It’s a parlor game popular with sports fans and sports media alike: anointing one athlete in each pro sport the “face” of their league. The question is relevant in a business context, because it speaks to a league’s most marketable, endorsement-friendly player.
In the NFL, popular consensus is that the face of the league is likely one of its two star quarterbacks: Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Some right now might point to JJ Watt, who has earned plaudits for his community service in Houston, but there isn’t an abundance of obvious alternatives to Brady or Rodgers. In the NBA, it’s even less of a debate: the biggest current star is certainly either LeBron James or Steph Curry.
In baseball, the field is wide open. And the current World Series may be changing some minds on the subject.
Last year’s World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians was the most-watched World Series in 12 years, and Game 7 was the most-watched single MLB game in 25 years. The Cubs had not won it all in 108 years, and the team’s inspiring story was the biggest story in baseball in 2016.
This year, the rise of the Houston Astros took up that mantle. Or, New Yorkers might argue, Yankees rookie Aaron Judge did.
Judge, a 6-foot-7 slugger from Linden, Calif., set a new rookie home run record this year with 52 homers. He had the No. 1 bestselling jersey of the season. And he plays in the country’s No. 1 sports media market. He’s known for hitting big, showy home runs, the simplest crowd-pleaser in baseball.
But the Yankees missed out on the World Series, toppled by the Houston Astros. And Astros star José Altuve, the shortest player in the game, is proving to be as electric and exciting as Judge, if not more so.
Altuve vs Judge
In Game 1 of the American League Division Series, Altuve hit three home runs. In Game 2 of the World Series, he smacked a solo home run in the 10th inning that gave the Astros the lead. His teammate Carlos Correa followed it up with another solo home run. The Astros went on to win the game in 11 innings and tie the series.
Altuve does it all: the three-time Silver Slugger was also a Gold Glove winner in 2015; he was the American League batting champion in 2014, 2016, and 2017, and the AL stolen base leader in 2014 and 2015. And in the postseason, he is getting additional exposure over Judge.
To be sure, the LA Dodgers also have big star power: Clayton Kershaw is one of the best three pitchers in pro baseball, though some say that a pitcher is a stretch for the face of the league, since he doesn’t play every game. Justin Turner, with his distinctive red hair and red beard, has brought thrills to the postseason as well.
Kershaw, Harper, Trout, or someone else
And there are, of course, a number of other strong candidates after this season: Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, Mookie Betts.
[This debate was the topic of a recent Yahoo Finance Presents podcast; you can listen on iTunes or scroll to the bottom of this post.]
Rich Cohen, author of the new book “Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse,” thinks it’s Javier Baez. Mariano Rivera, the retired Yankees legend, suggests Harper, Trout, or Yankees pitcher Luis Severino.
But none of those players are in the World Series. Altuve is, and depending on his performance, could cement his top-star status.