Shortly before the Major League Baseball draft in 2018, Oakland Athletics general manager David Forst and director of scouting Eric Kubota set up one last phone call with prospect Kyler Murray.
Calls like this were typical in the lead-up to a draft, Kubota explained. The A’s wanted to check in with Murray, but they also wanted to get to know the 21-year-old’s personality a little better and ask any last-minute questions — cross their T’s, dot their I’s and tie up any loose ends before deciding whether to make Murray a first-round pick.
Everything that happened from there is well known: The A’s took Murray ninth overall during the June draft and gave him a $4.66 million signing bonus. He became the starting quarterback at Oklahoma in the fall of 2018, led the Sooners to the College Football Playoff and won the Heisman Trophy. He picked football over baseball the following February and had to repay $1.29 million of the $1.5 million he had already been paid of the signing bonus.
Then the Arizona Cardinals selected him No. 1 overall in the NFL draft in April 2019. He signed a four-year deal worth $35.7 million that included a $23.6 million signing bonus, was the team’s Week 1 starter, won Rookie of the Year and has reached the Pro Bowl the past two seasons.
But what if Murray had chosen baseball? What would his path have looked like? Where would he be today? What would his future look like? With the start of the Major League Baseball season last week, we thought we’d take a look.
What kind of baseball player was Murray?
David Schoenfield picks Kyler Murray over Tom Brady and Jameis Winston, among others, as the current NFL player who would have had the best baseball career.
At the time of that pre-draft call, Murray was a top-80 baseball prospect at Oklahoma, where he batted .296 during the 2018 season. He had been on the radar of teams since high school, when he was projected to be a first-round pick. Murray’s comps were nothing to scoff at: two former MVPs, Andrew McCutchen and Ricky Henderson.
What drew in scouts, like Chris Riley, formerly of the A’s and now with the Boston Red Sox, was Murray’s elite bat speed married with his elite foot speed.
“Just the combination of power and speed in baseball, as you know, it’s very rare,” Riley said. “And, so, a center fielder that flies, that has the makings and the competitiveness and the character to be an everyday, impact big leaguer, those guys are hard to find.”
Murray was what Major League Baseball has been missing, his baseball agent Scott Boras told ESPN.
“There are few, if any, elite athletes that can hit and have bat speed,” Boras said. “We have great runners and quick-twitch athletes that have the acumen to play in the NFL, but because they don’t have bat speed. They cannot transfer all their other athletic acumen to Major League Baseball, and Kyler has both.”
When Forst and Kubota called Murray, he had yet to explode on the college football scene. He had backed up quarterback Baker Mayfield the season before after transferring from Texas A&M.
Among the questions Kubota remembered asking Murray, two stand out four years later. One was is Murray “really committed to playing baseball?” — a question Murray has been asked with regards to football since the day he announced his intention to pursue an NFL career.
The other question proved Kubota as a soothsayer of sorts.
“What are you going to do after you win the Heisman?” Kubota asked Murray.
It was, at the time, more of a joke than anything. Little did Kubota know that he predicted Murray’s future and sealed the A’s fate.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Kyler made the right decision,” Boras said. “Because his passion was that he had to determine what he could do in football. There is no question about it. And the other side of it is the economic, where we’re not even comparable to what decision you have to make. So, it was a very easy decision for me to say that you should definitely abide by your passions, and it’s also the best thing for the security of you and your family.”
Four years later, Murray’s life would have likely looked very different had he chosen baseball.
Where would he be today?
The goal in drafting Murray ninth overall was for him to be the A’s Opening Day center fielder as fast as possible — which likely could’ve happened this year.
“I would’ve hoped so,” Kubota said. “I would have hoped he was starting and leading off. We say that a lot, as bad as we were as football scouts, in this instance, scouting baseball players is very humbling, and it’s really difficult. We’re like a hitter. We fail way more than we succeed.”
Projecting where Murray would be if he chose baseball over football isn’t as easy as plotting his course on a map.
“Baseball is a weird game,” Kubota said. “Everybody’s kind of got their own timeline. People develop at different paces.”
Had Murray decided to leave Oklahoma after getting drafted in June 2018, he would’ve likely started in high-A ball, which was in Stockton, California, Kubota said. From there, the natural progression for a prospect would typically be Double-A, Triple-A and then the Majors.
But, as Kubota said, everyone’s timeline is different and there is a laundry list of variables. Some prospects accelerate because of performance, which, for those who played in college, might happen faster than those who were drafted right out of high school. Some see it slowed because they can’t figure out how to hit a certain pitch or need time to develop.
The biggest questions surrounding Murray when he was drafted focused on the number of at-bats he had in college — both at practice and in games. There were home games when Murray would get to the stadium at 5:20 p.m. for a 6:05 p.m. first pitch because of football practice. He’d eat a sandwich, get in some batting practice, get his arm loose and play, missing outfield warm-ups in the process. That led to scouts questioning his arm strength, Johnson said, mainly because they’d never see him warm up. Murray missed the final games of his college baseball career because he had a slight hamstring pull and coach Skip Johnson didn’t want to risk Murray injuring it more and missing time during football.
There was also the weekend in 2018 when Oklahoma was playing at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. Oklahoma had games on Friday and Sunday, a week before the Sooners’ spring game, and Murray flew back and forth between Norman and Texas to practice. “What he was doing was remarkable,” then Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley said.
Going into the draft, Murray had just 285 at-bats during his two seasons at Oklahoma and one summer played in the Cape Cod League. By comparison, one of Murray’s college teammates, Steele Walker, who was drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft, had 885 at-bats in three college and two summer seasons.
