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.