Here’s the story of two excellent, two-sport stars and the difference between baseball and football.
Jeff Samardzija was one of those rare players who was truly good enough to be a pro football or pro baseball player. When he finished his four years at Notre Dame, he was the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards. Twice, he was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the best receiver in college football. He was also an excellent pitcher, going 21-6, 3.82 as a pitcher at Notre Dame.
Samardzija was a solid prospect in either sport. He was a solid NFL draft prospect as a receiver and a solid MLB prospect as a pitcher. Samardzija chose baseball in part because the Cubs gave him a guaranteed $10 million, but also because he was considered only one of the top 8-10 wide receiver prospects ($) in the 2007 NFL draft, so he wasn’t a sure-fire first-round pick.
Calvin Johnson was one of the best wide receivers college football had seen in years. A member of that same 2007 NFL draft class, Johnson was easily considered the top receiver in not just that year’s draft, but one of the better wide receiver prospects of the decade. So it was never a tough decision for him to choose football, but coming out of high school, he was also considered a very promising baseball prospect as an outfielder.
Johnson has lived up to every expectation. He’s making a case to be considered among the greatest wide receivers in NFL history. He’s a five-time Pro Bowl choice and a three-time first team All-Pro. He twice led the NFL in receiving yards, already ranks 30th in all-time receiving yards and is only a year or so away from likely cracking the Top 20.
Samardzija’s baseball career has been much more mixed. That initial major league deal he signed forced him to move pretty quickly to the big leagues, and it took him several years to settle in. After struggling badly in 2009 and 2010 he broke through as a reliever in 2011, moved to the rotation in 2012 and took a big step forward in 2014, when he made the all-star team for the first and only time so far in his career. As a 30-year-old, Samardzija took a big step backward this year, going 11-13, 4.96 in his final year before free agency, with his ERA ranking 76th out of 78 pitchers who pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title in all of MLB.
Samardizja has been very up and down as a starter. In the past four years, he’s posted an ERA+ of 96, so in essence, in ERA he’s been slightly worse than the average pitcher. There’s still some promise there, but there’s only been one year in his career that Samardzija has produced as a front-line starter.
Here’s where the difference in compensation between the NFL and MLB becomes very apparent. So far, Johnson has done better financially than Samardzija. According to Sport Trac over his nine NFL seasons, Johnson has earned $113.8 million. He could earn an additional $67.7 million over the final four years of his current deal, but none of that remaining money is guaranteed. If he is injured tomorrow, the Lions could release him before next season and avoid paying any of that remaining money.
Johnson is as good as an NFL player gets. He’s not a quarterback, but he’s the best, and the best-paid, wide receiver in the game.
Samardzija has been a promising if inconsistent starting pitcher. So far he’s earned $43.795 million, so Johnson—a much better performer—has earned more. But Samardzija is expected to sign a free agent deal this month that will pay him roughly $100 million over five years. Obviously we won’t know the full deal until he signs, but with the recent contracts that David Price, Jordan Zimmerman and Zack Greinke have signed, the market for starting pitchers is not getting cheaper. And MLB deals are guaranteed, so when he signs, Samardzija knows he’ll collect every penny. And when that deal is done, he still may have another contract in his future.
So when he signs his new deal, it’s likely that Samardzija will make more as a baseball player than Johnson will in his NFL career, even though Johnson is as elite as an NFL player gets, while Samardzija is a middle-of-the-road starting pitcher. Also, Johnson is taking a much bigger risk with his health, as report after report of ex-NFL players with chronic tramautic encephalopathy demonstrates.
Most players don’t really have a choice of choosing between the NFL and MLB. Most are significantly better at one sport than the other. But if all things are equal, Samardzija is a great example of how it pays to play baseball.
December 4, 2015 by J.J. Cooper, Baseball America