Monday, March 21, 2016

How Many MLB Players "Put Butts in the Seats"?

A few weeks ago, as we watched a rare Knicks win at the Garden, my dad wondered aloud why tickets for remaining Knicks games are still fetching exorbitant prices on StubHub. Why would people pay so much to watch such a team that feels like it's trapped in a Chinua Achebe novel? Of course, there are a few well-documented reasons for this phenomenon. First, the Garden remains a place to be in New York, and the market won't depress Knicks prices like it would for other horrible teams. Second, people will pay high premiums to see stars visit any NBA arena. For those reasons, a good seat to the Cavs-Knicks matchup at the end of March is still about as hot a ticket as a backstage pass for Hamilton on Broadway.

By my count, there are 19 NBA teams* that have at least one star that people in other cities will consistently come to the arena to watch.

*Those teams and players: Chicago (Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose); Cleveland (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving); Dallas (Dirk Nowitzki); Detroit (Andre Drummond); Golden State (Stephen Curry); Houston (James Harden); Los Angeles Clippers (Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan); Los Angeles Lakers (Kobe Bryant); Miami (Dwyane Wade); Milwaukee (Giannis Antetokounmpo); Minnesota (Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns); New Orleans (Anthony Davis); New York (Kristaps Porzingis, Carmelo Anthony); Oklahoma City (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook); Portland (Damian Lillard); Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins); San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard); Toronto (Kyle Lowry); Washington (John Wall).

You might quibble with one or two of those guys, or add a few of your own, but most of those players do indeed "put butts in the seats." 

Since there are only 10 guys on the court at once in a basketball game, and stars have the ball in their hands for much of each game, NBA stars put more butts in the seats than MLB luminaries do. However, I thought it would be interesting to take a trip around pro baseball and decide which players I'd go out of my way to see. Do 19 baseball teams have at least one of those guys?

There are a few other ways that I could have phrased the title of this post. I could have asked, "How Many Players Would I Pay Extra to See?" or "How Many Players Pass the Piss Test?"*

*I've discussed my Piss Test before, and it's very different than the piss test that ruined the life of Jenrry Mejia. My Piss Test stipulates that I'll hold it and risk wetting myself if a star player is due to hit (or pitch) in that half-inning. 

So let's compile a list of baseball players that bring more fans to the ballpark than we'd otherwise expect. For each division, we'll list the position players and pitchers that put butts in the seats.


Position Players: Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, David Ortiz, Kevin Kiermaier, The Heart of the Blue Jays' Order

We'll start with the Red Sox, who surround the player I hate watching more than any other (Dustin Pedroia) with three can't-miss stars. Betts and Bogaerts are two of the most valuable cornerstones in baseball, and Ortiz will draw crowds across the country in his final season.

Heading south on I-95, Machado is probably even more spectacular than Boston's two youngsters. When he's healthy, each O's game is exponentially more riveting. (Machado's teammate Chris Davis originally made this list, then I decided I wouldn't pay much extra to most likely watch him strike out three times.)

It's a shame that centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier is forced to ply his trade at Tropicana Field most of the time, but when the Rays hit the road, see that guy! A tremendous athlete, Kiermaier goes after fly balls like Luke Kuechly attacks ball-carriers. He also hit 100 on the radar gun from the outfield last season. I love watching the guy, even when he's robbing hits from my Yankees.

Meanwhile, up in Canada, the Jays have a bunch of mashers that have recently thrilled the Toronto faithful. Suffice it to say that the Jays have at least four guys that I'd pay extra attention to. Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, and Edwin Encarnacion are all outstanding players. But it's only when you put them all together that you get the chance to see something historic. No matter what lineup construction John Gibbons settles on, the Jays' Heart of the Order will put butts in the seats.

The Yankees were shut out from this portion of the list, but I'm holding out hope that Starlin Castro will become a must-see player in a year or two. Other than that, I guess some people might want to catch A-Rod before he hangs up his spikes, but I wouldn't shell out any extra cash for that privilege.

Pitchers: David Price, Chris Archer, Masahiro Tanaka, Craig Kimbrel, The Yankees' Bullpen

Price has been one of the best starters in the game for years, and Archer figures to have one of the brightest futures. Both guys blend power and control in a way that's as pleasing as their fan-friendly personalities.

Archer (via
Tanaka doesn't quite bring the same level of excitement as those aces, but I still get pumped every fifth day for #TanakaTime -- and not only because of the potential for ridiculous Post headlines.

