Baseball lacks ‘star power’…abolish the draft to fix it

Major League Baseball is lacking star power. Mike Trout, the undisputed best player in the game since at least 2013, has the name recognition of maybe the 50th best NBA player. Since Derek Jeter retired, there arguably isn’t a single baseball player capable of crossing over into popular culture.

There are structural reasons for this. Baseball players don’t have the same ability as their football and basketball counterparts to dominate a game. Tom Brady touches the ball almost every offensive play–same with LeBron James. Meanwhile, baseball pitchers don’t even play in 80 percent of their own games, and hitters only bat one out of every nine times.

Baseball players also play almost every day, limiting their time for promotional and marketing appearances. Also, don’t underestimate the marketing strength of basketball’s shoe culture and fantasy football.

Still, I reject these structural issues as a full explanation for the lack of marketable baseball players. Less than a generation ago, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the most well-known American athletes. Others like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr, and Cal Ripken were nationally known. The world has changed since then, but it hasn’t changed that much.

In 1992, a high school baseball player named Derek Jeter wanted to play for the New York Yankees, who picked sixth in that year’s draft. To achieve this, he lied to the first five teams picking in the draft, telling them that he planned to attend the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship. The ruse worked and the rest is history. The Yankees and Jeter were a perfect marketing match–the most storied baseball franchise in America’s biggest city drafted a mature, biracial team leader with an uncanny ability to make memorable, clutch plays.

What if every player were able to choose his team?

Take Trout, an electric player on the field but a complete bore off of it. Angels fans love him, but he’s miscast in Southern California, which has its own unique definition of what it takes to be a star. Trout is a blue collar guy–he belongs in a blue collar city where a willingness to shine only on the field is an asset. Put him in Philadelphia (which is his hometown, btw). His persona would be immediately transformed. He would define the city and be more easily marketed playing on the East Coast.

The perfect star for LA isn’t Trout, it’s…and I hate to say it…Bryce Harper. Harper was raised in Las Vegas with a flare for the dramatic, and he’s a natural in front of the camera.

Baseball doesn’t have the wrong players. It has the right players in the wrong places.

I realize proposal this is highly unlikely. Teams will be remiss to give up the only democratic means they have to distribute talent. Any proposal to abolish draft will have to come with spending caps to prevent baseball from reverting to the 1950’s–a clone of college football where Alabama signs whoever they want.

But there are benefits. The incentive to tank for draft picks is entirely gone. And teams will be penalized for engaging in perpetual rebuilding projects–top prospects will only want to sign with teams actually trying to contend, or teams that are close to contending. Also, teams will be forced to treat their minor leaguers better since they’ll be recruiting them.

Abolishing the draft would be a bold move. But if baseball truly believes they’re facing a crisis of irrelevancy, perhaps a bold move is necessary.

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Do Nationals fans still love Bryce Harper?

Early in his career, either 2013 or 2014, Bryce Harper did a short stint on the disabled list. In his first game back, he played left field and fielded a ground ball single in the top of the first inning. Instead of lazily throwing the ball back in to the infield, he charged it and fired the ball into first base, hoping to catch the runner not paying attention. It was a one in ten thousand type baseball play–the type of thing fielders rarely ever do.

Harper didn’t get the runner. In fact, the throw was a little off target and the Nats’ first baseman was caught off guard–he had to dive to stop the ball from flying into the stands. The whole sequence was unexpected, bizarre, and–above all else–exciting. Some tweeter on my timeline simply wrote “yup. Bryce is back.”

That was the bargain with an early Bryce Harper. He’d do crazy things you didn’t expect. Take second base on an otherwise routine single when the outfielder casually fielded the ball. Try to throw out runners where no other sane fielder would try. And they weren’t all good things. Bryce would routinely get himself ejected. He’d run into outfield walls. Most of all, he didn’t care what anybody thought. He didn’t mind that opposing fans thought he was a preening pretty boy when he’d flip his hair after a home run, and he’d keep arguing with umpires when it was completely counter-productive. In spite of, and often because of, all these flaws, Nationals fans loved him and defended him when it seemed all 29 other fan bases and the national media didn’t like him. For better it worse, he made a repetitive game like baseball a little more thrilling. The game was different when he was involved–you could immediately tell when “Bryce was back.”

Now Bryce Harper is on what seems to be a death march through his last three months as a National. He is struggling at the plate–he’s currently hitting .213–but something else seems different as well. His ubiquitous presence has receded, and fan loyalties have been distributed to other more “accessible” players like Max Scherzer or younger players like Juan Soto. There is no way to measure this, but fans seemed resigned to him signing elsewhere and it’ll no longer be a cataclysmic event when it happens.

There are many reasons why this might be case, but perhaps one of them is the fact that Bryce himself is different. Those “youthful indiscretions” on the baseball field that were charming in 2013 are both less frequent and less forgivable considering Bryce is supposed to “all grown up” now and a team leader. In any event, the experience of watching Bryce Harper is noticeably different and, for what it’s worth, Bryce doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself as much either. Eventually, Bryce won’t “be back” and it’ll be less painful than we ever imagined it would be.

Was last night’s comeback against the Marlins a “turning point”?

Let’s get this out of way: last night’s game was fun. It was the biggest comeback in Nationals history and it came at the perfect time. It was a cathartic moment for a fan base that badly needed one. More importantly, it put the team back at .500 and a little bit closer to the top.

Ok, now that we’ve established that, can we be real for a millisecond? The Nationals didn’t score 14 straight runs because they had a “players-only” team meeting the day before. They didn’t give up 9 straight runs because of the team meeting either. To paraphrase a President from an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy, post hoc ergo proctor hoc does not apply.

The Nats won because they finally put hits in close enough proximity to each other to push runs across the plate. They scored runs because the Marlins’ starting pitcher stumbled the third time through the Nats order and generally ran out of gas. And the Nats finished erasing the 9-run deficit because the Marlins bullpen started throwing batting practice in the 6th inning.

It’s an old trick to hold a “players-only” meeting right before your star pitcher takes the mound or you face a bad team. It just so happens the Nationals finished a tough 3-game series against the best team in baseball–the Red Sox. And before that, it was the Phillies, who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Here’s another thing to consider. The Nationals had a brutal 7-16 stretch in April that started their season on a sour note. The poor record in that stretch was a bit of a mirage–the Nats lost 8 straight one run and extra inning games. Results in close games tend to regress towards the mean, and they did. After April 28, the Nats went 8-2 in one-run and extra inning games, a stretch that briefly put the Nats in first place and 10 games over .500. The luck reversed. In their 4-13 stretch before last night, the Nats lost 6 straight one run and extra inning games.

The trend will again regress to the mean. Maybe it’ll happen this weekend against Miami. Maybe not. That’s the thing with luck–we don’t know.

But we do know a bad team came to town, and the Nats recent losing skid isn’t exactly what it appears to be. A turning point was likely–“players-only meeting” or not.

By all means, enjoy the comeback. It was a memorable night of baseball. If it inspires this club, that can only be a good thing. You were bothered by the losing–I promise you it bothered them more.

I’m rooting for a big winning streak. But unless the “players-only” meeting involved steroids, we’ll have to find a more logical explanation.