For all the metrics meant to determine a player's individual popularity in sports -- All-Star votes, Q rating, endorsements -- I'm not sure there's a better one than jersey sales. It's a commitment to buy a guy's jersey. First off, you're a grown human being happily wearing a garment with another grown adult's name on the back, so you've already shown a willingness to give up some personal dignity in the name of devotion. (I, of course, plead guilty to this myself.) And those things are expensive. An authentic jersey is going to cost you as much as the nicest seat in the stadium. This makes it that much more upsetting when players so blithely destroy them. I'm looking at you, Nick Punto. Those things don't grow on trees, pal.
So if massive numbers of people are spending their hard-earned cash on your jersey, it, to me, is the best sign that you have a real, lasting fan base. Which is why I always love those top-selling jerseys lists. They allot for everything: a player's historical import, their current level of success, their team's market share and just how much fun they are to watch. LeBron James was the top-selling jersey for a few months after he signed with the Cavs again, but then Stephen Curry flew past him, as he should have. LeBron's still No. 2, but Kristaps Porzingis has zoomed to No. 4, because there are a ton of Knicks fans and he is light years more enjoyable to watch than Carmelo Anthony. The new guys get their run, but old dogs like Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose still clock in at Nos. 3 and 6, respectively.
Thus, we can learn much about Major League Baseball by looking at jersey sales. Last November was the most recent tallying of the MLB top 20. Here they are:
1. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
2. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
3. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
4. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
5. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
6. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
7. Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants
8. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
9. Matt Harvey, New York Mets
10. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
11. David Wright, New York Mets
12. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
13. Todd Frazier, Cincinnati Reds
14. David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
15. Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
16. Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
17. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
18. Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox
19. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
20. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
(Visit the MLB.com Shop for all your jersey-buying needs.)
That was in November. But what will next November look like? Who will emerge in 2016 as major stars, and who will recede? Let's dig in.
First, let's look at that list. When you put together a top 20 come November 2016, it seems likely certain players will drop off. It doesn't look good for Pujols (fading as a player, and the team is likely to struggle), Molina (even if he's healthy, he's not what he was), Wright (too many options on his own team) and Frazier (not a Red anymore, and probably only on the list in the first place because of the 2015 All-Star Game being in Cincinnati). It's sort of surprising that there isn't a single Yankee on that list. The Jeter jersey is surely still the top seller, and no one has replaced him yet. You also get a sense of what teams are always going to be huge sellers (Cubs, Giants, Mets, Red Sox) and which teams, while popular, don't have a single star to coalesce around (Royals, Rangers and Cardinals). Also: Where is Paul Goldschmidt? Buy more jerseys, Arizona fans.
And then there are players who came up too late or emerged in the playoffs. Kyle Schwarber. Noah Syndergaard. Corey Seager. Even Michael Conforto. I want a Syndergaard jersey, and I'm not even a Mets fan.
Here's my prediction for what the list will look like come November. Apologies to Giancarlo Stanton, by the way. Marlins fans just don't seem to buy jerseys in high volumes.
20. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks. He's too good not to show up here somewhere, right? Especially since the D-backs should be better this year. Unless initial Zack Greinke excitement cuts into it.
19. Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians. The Indians need a fan base bounceback, and Lindor might be just the guy.
18. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates. He could use a bit of a bounceback year, but even so: Is there a Pirates fan who doesn't already have his jersey? Also, how's that extension coming?
17. Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants. He'll always be popular with Giants fans, but again, it's difficult to imagine he'll do too much this year to convince people who don't already have his jersey to buy another one.
16. Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox. David Ortiz will get a lot of goodbye purchases, but this feels like the year where Betts takes the torch as the next Red Sox superstar. No offense to Laser Shots Pedroia, but wouldn't you rather have a Betts jersey?
15. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays. He's not new anymore, but he's still an American League MVP Award candidate on a World Series contender.
14. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays. The downside is that he's a free agent after the season and could thus make a jersey purchase a bad investment. The upside is that there will be some real protest voting -- pay the man! -- happening here. And also, you know, this:
13. Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers. A consensus National League Rookie of the Year Award favorite, Seager is the player all your Southern California kids will be pretending they are in their backyards over the next decade or so.
12. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs. There are almost too many Cubs jerseys to buy right now.
11. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets. He looks better in the jersey than you ever will -- the combination of his height and lankiness with his preposterously long name is tough to beat -- and I still think he might end up being the best starter out of the whole rotation.
10. David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox. Even if you already have one, you'll want one more to say goodbye.
9. Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs. I have a feeling this is about to become the Cubs hipster jersey of choice, the one heftier Cubs fans -- the ones you're always afraid are going to jump through the bar window -- make famous.
8. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Still the best player in baseball. But on a worse team than ever. He's on the West Coast on a team that could actually end up last in its division, and he doesn't have the personality of anyone else in the top 10. You watch: Within the next three years, we'll be underhyping Trout again.
7. Matt Harvey, New York Mets. As long as you're not one of those weirdos who puts "DARK KNIGHT" on the back. (Though after "Batman v Superman," who wants to do that?)
6. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants. I think he drops just because he didn't have the opportunity to become a god-like figure last October. He's Bumgarner. He'll probably just do it again this postseason.
5. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers. I'm not among those who think the Dodgers will be taking a step back this season, and all told it might be time for Kershaw to have his Bumgarner postseason.
4. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants. How many more years until Posey becomes a sure-fire Hall of Famer? Four? Three? Two?
3. Carlos Correa, Houston Astros. Correa should be the biggest leaper from last season. This looks like the transition year from "rookie phenom" to "the guy you get tired of sportswriters telling you how amazing and unique he is." If the Astros win 100 games -- and they might -- he could even win the AL MVP Award.
2. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals. He's brash, he's loud, he's awesome and he's young. If he were a Cub, the president and all members of Congress would be wearing Harper jerseys all day.
1. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs. He's the handsome, established, powerful, mom-friendly face of the most popular team in baseball, one everyone -- whether they even like baseball or not -- will be watching from Day 1 in 2016. This season is going to be all about the Cubs. He'll repeat as champ.
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