clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Kyler Murray’s baseball and football skills amplify each other

The experts explain.

Getty and University of Oklahoma

The first time Chris Reilly saw Kyler Murray on a baseball field, the Oakland A’s scout remembers watching him fly down the first base line. Reilly was timing it, and so was the scout next to him.

“We looked at each other and we said ‘oh boy, this kid’s gonna be special at some point.”

It was spring 2017, and Murray led a game off with an infield single, stole second, stole third, and scored on a groundout. In six pitches, the future Sooners starting QB and A’s first-rounder had engineered a run.

What Reilly saw goes a long way to explaining how Murray tears up defenses on the gridiron as well.

In 2018, Murray threw and ran well enough to win the Heisman and lead a team with a bad defense to the Playoff. Just look at this.

-Murray leads the nation in QBR (96.0), passing efficiency (205.7), total offense (4,945 yards), yards per passing attempt (11.9), and total touchdowns (51).

-Murray ranks second behind Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins in passing TD’s with 40.

-Murray’s 70.9% completion percentage ranks second in the nation and first in the P5.

-Murray’s 4,053 passing yards is third-most in the nation behind Dwayne Haskins’ 4,580 and Gardner Minshew’s 4,477. It’s also worth mentioning that Minshew has 273 more pass attempts than Murray. Haskins has 156 more pass attempts.

-Murray’s 892 rushing yards ranks second in the nation for a QB with at least 300 passing attempts.

-Murray has thrown seven interceptions on the year compared to eight from Haskins and four from Tagovailoa.

But you cannot tell the story of Murray without understanding how good he is on both the gridiron and the diamond.

SB Nation spoke to experts about the way Murray the baseball player informs Murray the football player, vice versa, and what the overlap teaches us about the importance of playing multiple sports.

1. Let’s start with Murray’s legs, as he explodes out of the batter’s box or by defenders on the football field.

“The quick twitch, the explosiveness — whether it’s in the batter’s box, translating that sort of hip explosion plus torque, or whether it’s on the base paths — it’s rare to find someone with short-space explosiveness and long-distance explosiveness, and he has both,” said Josh Herzenberg, a former scout for the Dodgers in Texas when Murray was at Allen High School just north of Dallas. Herzenberg said his first impression was “elite, top-of-the-scale athleticism. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better athlete on a baseball field, ever.”

Herzenberg has experience evaluating dual sport OU quarterbacks. He scouted former Sooner Cody Thomas, whom the Dodgers would draft in 2016. Thomas ran a 6.6 60-yard dash, but Herzenberg admits Murray is in a different class. Few other athletes are doing this:

Yogi Roth and Trent Dilfer agree. As coaches at the Elite 11 quarterback camp, they get a chance to see the best high school QBs each year.

Murray went in 2014, head-to-head with the likes of NFL first-rounder Josh Rosen and Power 5 signees Brandon Wimbush, Deondre Francois, and Drew Lock. Murray won an accuracy contest and showcased tools that made him that year’s No. 1 dual-threat in the 247Sports Composite.

“I think that he was elite in high school,” Roth said. “He could just make little movements to get out of pockets or get to a place where he can make a second or third reaction play, and clearly the kid was special.”

Murray in high school

Dilfer said that at Elite 11, they emphasize “off-platform” throws, when a QB isn’t in a clean pocket with everything in rhythm.

“I think that’s why you’re seeing so much growth in the off-platform game in college football — whether it be an RPO, a movement pass, a bootleg, a sprint out — it’s because these kids are better equipped at a young age,” Dilfer said.

Murray on a sprint out throw.

2. The most obvious baseball influence on Murray’s football style comes at the end of his runs.

Self preservation is an especially valuable skill for a 5’10 QB, and Murray has it in spades.

“We talk with our guys about it,” Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley told SB Nation. “If we have a guy that’s not good at sliding, then we’ll work with him. He’s obviously had practice in baseball doing it. But then also for him, that’s something in football he’s done before. He knows he’s not 6’5, 235 pounds. He’s pretty smart about taking care of himself.”

Every time Murray rolls out, Oakland’s $4.6 million investment is in jeopardy, as are Oklahoma’s Playoff hopes.

