Four weeks after he hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy at MetLife Staduim in February of 2014, Russell Wilson reported to Surprise Arizona to participate in spring training with the Texas Rangers. Although the Rangers technically hold the rights to Wilson as a baseball player, he didn’t actually appear in any spring training games, and returned home after taking a few grounders and batting practice swings. Wilson made an appearance at the Rangers spring training complex this year as well.
Wilson’s spring training attendance was little more than a publicity stunt, but there was a time when he was a fairly well-regarded baseball player. After his junior season at North Carolina State, the Colorado Rockies drafted him as a second basemen in the 4th round of the 2010 amateur draft. Before he joined the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, he spent parts of two seasons in the Rockies organization, where he recorded 379 plate appearances between two levels of A-ball.
Up to this point, Wilson’s stint as a professional baseball player has been just an interesting footnote. But in a recent interview with Bryant Gumbel, Wilson hinted that he’d be open to playing both sports simultaneously — a la Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders or Brian Jordan. Regardless of what he said in the interview, I find it hard to believe that Wilson will actually try to pull this off. He’s one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, and has played in two consecutive Super Bowls. Would he really compromise his football career just to see if he might be able to succeed at baseball too?
Even if Wilson does decide to revive his baseball career, it’s hard to imagine it would go well. Save for his two abbreviated trips to spring training, Wilson hasn’t played baseball in nearly four years. Plus, even when he was playing everyday, he was viewed as a relatively fringy prospect. Stranger things have happened, I guess, but his odds seem pretty long.
Wilson’s desire to play big league baseball may be little more than a pipe dream at this point. But what if he had chosen to stick with baseball instead of going to the NFL? Might we be mentioning him in the same breath as Red Sox prospect Garin Cecchini, who was taken three picks after Wilson back in 2010? We’ll obviously never know the answer to these questions, but I thought it might be fun to look at Wilson’s small sample of minor league plate appearances to get a general idea.
After signing with the Rockies in 2010, Wilson reported to Short-season A-ball to kick off (pun intended) his pro baseball career. The then-21-year-old second baseman closed out his draft year by hitting .230/.336/.377 in 143 plate appearances before leaving his minor league club in late July to prepare for college football training camp. Wilson’s 25% strikeout rate was higher than you’d like to see, but his offensive performance was otherwise fairly decent. He hit for decent power and drew the occasional walk, which earned him a wRC+ of 108. However, Wilson was a bit raw on the base paths. Although he had excellent speed — he ran a 4.55 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine — Wilson was caught stealing six times in ten attempts.
Wilson’s second season as a pro wasn’t quite as good as his first. The Rockies bumped Wilson up to full-season ball in 2011, where he logged 236 plate appearances before leaving for football. While his .228/.366/.342 batting line looked a lot like his line from one year prior, his peripherals were much worse. Although he ran a solid 15% walk rate, his strikeout rate skyrocketed to 35% and his power tailed off in his first taste of full-season pitching. If not for his lofty .380 BABIP, Wilson’s batting line would have been abominably awful.
That ended up being all she wrote for Russell Wilson the baseball player. He transferred to the University of Wisconsin the following fall, where he had a breakout season as the team’s quarterback. The Seahawks drafted him in the third round that year, and the rest was history. After 93 unremarkable minor league games, Wilson opted to play football full-time.
For the heck of it, I decided to run Wilson’s minor league numbers through the KATOH machine to see what my system would have thought of him in his days as a baseball prospect. Since the samples from both of his pro seasons were pretty small, incorporated both seasons into his projection. Here’s what KATOH spat out.
|MLB||>4 WAR||>6 WAR||>8 WAR||>10 WAR||>12 WAR||>16 WAR|
That’s… just awful. KATOH gives him a less than one in ten chance of playing a single game in the majors, and basically no chance of being of any big league relevence. Using the lessons gleaned from my many hours of KATOHing, it’s easy to see why this is the case. Strikeout rate is very predictive for hitters in the low minors, and Wilson’s 31% K% was straight up awful. A high strikeout rate in the low minors isn’t always a death knell for a hitter, but a strikeout rate north of 30% is extremely concerning when it’s not offset by at least average power. And with an ISO of .127, Wilson never hit for much in-game power. To make matters worse, Wilson’s one long suit — his high walk rate — has very little predictive power for hitters in the low minors. Statistically speaking, there wasn’t much to like about Wilson’s game.
Of course, this analysis ignores the fact that Wilson basically never played baseball on a full-time basis. This certainly isn’t insignificant, but it’s darn near impossible to quantify. Part of KATOH’s pessimism has to do with the fact that Wilson was old for his level, but considering he recorded just 282 plate appearances in his three years at NC State, his age-to-level situation was at least somewhat excusable. It goes without saying that he would he have been further along on his the development path had he focused on baseball exclusively in college. But, considering he was still learning the nuances of playing baseball, 22-year-old Russell Wilson almost certainly had a larger gap between present and future ability than your average 22-year-old.
However, that gap might not not have been as high as you’d think. Every time I come across a toolsy, multi-sport hitter in the low-minors, I think of an article that Jason Parks wrote back in 2012. After racking his brain and talking with several people within baseball, Parks concluded that there’s never really been an uber-raw prospect who eventually developed into a star. Not recently, anyway. Here’s the money quote.
Some in the game believe that acquiring multi-sport athletes out of high school with unrefined baseball skills is a market inefficiency, one that could produce superstars at bargain prices. This is a high risk/high reward plan of attack, and it places an almost unrealistic responsibility on the player development side, giving them the finest material in the world to work with, but asking them to encourage intrinsic qualities that might not be present in the athlete.
Wilson is a tremendous athlete. You pretty much have to be to hack it as an NFL quarterback, and even within this elite subset of physical specimens, Wilson’s probably more athletic than most. His athletic ability also got Wilson pretty far in the world of baseball. Not only was he was good enough to get paid to play baseball, but he was good enough to get drafted. However, due to his frightening strikeout numbers, Wilson appeared to be horribly over-matched against A-ball pitching. We’ll never know for sure how good Russell Wilson could have been had he stuck with baseball, but based purely on the numbers, he never really looked the part of a future big leaguer.