In the bullpen, Kimbrel is the most dominant reliever since Mariano Rivera, but who knows how long it will last. See it while you still can; ditto for the Yanks' super-pen (ideally after Aroldis Chapman has returned from suspension).


Position Players: Miguel Cabrera, Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano

Cabrera is one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball history, a close approximation of Peak Albert Pujols at the plate. We should treasure watching Miggy at the tail-end of his prime. On the other end of the age spectrum, Lindor and Sano are still a few years from even reaching their respective apexes. Still, we can already enjoy Lindor's wizardry at shortstop -- his arrival coincided with an unprecedented improvement by Cleveland's defense -- and Sano's otherworldly power. Sano's teammate Byron Buxton might make this list next spring, but the burly righty swinger is just more of a proven commodity at this point.

Sano (via
Pitchers: Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, The Royals' Bullpen

Sale is Randy Johnson Lite, and here's what Jonah Keri wrote about him in a recent Trade Value column:

"Enjoy watching the South Side’s 6'6", 180-pound outlier obliterate AL hitters for as long as this lasts; we might not see another pitcher quite like him for a long time."

That sounds like a "butts-in-the seats" player to me! Similarly, the Klubot looks like he's grown into a perennial Cy Young candidate.

As for the Kansas City 'pen, some units are more fascinating than the players that comprise them. Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera have been outstanding the last few years, but I'd never go out of my way to see the Royals because of either one of them. But as a whole, the Royals relief corps has become a template for many other teams after leading KC to two straight pennants.


Position Players: Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Andrelton Simmons, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Correa, Carlos Gomez, Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano

Beltre and Pujols are future Hall of Famers, and you want to see as many of those as you can; save your ticket stubs. Besides, Beltre is still one of the best defensive third basemen in the league and Pujols can still crush one 450 feet.

I have yet to catch Simmons in person, but now that he's in the AL, I'll definitely plan a trip to Yankee Stadium to see his Ozzie Smith-esque fielding with my own eyes. Jeff Sullivan ran a poll on Fangraphs the other day asking, "What type of baseball dork are you?" I identified as a Defender Dork, so I feel like it's my duty to marvel at prime Simmons in person at least a few times.

I got to see Correa and Altuve a few times last year, and I wished I had four eyes so I could observe both of them at the same time. Correa is a tremendous athlete out there, and Altuve has that Ichiro-esque quality of making anything seem possible at the plate and on the bases. Their teammate Gomez makes the list this season because I had so much fun booing him last year after his kerfuffle with the Yankees.

As for Cano, I just can't quit the guy. That swing, just...

Pitchers: Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish

In terms of attendance, King Felix outdraws other Mariners starters by a wider margin than any other pitcher outdraws his teammates. #FelixDay is a huge event at Safeco Field.

Darvish is best enjoyed from behind home plate, the best vantage point for watching him fool hitters with his three dozen different pitches.


Position Players: Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton

Stanton and Harper (via
Harper and Stanton might be the two MLB players who should put the most butts in the seats, but Marlins attendance figures say otherwise. I'm hoping one of these guys ends up in the Bronx, and I'll get my butt to a few more games per season.

Pitchers: Max Scherzer, Jose Fernandez, The Mets Rotation

Last year, Scherzer treated fans in away stadiums to 118 2/3 innings in which he struck out 151 batters. In the first half of the season, he was one of the premier must-see pitchers in recent memory. Here's to hoping he explodes out of the gates like American Pharoah again this year.

Fernandez, meanwhile, is one of baseball's precious Faberge egg, and the Marlins will treat him as such this year. We're just can only just hope and pray he doesn't get hurt again -- and enjoy the hell out of him every fifth day.

As for the rest of the NL East, Braves and Phillies fans would be best-served waiting for the Mets to come to town if they want to see great starting pitching. What the Gergich family is to hot blondes, New York is to flame-throwing young hurlers.


Position Players: Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto

I could have just gone with the Cubs middle-of-the-order like I did with the Blue Jays, but Schwarber and Bryant stand out among Chicago's group. The young'uns have raw power that would make Tim the Toolman grunt.

McCutchen is one of the most exciting players in the game, the rare small-market MLB player that a casual sports fan in another city would recognize. I would've paid a little more to see him when he had his braids in tow, but he's still a fabulous show.