“I can’t tell you how awful it feels,” Reilly said. “The first time I saw him scramble and take a hit — I was anticipating watching that game not knowing how I’d feel — but watching him get tackled definitely made my heart beat a little faster.”

3. Murray has the quickness — Herzenberg, Dilfer, and Riley each called him “twitchy” — but it doesn’t mean he has to be just a typical leadoff guy.

In 2018, Murray was second on OU in home runs and slugging percentage, often hitting cleanup. He could try to steal 40 bases a year in the Majors, hit for serious power, or:

“I think part of what made him such a high pick is the potential to do both,” Reilly said. “Not a lot of guys every year in the draft can run like he can, as well as have so much power in his swing. So I think that’s what ultimately made the A’s decide that he is — what I’ve heard others describe as — a generational-type athlete who can impact the game in multiple ways offensively.“

Herzenberg guesses Murray could have been safe every time he tried to steal in high school. And now Reilly expects Murray to get reps with Oakland base-stealing legend Rickey Henderson in spring training.

4. You’d expect to see Murray’s QB skills reflected in his throwing. But his batting shows you even more.

An ESPN baseball scouting report said high school Murray “has great bat speed, and his swing path is fine once he gets his hands started, but there’s a lot of extra movement before that point, especially in his lower half, which puts him off balance at the moment of contact.”

“His first year [at OU], I think he had more of a spread-out, slap, leadoff-type approach,” Reilly said. “His second year they stood him up a little bit, gave him a leg kick, gave him a little more fluidity, and allowed his athleticism to impact the baseball.”

This swing lets Murray take advantage of his core strength, specifically his quick-firing hips.

And those hips are key to how Murray is so good as a passer. Throwing a football 50 yards and throwing a baseball 250 feet aren’t as naturally translatable as it might seem.

Murray told The Oklahoman: “I can throw a football all day and my arm doesn’t get tired,” Murray said. “If I throw a baseball more than a certain amount of time, it’s going to get a little sore.”

“I think you start out looking at his body type,” Roth said. “He’s clearly not 6’4 with a massive frame that’s gonna flick it around all day long like Warren Moon or Drew Bledsoe. You start there: well, he’s got a lot of juice on the ball, where’s he generating all the force?

“We got a phrase that we use at Elite 11 all the time, and it’s ground force equals rotational force. I think that he has a lot of that. If you think of a baseball player when they swing, and the way they generate force with the bat or when they generate force even throwing, it’s the same as a quarterback.”

Take this perfect throw:

Murray didn’t have the space to step into it, but he didn’t have to. Dilfer says great spinners of the ball don’t really stride — they do more of a punch step. He says the front foot stride equating to power is a myth in coaching.

“[For a right-handed QB], the right hip has a lot to do with it,” Dilfer said. “There’s guys that arm the ball, and there’s guys [where] that right hip kinda generates the rotation, and their arm follows,” with Murray being the latter.

“The guy where the right hip fires efficiently, those guys tend to be very consistent and can translate to any type of throw. Brett Favre’s a great example. Drew Bledsoe’s a great example, Tony Romo’s a great example. Drew Brees is a great example, where you can just watch them and their arm is doing very little. Aaron Rodgers is a great example, Dan Marino.

“Their arm does very little. Their right hip does most of the work.”

Rodgers takes this to an extreme, jumping off of his front foot at times. It shows that shows true power isn’t in the stride.

What Dilfer and Roth saw in Murray when he was 16 is what they see in him at OU, and was on Riley to rein in the gunslinging thrower.

5. Murray can play quarterback like an outfielder or like a shortstop ... because he’s excelled at all three.

Murray’s throwing motion does not waste movement. That’s a credit to Kyler’s father Kevin, whom Dilfer says taught Kyler some things when he was young many QB coaches didn’t understand at the time.

Like his father, Kyler went to Texas A&M and was drafted by an MLB team. But father and son had different paths.

Kyler transferred to OU and got drafted after, opting against draft selection out of high school. Kevin was drafted by the Brewers out of high school, received his $35,000 signing bonus, quit baseball 10 weeks later, and enrolled at A&M — triggering a legal battle with Milwaukee. He would break records and lead the Aggies to two conference titles, but never achieved pro stardom due to injury. Now he runs a QB academy in Texas.

