Before we ask who, if anyone, can replace Derek Jeter as the face of baseball, there’s another question to ask: Why has Derek Jeter been the face of baseball? Why did he, more than anyone else, become the game’s singular player, the player people talked about most, the player people argued about most, the player non-baseball fans knew?
See, the face of baseball is something of an honorary title. I like to think of this way: Imagine a movie that is not at all about baseball. Let’s say it’s about some sort of Marvel superhero or about Scarlett Johansson having absurd powers or … no, those are pretty much the only two kinds of movies that come out now. OK, in this movie there is a character (probably played by John Krasinski) who is a baseball fan. He happens to mention how much he likes one baseball player.
That player he mentions? He is the face of baseball.
For years now, Derek Jeter would be the player mentioned. Why Jeter? Let’s look at the dozen or so best players since 1990 as ranked by Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR):
1) Barry Bonds, 139.0
2) Alex Rodriguez, 116.0
3) Albert Pujols, 95.5
4) Chipper Jones, 85.0
5) Ken Griffey, 80.3
6) Jeff Bagwell, 79.6
7) Adrian Beltre, 74.3
8) Frank Thomas, 73.7
9) Jim Thome, 72.9
10) Larry Walker, 72.7
11) Derek Jeter, 72.1
12) Scott Rolen, 70.0
Now, it’s true that many people do not like WAR as a tool to measure players -- it’s not unfair to argue that Beltre gets too much credit for defense or that Jeter gets too little, and some would that Bonds and A-Rod are frauds who should not even count on a list like this -- but the point remains. Jeter was not the best player in baseball. In many years, he was not even the best player on his own team. Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano not to mention pitchers like CC Sabathia and Mariano Rivera all had years when they were, by any statistical measure, every bit as valuable as Jeter.
So why Jeter? Well, he was the shortstop and, after a while, the captain of America’s most undeniable team. People love and loathe the New York Yankees, and Jeter was the essence of pinstripes. The true Yankee. He was the guy hitting at the top of the order, the guy making that jump throw at shortstop, the guy who so often did something memorable like dive into the stands after making a dazzling catch or flip that ball home to get Jeremy Giambi at the plate or hit the winning home run as midnight rang in November.
Jeter had something else too, I think: He played a sort of baseball that felt personal. That’s a hard thing to quantify –-- but when you watched Derek Jeter play you FELT something. Maybe you felt that Derek Jeter was overrated. But even that is something. He was a fantastic player in measurable ways -- he played every day, he cracked 200 hits, he hit double-digit homers, he stole 20 or so bases, he scored 100 runs -- but it was always the things you could not measure that separated him. His leadership. His alertness. His competitive nature. His professional blandness.
These things inspired people to write and say the most over-the-top things about him -- Jeteration, I began to call it -- and it also inspired a backlash from people who grew tired of him being credited for everything good to happen in the world since the polio vaccine. His defense at shortstop was one of the battlegrounds. The defensive numbers suggested he was a below-average defender, and often well below average. But the eyes saw it differently, and Jeter won five Gold Gloves.
These were always things about Jeter to talk about, things to celebrate, things to complain about. He represented big things to people, things like “the right way to the play the game” or “the overhyping of the Yankees” or simply “winning.” No matter how boring Jeter tried to be (and he tried very hard to be boring) he was not. He was this good looking bachelor in New York who dated supermodels and played for a team that always won. He was adored by teammates and respected throughout the game. He played shortstop every day for the New York Yankees, who always made the playoffs and five times in his career won the World Series. How could he not be the face of baseball?
And who can replace all those things? Nobody, I suspect. But I have thought of 10 players who, in their own way, have a chance of being the next face of baseball, the guy Krasinski mentions in the movie:
1. Mike Trout, Angels: Well, it seems everyone is penciling in Trout as the next face of baseball, and that makes sense. Trout is the best player in the game. More than that, he’s the most amazing player we’ve seen since ... I’ll say the young Barry Bonds. Trout does everything -- hit, slug, run, throw, field, get on base -- and he’s a joy to watch.
But face of baseball is a bit more complicated than that -- and I’m not sure Trout inspires the same level of emotion in people that Jeter did. He IS doing Subway commercials, and he just won the All-Star Game MVP, and he plays in the shadow of Disneyland, so there are real possibilities there. But I’m not sure what arguments he sparks (other than arguments about him consistently losing MVP awards to Miguel Cabrera). He’s just ... great. He plays for a not-especially-interesting team on the West Coast ... I’m not entirely sure that people will find him consistently fascinating, that people will develop the same strong feelings about him that they felt about Jeter ... and Ken Griffey Jr. ... and Don Mattingly ... and Pete Rose ... and Roberto Clemente ... and Mickey Mantle ... and so many of the other players who became the face of the game. Time will tell.
