Baseball has a superstar problem. There aren’t enough of them. They aren’t known enough on the national scale. And this year’s All-Star voting is just further proving it.
Major League Baseball released an All-Star voting update and the most recognizable name on there is Mike Trout, which is warranted and just. But things quickly go downhill.
There’s no Bryce Harper, no Manny Machado, both of whom are having fine but not great seasons. Alex Bregman, who is trying to become a superstar right in front of our eyes, is the leader at third base in the AL, but he’s not a household name yet.
Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Nolan Arenado and Javy Baez are leaders in their positions, and as great as they are — and they’re really, really good — they’re still more regional stars than national stars.
Then the vote leaders include people like Josh Bell. He’s having a wonderful breakout season, but if you’re a general sports fan, do you even know what team he plays for? Same for Tommy La Stella, the AL leader at second base or Jorge Polanco, the leader at shortstop.
Just look at it. Unless you’re a hardcore baseball fan, there’s a good chance you don’t know half these people:
Who are you most surprised *ISN'T* an All-Star leader at this point? pic.twitter.com/HEhhSRbP4g
— Yahoo Sports MLB (@MLByahoosports) June 17, 2019
This isn’t a knock on any of these players. They’re either great players or having great seasons. But when you take the list as a whole, it’s pretty telling about baseball in 2019.
There’s no Jeter type player. No A-Rod. No Bonds. Baseball lacks that type of star right now. You could make the case that the Jeter (now an owner) and A-Rod (now a broadcaster) are still the biggest names within the baseball world.
Baseball has a hard time in 2019 getting its players to appeal to the casual sports fan — the person who occasionally will click on to a baseball game once hockey and basketball seasons are over.
There was a funny moment last week when NBA star Klay Thompson was talking about great players getting second-guessed for injuries. He named players in various sports and then when he got to baseball, he stumbled for a second and said “who’s a baseball player?” before continuing on with his list.
While baseball may lack household names, it doesn’t lack great players. In fact, we’re at a point in the game where the skill level is almost mind-blowing. It doesn’t lack for great stories either. The game has players — young ones, old ones, unlikely ones — who are fascinating.
Take La Stella, a 30-year-old veteran second baseman whose 15 homers have already more than doubled his career total. Or Luke Voit, who was basically gifted to the New York Yankees last season from the St. Louis Cardinals and has turned into a potent slugger who is the AL leader at his position.
Or Bell, the Pirates first baseman, who was slammed earlier this year in Sports Illustrated by an anonymous scout from another team who said he “can’t play.” He’s responded by hitting .321 with 19 homers and an NL-leading 65 RBIs.
These are great tales. Even All-Star worthy. But there’s a disconnect. Baseball isn’t a sport where it’s easy to make a guy like Josh Bell a national star anymore.
There are a few different reasons for this — market size and so on — but to me, the biggest one is the tribal nature of modern baseball.
Josh Bell will be an All-Star because Pirates fans rally around him and vote him in. Jorge Polanco, who is having a great season in Minnesota, will be an All-Star because Twins fans vote him in. That will be the case for most of these players.
A new wrinkle in All-Star voting this year could help. Right now we’re in the “primary” phase of voting. Eventually, there will just be three finalists at each position and fans will be forced to — if they don’t just ghost the entire process by then — vote for someone who isn’t on their favorite team. We’ll see.
For better or worse, baseball fans have withdrawn into their tribes more and more these days. Your average baseball fan likes his or her favorite team and hates their rivals. They watch their fantasy lineup. They might have a hot take about Machado or Harper. But that’s about it.
We’re an on-demand society that has access to whatever we want at our fingertips. Part of that is being able to watch every one of our favorite team’s games on a cable channel focused on our favorite team. That’s great for the super fan, but is it great for making superstars?
Things like push notifications and Facebook groups make it easier to limit our baseball intake to our favorite team. But these are also the things that limit the way baseball produces superstars.
For years, the common refrain has been to blame the league for this, but we have to blame ourselves too. The NFL and NBA have communal viewing experiences. If the LeBron James is playing James Harden and you’re a Knicks fan, you may still watch that game. If Aaron Rodgers is playing Tom Brady, you may still watch that game even if you’re a Rams fan.
If you’re a Red Sox fan, are you tuning into to watch the Manny Machado vs. Nolan Arenado on a random Wednesday night? The league would hope so, but we all know better than that.
There’s not the same critical mass of baseball fans who care about the national scope of the game like they used to. They’re super devoted to their teams and will fill the All-Star ballot boxes with the best and most deserving players who wear the uniform of their tribe.
That’s what life is like as a whole in the social media era. So it makes sense that baseball is the same way.
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