Murray put in the work when he had time. He used the indoor batting cages until 1 a.m. some nights and would wake up Johnson with a call because he was locked in. The gates closed at midnight. About seven or eight times during Murray’s final season at Oklahoma, Johnson would have to get out of bed, drive over to the stadium and unlock the door so Murray could go home.
During that final season, when he would eventually bat cleanup, Murray hit .296 with 56 hits, 10 home runs, 47 RBIs, 13 doubles and three triples.
Murray made a performance jump when Johnson took over as Oklahoma’s baseball coach after the 2017 season. Johnson made a few, slight changes that helped propel Murray to a rare class: being drafted in the first round in two sports. Johnson moved Murray to center field from left field, and dropped him to seventh in the batting order but let Murray know that if he played well, he could climb.
Murray began standing up more in his batting stance and added a leg kick.
A’s scout Chris Riley saw the difference almost immediately.
“He was laying off breaking balls that early in the year he would have chased, and they put him in center field and his swing was just very natural, unforced, uncoached, mechanically very sound,” Riley said. “… Even though statistically he didn’t match that of a first-round draft pick — or ninth overall, certainly — but hitting .296 with 10 homers from a guy that hasn’t seen live pitching in a year while playing football, we thought was remarkable, let alone the top end speed, ability to stay in the middle of the diamond. That’s kind of what led us to the draft pick, just a generational-type athlete.”
Murray was the type of player the A’s believed could’ve been the cornerstone of their franchise, said Kubota, who led the charge internally to draft Murray.
Riley first noticed Murray before he was draft eligible. He was in the stands scouting an Oklahoma game when Murray beat out a ground ball to shortstop. Riley looked at his stopwatch and said, “Oh, boy. That’s elite.” Then Murray stole second, then third, and scored on a ground ball to the middle of the infield.
“I’m like, ‘Holy cow,'” Riley said.
Had Murray been in the minor leagues after college, his progress, along with every other minor leaguer’s would’ve been stopped short because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, a few weeks into spring training. While the big leagues continued, minor league baseball was canceled that year, but each team hosted an alternate site, where they had Triple-A players and top prospects throughout their organization play in organized scrimmages to keep them fresh in case they needed to be called up.
Games at the alternate site couldn’t even be called games. Teams would have their top players bat two or three times in an inning against pitchers they had already faced every day. Plays would be called dead. It was glorified batting practice. But it’s where Murray would’ve likely spent the 2020 season getting those needed at-bats, putting him one step away from Oakland, where he could’ve been called up by the end of the 2020 or 2021 season, Kubota said.
“With Kyler, it was just really about how many at-bats it would take,” Boras said. “He was going to be a 25-home runs, 60-stolen base, everyday center fielder for a Major League team and we just don’t have many center field athletes that can perform at those levels.”
Baseball dreams of Murray ‘all the time’
Dan Orlovsky and Jeff Darlington break down Kyler Murray’s agent releasing a letter detailing the quarterback’s demands for the Cardinals.
Riley was sitting in the cafeteria at the A’s complex in Mesa, Arizona, on Sept. 1, 2018, when Murray led the Sooners to a 63-14 win over Florida Atlantic, in the game that kicked off his Heisman Trophy-winning season. It was the first time the A’s had seen Murray do anything athletic besides a promotional batting practice for the media in the Bay Area since he was drafted.
“Everybody’s kind of like, ‘Oh, man,'” Riley remembered.
At first, Kubota was impressed. Then he started thinking, “Oh my gosh, maybe he’s too good.”
Every week that Kubota watched Murray dominate college football pushed his dream of having Murray in green and gold further and further away.
“What I tell everybody is I think we’re good baseball scouts,” Kubota said, “we obviously are bad football scouts.”
When Murray told the A’s that he was going with football over baseball — a decision Johnson could sense was tough for Murray — Kubota felt jilted. Drafting Murray was a risk, ESPN MLB insider Kiley McDaniel explained, but that’s how the A’s approached the draft in their post-Moneyball era. “Their strategy in the draft was, ‘We don’t have any money, so, like, we can’t get a star player unless we draft them,'” McDaniel said.
“And, so, that’s why they Kyler took eight or 10 picks higher than I think a lot of people thought he would [go].”
Four years later, there’s still a sense of regret in drafting Murray for Kubota. The A’s lost a first-round draft pick and possibly a franchise player. And Major League Baseball potentially lost a superstar. But Boras put some of the blame on Murray not picking the sport on Major League Baseball.
“Major League Baseball handcuffed itself because it does not allow for the flexibility in their inception contract structure to garner these types of athletes,” Boras said. “And, consequently, it prevents them from getting superstars in the game.”
It’s still bittersweet for Kubota to see Murray post photos of himself in a A’s hat or wear an A’s jersey to a Cardinals game. He’s still holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, football doesn’t pan out and Murray drives over to Mesa to start his baseball career again.
And Kubota isn’t the only one.
Boras and former A’s general manager Billy Beane talked about Murray and daydream.
Both believed he’d be one of the sport’s stars, an elite athlete with elite baseball skill.
As for Murray, he bristled at any questions about baseball early in his Cardinals career but has softened his stance recently.
“I know everybody around here probably feels differently about it, but, me personally, I played [baseball] my whole life,” Murray said. “If I ever had the opportunity, for sure, I would definitely go for it.”
Boras doesn’t question Murray’s decision. But he still thinks about what could’ve been had Murray picked baseball over football.
Boras took Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts to the Cardinals-Rams game last season and went on the field to talk with Murray. Betts asked Boras what he was doing.
“I go, ‘Hey, I’m out here watching one of the best center fielders that you could ever play with,'” Boras said.
“I dream. I dream all the time.”