“If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him?” The New Yorker’s Ben McGrath raised that question in a provocative essay last month.
I’m reasonably certain that I would recognize the MLB outfielder if he walked into One Star. But McGrath’s point is well-taken. Despite being (as McGrath aptly calls him) a “once-in-a-generation talent,” Trout is relatively anonymous. Based on Google search traffic so far in 2014, Trout is only about as famous as Henrik Lundqvist, the New York Rangers goaltender. He’s one-fifth as famous as Peyton Manning — and one-twentieth as famous as LeBron James or Lionel Messi.
Trout’s also much less famous than Derek Jeter, a shortstop who hit .256, with four home runs, this year.
That Jeter fellow, as you may have heard, played his last baseball games Sunday. Jeter’s case for being a once-in-a-generation talent is weaker than Trout’s. Jeter never won an MVP (although he probably should have won one in 1999). He rarely led his league in any offensive category. He was one of the best baseball players for a very long time — but he was not clearly the best player at any given time. In that respect, he’s more similar to Pete Rose or Nolan Ryan or Warren Moon or Patrick Ewing or Nicklas Lidstrom — great players all — than generational talents like Peyton Manning or LeBron James or Willie Mays or Ted Williams.
Jeter, however, was probably the most famous baseball player of his generation.
Google Trends maintains data on Google search traffic since 2004, a period that captures the second half of Jeter’s career. Google searches aren’t a perfect proxy for popularity — as you’ll see, infamy can also get you a lot of Google traffic — but they’re a reasonably objective approximation of it.
I looked up the search traffic for Jeter, along with that for every other baseball player to post at least 30 wins above replacement (WAR) from 2004 through 2014. (Jeter’s WAR, controversially, was only 31.4 during this period; about 50 players rated ahead of him.) I also included every MLB MVP winner since 2004 — along with Trout, who might finally win an MVP this year. The chart below lists everyone else’s search traffic relative to Jeter’s.
Jeter leads in Google traffic. The only players within 50 percent of him are Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Ichiro Suzuki.
Rodriguez and Bonds, of course, have made news in recent years, mostly for their use of performance-enhancing drugs. Suzuki is a better comparison, but most of his search traffic is because of his extraordinary popularity in Japan. In the United States, Jeter generated five or six times as much Google interest as Suzuki did.
Otherwise, Jeter laps the field. Based on the Google numbers, he’s been about nine times as famous as his Yankee contemporary Mariano Rivera. He’s been about five times as famous as David Ortiz, another legendarily “clutch” performer. He’s been about 30 times as famous as Jimmy Rollins, a fellow East Coast shortstop and one who did win an MVP award.
Jeter’s also considerably more famous than today’s best-in-a-generation players. Even in 2013 — when he was hurt and played in only 17 games — Jeter was about as popular as Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Andrew McCutchen combined, at least according to Google.
Playing in New York almost certainly had something to do with this. Lots of Yankees and Mets rank high on the Google list. Robinson Cano, the former Yankee, has gotten twice as much search traffic as the Philadelphia Phillies’ Chase Utley though the two are highly similar statistically.
But I hope that Trout, Kershaw, McCutchen or Bryce Harper does something extraordinary this postseason and begins to build a legend of his own. It’s not healthy for a sport when its most popular player is 40 years old.