The baseball throw has a longer arm action than football. An outfielder’s throws don’t have to be as quick as those under center or in the infield. But Kyler played shortstop in high school before injury forced him to play DH as a senior. He was going to play infield in College Station, too. So his arm is quick, both as a QB and an outfielder.

“For an outfielder, I think consistency and repeatability is more important than a middle infielder because a middle infielder is gonna have to throw it from different arm angles and be able to throw on the run and be able to throw off balance and different directions,” Herzenberg said. “While an outfielder generally is gonna be able to set his feet, balance, and make an accurate throw.”

Murray can do both, in both sports.

In some quarterback rooms across the country, players are told to emulate middle infielders when they throw screens, like they’re turning two on a double play. Murray even does it with a sidearm.

OU doesn’t teach it that way, but Riley sees the overlap:

“I think that just probably falls under the category of things he’s done a lot in football, things he’s done a lot in baseball. And each sport has added some benefit or each sport has probably helped the other one out a little bit there. I think it just comes back to hand/eye coordination.”

Where many baseball players err when playing quarterback is taking too long to throw. Pitchers have all the time they want, while quarterbacks have fractions of a second before being smacked by 300-pound linemen.

A long QB motion is inefficient and can lead to catastrophe. Pitchers that play QB tend to have a long stride. Pitchers often reach the ball back far in their delivery, while efficient quarterbacks reach their elbows back further than the ball. Pitchers can have dramatic glove arm flare, while quarterbacks limit the movement in their non-throwing hands. And pitchers get to generate force downhill from a mound.

“You see a lot of those wind-up motions,” Roth said of pitchers playing football. “That to me is when you get really long in your release. That happens to baseball guys all the time because they are long. That’s the beauty of their release. How many pictures of Clayton Kershaw do we love — Zack Grienke — it’s perfect.”

Kyler Murray during his windup vs. Clayton Kershaw
Getty Images and Getty Images

“Now shortstops and different position players, they get the ball off quickly,” Roth said. “Get it out of the glove, get the ball out. It’s different.”

6. There are questions about Murray’s arm strength in baseball.

A scouting report in Baseball America says Murrayshows a 30 arm right now [the low end of the 20-80 scale], but he doesn’t get to work on his throwing arm for baseball because he is muscled up for football.”

Oklahoma’s baseball coach, Skip Johnson, explained further.

‘He didn’t take infield/out(field) with us at all last year,’ Johnson said. ‘He’s going to get better and better with throwing a baseball the more he does it. We didn’t think it was a big deal because he was throwing the football so much.

‘But he didn’t get drafted for his throwing arm. He’s going because he can run and he can hit.’

Ball placement is as key for an outfielder as it is for a quarterback. A ball thrown slightly behind a receiver can mean an incompletion. A ball thrown slightly above an infielder's head can mean the runner’s safe.

“You watch a guy like Aaron Judge or other guys in the Major League with really good arm strength,” Herzenberg said. “The ball carries. It looks like it’s gonna start sinking, and it stays up. They’re generating a lot of backspin, so there’s a natural element to this trajectory.”

Reilly concedes Murray’s arm is a work in progress, but in centerfield, throwing is a secondary skill. Catching is primary.

“I’d say the arm action for the typical outfielder is a little bit longer [than a QB’s], a little bit looser just because the weight of the ball impacts your arm action less, being only a five-ounce ball,” Reilly said. “I think everybody knows there’s arm strength there because you can watch him throw a football 60, 70 yards. Everybody’s anxious to see what happens when he gets baseball full time, lengthens out his stroke and release.”

7. Murray simply understands how to use his body and how playing different sports can enhance his performance in each.

“I think the biggest carry-over is the ability to control your body,” Dilfer said. “I think with the benefit of playing lacrosse or baseball or playing golf and how it equates to honing your craft as a quarterback, is you’re understanding kinetic sequencing. Naturally, your body learns to match itself up instead of being segmented. People that struggle athletically are segmented. Their body moves at different timings, I guess is the way of saying it. Their bodies don’t flow together.”

Josh Rosen got ridiculed for his tennis background, but perhaps no sport demands its athletes to generate rotational force more often. Every time Rosen hit a forehand, he was twisting his body. Dilfer says even the movements in a defensive stance in basketball translates to quarterbacking.

