Major League Baseball has a lack of star power. Mike Trout, the undisputed best player in baseball since about 2013, has the cultural cachet and name recognition of maybe the 50th best NBA player. Since Derek Jeter retired, there arguably isn’t a single player who has crossed over into popular culture.
There are structural reasons for this. No one baseball player can dominate a team or game the way basketball or football players can. Tom Brady and LeBron James touch the ball almost every play. Baseball pitchers only play in 20 percent of their games, and hitters only get to bat 1 out of every 9 times. Baseball players also lack time to devote to marketing since they play every day. And don’t underestimate the star-making power of basketball’s shoe culture and fantasy football. Baseball simply has fewer tools to promote its players.
Still, I reject these structural arguments as a complete explanation for the lack of stars in MLB. There have been superstars in our lifetimes. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were maybe the most well-know American athletes in 1998. Players like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr, and Cal Ripken were household names in the 1990’s. That wasn’t very long ago.
Here’s a crazy idea to help generate star power in baseball: abolish the draft.
In 1992, a high-school player named Derek Jeter wanted to play for the Yankees, who picked sixth in the MLB Draft that year. To achieve this, he lied to the first five teams picking, telling them he planned to attend the University of Michigan no matter where he was drafted. It worked. The Yankees grabbed him and the rest is history. Jeter and New York was a perfect marriage. A young, biracial star with an uncanny ability to make clutch plays at the right time. Everything fit, and Jeter became the most famous baseball player in America.
But it was a fluke the Yankees picked 6th that year. Had the Yankees been picking lower in the draft, Jeter might not have tried to game the system. He’d be a Houston Astro or Montreal Expo. He would’ve still been a Hall of Famer, but he would be Craig Biggio-famous, not Derek Jeter-famous.
What if every player was allowed to pick his own team?
Take Trout. He’s electric on the baseball field, more fun to watch than any other player. But he’s a complete bore off the field. As much as Angels fans love him, he’s miscast in Southern California, where star power has its own definition. Los Angeles is designed for a player like…I hate to say it…Bryce Harper, who is a natural in front of a camera.
Put Trout in Philadelphia (his hometown, btw) and his persona is completely different. Trout is a blue collar player and Philly is a blue collar town. His instincts to only shine on the field would actually enhance his image, which would be better projected by playing on the East Coast.
The lack of star power in baseball isn’t a function of having the wrong players, it’s having the right players in the wrong places.
There’s an obvious downside to this. The MLB draft is the only democratic means to distribute talent throughout baseball. Any abolition of the draft would have to come with reasonable spending caps to prevent the sport from becoming college football where Alabama gets almost whatever recruit it wants.
But there may be positive unintended consequences as well. The incentive for teams to tank for draft picks is gone entirely. And perhaps teams would treat their minor leaguers better if they were forced to recruit them.
It’s drastic, yes, but eliminating the MLB Draft is just the sort of thing that would shake up baseball’s completely stagnant star-making system.