As for Votto, here's what Grant Brisbee wrote last week:

"Just like the '96 Giants team that turned me into a rabid fan somehow, the '16 Reds are going to have Joey Votto, and that might be reason enough to watch them. Votto's nervous system is a supercomputer that processes balls and strikes .01 seconds quicker than the typical player's, and it makes him an absolute joy to watch."

Spot on. Votto has achieved that highest level of hitting, the ability to wait patiently like a boa constrictor until the pitch is right then pounce and hit the ball savagely in the direction from which it came.

I left a few big names off the NL Central list, most notably Ryan Braun. On an Effectively Wild podcast a few weeks ago, BP Milwaukee's Ryan Romano compared Braun to Votto as the Brewers' "face of the franchise." Romano also said that Braun "to some extent, puts fans in seats." Maybe that's still true in Milwaukee, but I wouldn't especially look forward to seeing Braun in 2016.

Pitchers: Jake Arietta, Gerrit Cole

Arrieta and Cole feature a bunch of power pitches that make up some of the filthiest offerings in baseball. (It's just unfortunate that both guys spell their names so confusingly.)


Position Players: A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt, Yasiel Puig, Buster Posey, Nolan Arenado

Pollock (via
I covered Notre Dame's baseball team when Pollock was there, and even then, I thought he was a better centerfielder than many major leaguers at the position. Once or twice a game, he did something utterly jaw-dropping, and I'd prefer to watch him than any other D-Back. With that being said, Pollock's teammates Goldschmidt and Grienke are two of the best at their crafts. Goldy is a perennial MVP masher, and we''ll get to Greinke in a minute.

But even though those great players will likely drive Arizona's attendance figures up, the D-Backs still might not edge the Dodgers or Giants in terms of star power. Even though Puig took a considerable step back last year, he's an athletic freak who's just a little less unpredictable than the Cuban Missile Crisis. His mix of daring and fast-twitchiness means that he remains a can't-miss attraction. As for the Giants, Posey is a consistent joy to watch. I'm sure many Twins fans wish they could go back several years to re-live Joe Mauer's prime. Don't make the mistake of missing out on Posey.

In the non-contending portion of the division, Arenado is one of the only bright spots in a Rockies organization that's rebuilding at the pace of a Colorado stoner.

Pitchers: Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Madison Bumgarner

Kershaw is one of the best we'll ever get to watch, and his former teammate Greinke is one of the most interesting. Meanwhile, with Maeda, I just want to see if he's more Yu Darvish or Hideki Irabu. Either way, if the righty ends up on either extreme of that spectrum of Japanese pitchers, it'll be wildly entertaining.

Last but not least, Bumgarner is best watched from box seats so you can see his snotrockets up close. Also, he and Posey constitute one of the best batteries of their generation. Catch them while you can.


So there you go. Including multi-player units like the Jays hitters and the Yankees bullpen, 20 teams have position players -- and 16 have pitchers -- that I'd go out of my way to watch.*

*For the record, here are the six teams with nobody who really puts butts into the seats: 
--Oakland A's
--Atlanta Braves
--Philadelphia Phillies
--Milwaukee Brewers
--St. Louis Cardinals
--San Diego Padres

Of course, unlike with NBA stars, there's no guarantee that your favorite MLB "butts-in-the-seats" guy will have an effect on a given game. Interestingly, on a recent Bill Simmons Podcast, sports/pop culture guru Chuck Klosterman said that if he were in a bar, he'd recognize fewer than 10 current baseball players. Clearly, baseball players lack the cultural cache of their counterparts in some other sports. And I'm sure that I care more than most casual sports fans about seeing those guys up there. Still, as I decide which games I'll hit at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field this summer, the opportunity to see some of the players listed above will be one of the most important factors I consider. I suggest you do the same at your local ballpark.

Did I miss anybody that you'd pay extra to watch? Please let me know who else puts your butt into an overpriced stadium seat.

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Follow Francis Tolan on Twitter @frantweet


  1. Although I did not read this entire blog post, (solely due to, too much sports content) I did read the beginning. Is it sad to know that I only recognized some of the people you named due to the Kardashians (James Harden)?!?!?

    1. Nope, it's not sad. It's just another reminder of how much more famous NBA players are than their MLB counterparts. Sorry there are no baseball players that the Kardashians find suitable (although Bryce Harper would definitely be able to handle one of the Jenner girls).