2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates: Well, he’s my personal choice. He’s a few years older, but he’s become something like the National League’s Mike Trout. He too does everything well. And, while some may disagree, I think he’s just a little bit more charismatic than Trout.
I think the question is: Can a player in Pittsburgh become the face of baseball? I think the answer is yes, IF the Pirates win. So much of Jeter’s exposure came in Octobers. If the Pirates would become a consistent playoff contender, I think McCutchen could become the face of baseball because he has the game, the verve, and he’s interesting.
3. Yasiel Puig, Dodgers: I’ve long thought that MLB does not celebrate its worldliness as much as it could. During the All-Star Game, there was a point when Texas’ Yu Darvish was pitching, when Kansas City’s Salvador Perez was catching and when Puig was hitting. That’s a Japanese pitcher throwing to a Venezuelan catcher against a Cuban hitter. That’s baseball now -- 68 years ago, it was lily white, strictly national, and as racist as any sports institution. Now, more than a quarter of the players in the game were born in 16 other countries.
Puig has come to represent the changing game. He’s easy to like, easy to dislike, he does amazing things, he does ridiculous things. He’s a player the eye naturally follows. He also plays in Los Angeles for a Dodgers team that should win a lot.
4. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: He’s the best hitter in the game, but he’s 31 and has been in the majors for 12 seasons and has not really become a breakout star even after winning the triple crown.
5. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: It’s not easy for a pitcher to become the face of baseball but it has happened -- especially in times when pitching dominated such as the 1960s and early '70s. In that time, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver were three of the biggest figures in sports.
Well, more and more, pitching is dominating the game. And Kershaw’s ultra-dominance (for example, his absurd 134-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and the fact that he’s a fantastic lefty pitching on the same mound that Koufax used (only quite a bit lower) make him a viable face of baseball candidate.
6. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins: The most powerful force in the game ... he hits the longest home runs, and he hits them with extraordinary ease. He’s just so commanding as a hitter. With Stanton, a lot depends where he ends up playing. The next face of baseball probably will not play for the Miami Marlins.
7. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox: I’m throwing him in here because he’s a lot like Jeter. He’s a middle infielder that sparks an instant reaction from people. Also much of his value is considered to be beneath the surface and beyond his solid statistics. He’s an excellent defensive second baseman, a lifetime .300 hitter with some power and speed, and he’s a fiery player who despises losing. He also plays for the Red Sox, who have won three World Series in the last decade and, like the Yankees, are difficult to ignore.
8. Bryce Harper, Washington: This is a wild-card choice, certainly, but there’s something about Harper that makes him a real candidate. He was SO hyped as an amateur player. He was SO hyped when he came up as a rookie. He was doing national television commercials -- something that few baseball players do -- before he even established himself as a Major Leaguer. And he plays an all-out, reckless style that people cannot help but notice and talk about.
Of course, Harper has also been injured and a disappointment so far. He’s only 21-years-old though, and he’s already shown superstar talent at times. Very few young players breeze into superstardom the way Mike Trout did. If Harper develops into a superstar, I think he will be bigger in the American consciousness than Trout.
9. Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee: Many despise him, right? Well, that’s part of Q Rating too. Gomez is an extraordinary player. He plays with boundless energy, hits with surprising power, chases down everything the outfield. He also plays with heightened emotion, which leads to all sorts of things -- fights, hit-by-pitches and so on. There’s a fun documentary about Dominican baseball called “Road to the Big Leagues” that has a young Carlos Gomez dancing around and talking about becoming a star. He’s really a larger-than-life figure.
10. Kris Bryant, Cubs: OK, it’s a reach -- Kris Bryant has not taken one swing in the Major Leagues -- but he has a couple of things going for him. One, he’s absolutely destroying the minor leagues; Cubs GM Theo Epstein calls Bryant a “freak” and “the most adjustable prospect we’ve ever had.” He slugged .700 in High Class A, slugged .700 in Class AA and is now slugging .700 in Class AAA. He adapts to each level instantly, like he’s a shape shifter. He could be a star quickly.
And if he spearheads a Cubs revival, as some believe he will, that will put him very much at the forefront of baseball. The Cubs' almost 70-year drought without a pennant, and their more than 100-year stretch without winning a World Series, is baseball’s biggest storyline. It’s a long way off, but Bryant is one of those players with a chance to fill the Jeter void.