6. By which I mean, played regularly enough to be the team’s QB of record on Sports-Reference.com’s seasonal passing leaderboards.

  7. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s data, this includes players who were on rosters or practice squads but never actually set foot on the field for a down of a regular-season or playoff game.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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