Derek Jeter fandom reached new heights during the 2014 season. There has never been more fanfare for a .256 hitter, and there probably never will be again. But he’s the Captain — the biggest star on the biggest team in the biggest city. As the world watched Jeter take his final swings, the question that should have been weighing on the minds of baseball fans and MLB executives had to be: who’s next?
The seemingly obvious answer is Mike Trout, the wunderkind five-tool centerfielder. Like Jeter, he has taken the MLB by storm from an early age and plays for a contender in a major US market — Los Angeles. These factors all point toward Trout being baseball’s next big thing, but Ben McGrath of the New Yorker recently posed an intriguing question.
“If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him?”
My initial reaction is yes, but then again, I’m writing a blog for an athlete endorsement platform. A quick poll from my office — filled with tech and culture savvy twenty-somethings — produced mixed results, with over 60% of my coworkers claiming that they would not recognize Trout in public.
The Google data only backs up this perception. As illustrated by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Trout pales in a popularity contest with Jeter, and is one-twentieth as popular as LeBron James. In fact, Trout compares more favorably to New York Rangers goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. The popularity of baseball’s great hope is on par with a man who the public nearly exclusively sees donning a face-hiding mask.
Jeter, meanwhile, has been the MLB’s most famous player of his generation and just showed the sporting world that an aging, former great can be celebrated for six straight months. Baseball diehards will deny the necessity of major stars, pointing out team allegiance as the league’s driving force. The casual fan, however, craves to see the headliners. The NBA is thriving behind once-in-a-generation on- and off-court stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The NFL, though currently battling through controversy, still has a hold of America’s eye and claims one of sports’ most personable figures in Peyton Manning.
With no Jeter, an aging Papi and a despised A-Rod, where will the MLB turn?
To youth, undoubtedly. The league is ushering in a new era of young stars in Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw, and the ever-polarizing Yasiel Puig, among others. While the group has put up monster regular season numbers, they have each suffered early playoff exits, with particularly disappointing performances from Trout, Kershaw, and Puig. As for Harper, he came closest to postseason heroics with three home runs in four games before falling to San Francisco. But close isn’t close enough — the MLB’s search for the next star continues.