“When you know how to sequence and fire your hips, the biggest thing quarterbacks realize is wow, I’m not all arm,” Roth said. “And the minute they start to utilize their ground force equals rotational force, they’re like whoa, there’s more zip on the ball. The ball finishes better. There’s more revolutions on the ball because you’re using your body. It’s just like a golfer. Like, how does a golfer who weighs 120 pounds rocket 300 yards on a drive? It’s the torque, their hips.”

“If you’re quick there, you can actually hold it a little longer,” Dilfer said. “You can wait for people to get a little closer to you. There’s a lot of things you can get away with if you’re quick from the time your brain says throw it to the time it comes off of your fingers.“

8. The key for any multi-sport athlete is managing those similar skills in different ways, but that’s about to change for Murray.

With the dual-sport overlap, the tendencies an athlete has to rinse from their brain are more mental than physical. Herzenberg gave this example of a a two-sport athlete he played with in high school:

“I remember him making a comment in between games that he didn’t know how to re-turn himself back on. He had mentally exhausted himself in game one, and baseball’s a much more marathon process mentally. Football’s a go, go, go, go, bang, bang for a few hours. We can rest and build up for the next Saturday game. Baseball, you play an extra inning game on Monday night and you’re out ‘til midnight playing the game and you gotta wake up on Tuesday and play another game.”

Fortunately, Murray’s played multiple sports for much of his life. When he shows up at spring training a few weeks after OU’s bowl game, it’s not like he’s going to ask how to hold a bat. For once, he’ll be able to focus on just one set of skills.

“Hey, the defense is in 3-4 and the outside linebackers are gonna blitz. I gotta prepare for that and call an audible,” Herzenberg said. “My running back can pick him up and I can throw a screen to the tight end. That’s really different then sitting on a curveball or judging a fly ball.

“Playing quarterback at the level Kyler is playing is really hard. Hitting a baseball is really hard, but it’s totally different. Aptitude and intelligence are really important for both perspectives, as long as you’re able to use them in different directions.”

9. Baseball comes later. 2018 was for football, for the last time.

“It’s a topic that probably comes up a lot less than people on the outside might think,” Riley said. “More than anything, proud of him and what he’s done and what he’s been able to do in baseball. That’s exciting for him and his family. We’ve had fun with it, we’re happy for him, but like I said — especially right now — it’s the furthest thing from anybody’s mind.”

The A’s monitored OU’s QB race throughout the summer. They took a gamble picking Murray at 9, hoping he’d realize his ceiling, because growing talent is way cheaper than buying it on the free agent market.

“There’s floor and there’s ceiling, and you’re just trying to weigh the risk and reward of everyone,” Herzenberg said. “It’s economics. It’s just like betting stocks on Wall Street. Kyler Murray is the sexy emerging-market startup, where this could hit and I could be a multimillionaire, or this thing could fail. Are you willing to make that risk?”

Reilly might have had a slightly different reason for paying close attention to who would start at OU — he went to rival Oklahoma State.

“[Murray] was certainly, I’d say, Sooner born and Sooner bred,” Reilly said. “Once he found out I was a Cowboy, he didn’t hold back to talk his fair share of trash. I think all of the Sooner nation would be proud to hear that. And in my position, I was poised to listen to what he had to say and politely disagree.”

2018 was Murray’s fulfillment of promise, resetting the bar of his potential. The five-star’s time at A&M was largely forgettable and ended with a transfer. It seemed like a career derailed, but the second wind at Oklahoma has been gale force.

He’d piloted Allen to three football state championships and a 42-0 record. He’s the first player to play in both the Under Armour All-American football and baseball games. He is the son of a talented dual-sport athlete and nephew of a Major League outfielder (Calvin Murray), and he’s now living up to the billing.

“This guy might change an organization,” Herzenberg said. “This guy, if he clicks, he’s gonna be a multiple-time All-Star.”

“The last thing I’ll say about Kyler,” Dilfer said. “He is the greatest high school quarterback that’s ever played, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. He never lost in Texas [5 and] 6A football, and it wasn’t just because he played for a loaded team.

“In all my years doing this, I wouldn’t say the best prospect, because there’s others, but in terms of watching games and watching him compete and watching him win, I can’t think of anybody.”