Changing positions in baseball is often just part of the game. But it is rare a position change occurs in a player’s final year of eligibility. It is even more rare still that the change is from the mound to the outfield.
But that is the transition coming for redshirt senior outfielder Shea Murray ahead of the 2017 season. The former pitcher will be taking his talents to the outfield where he hopes to compete for a starting spot in his final season with the Ohio State baseball team.
The decision to make such a drastic position change came toward the end of the 2016 season. The coaching staff sat down with Murray and discussed a way for the 23-year-old player to have an impact on the team after three years of limited playing time.
“My mechanics were not great — I couldn’t locate the ball like I at one time could and basically coming into my fifth year, I just wanted to have an opportunity to get on the field any way that I could,” Murray said. “And we lost a lot of the lineup from last year: two of the outfielders (Ronnie Dawson and Troy Montgomery) and a lot of the hitters. I felt like if there was any opportunity to make that transition, it was this year.”
The decision to join OSU as a pitcher initially was not his alone. After graduating from Defiance High School, Murray spoke with baseball coach Tom Held who recommended he try to walk on as a pitcher due to his size and projectability.
“He’s just a guy who’s got a lot of God-given ability, that I always knew if we convinced him that he could throw 90 miles per hour as a pitcher, he could walk on,” Held said. “I said, ‘you throw 90 at 6-foot-5 the way you are, they’ll keep you as a walk-on and that’s what he did.”
Held – who has sent four pitchers to professional baseball, including Jon Niese and Chad Billingsley, as well as five pitchers to Division I college baseball – believed if there was ever a player who could make this transition, it was Murray.
“We have a little idea to compare Shea with all those guys,” Held said. “Shea’s more athletic than any of them. That doesn’t mean he’s a better pitcher, but he’s more athletic.”
Murray opted to redshirt his true-freshman season. That year he appeared in five games with little success, posting a 30.38 ERA across 2.2 innings. The following year, he made six appearances, but again failed to find much success as he produced a 7.04 ERA in 7.2 innings of work.
Despite the struggles, Murray attracted big-league attention. After the 2015 season, Murray was drafted by the Texas Rangers when they selected him in the 39th round of the draft, 1158th overall.
Some might find it strange to draft someone with only 10.1 innings of collegiate experience, but former Chicago Cubs scout and Cincinnati Reds’ interim general manager Brad Kullman said that is a typical pick for teams late in drafts given the upside that comes with Murray’s profile.
“There is an old saying in baseball that you can teach a kid off-speed pitches, and you can work with his mechanics (to improve control), but can’t teach arm strength,” Kullman said. “The Rangers scout must have had a theory that they could work with his mechanics and try to harness his power. If he truly has not just a good arm, but two-plus pitches for a 39th rounder, it’s not an unreasonable gamble to try to catch lightning in a bottle.”
Despite the offer to play professionally, Murray opted to return to OSU to prove to himself he could improve his value and still contribute to the team’s success.
“I felt I could up my draft stock coming back and playing for another year,” Murray said. “I felt like I had unfinished business here at Ohio State, that was before we had won the Big Ten Championship. That was before I really had very much playing time and also, I hadn’t finished my degree yet, so it was a combination of things that was why I wanted to come back.”
The 2016 campaign yielded better results for Murray as he logged 2.0 innings in two appearances and a 0.00 ERA with four strikeouts. The season also saw him log an inning in center field and register his first at-bat as a college player.
After the season ended, OSU baseball coach Greg Beals saw practice in the outfield as a chance for Murray to reset his mechanics and get back to basics. But Beals was impressed enough by what he saw in Murray’s defensive ability and potential offensive upside that he now believes Murray might have a chance to stick in the outfield as a starter this season.
“Shea’s a great athlete, I mean (he) can really run and throw; he’s a big, physical kid with great tools to play outfield defense,” Beals said. “He’s taken to playing the outfield extremely well and we’ve left him in that position, because we think he’s got a significant opportunity to contribute to our ball club this year.”
For Murray, this transition has required spending many hours in the batting cages and shagging fly balls out in the field. His summer was spent improving his swing and defensive ability in the field with coach Beals and former MLB outfielder Matt Angle.
Held believes Murray’s dedication to the baseball following a high-school career as a three-sport athlete has helped him make this transition by providing him with confidence in his ability and a strong work ethic.
“He went to work that day (he made the position change) and has continued to put himself in a position maybe to put himself on the field and I couldn’t be more proud of him,” Held said. “Most guys wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t even take on that challenge.”