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How do some players become fan favorites?

Some guys prove it’s not all about world-beating talent and off-the-charts stats when it comes to popularity.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Some players were born to be fan favorites. Take Aaron Judge, for example. From the moment his massive frame and penchant for hitting some of the most majestic home runs you will ever see debuted in the Bronx, the talented outfielder has been the face of the franchise and one of the most popular players in the major leagues. It’s a no-brainer that a player as naturally athletic and gifted as he is would become a fan favorite.

But sometimes other guys come along and, despite not being the most talented player on the planet, manage to make themselves into fan favorites. Sometimes they have a penchant for coming through in big moments, and sometimes they provide a somewhat unexpected spark defensively, but all of them seem to have this rare, unidentifiable quality about them that helps endear them to the fandom.

I want to figure out what that quality is.

There’s an old joke that I’ve seen floating around Twitter that goes something like this: Who is your team’s favorite player, and why is it the backup catcher? That couldn’t have been more true at the beginning of this season for Yankees fans. Jose Trevino was a last-minute acquisition — the type of deal that makes you go “Eh, okay” when the news breaks — and all he’s done since then is put up a career year in basically all facets of the game. I’m sure the front office saw something in him beyond his defensive prowess, but I don’t think anyone saw him becoming a legitimate top-10 catcher in the majors this season.

I wrote about Trevino’s unlikely journey to the Bronx this past June, and a lot of what I wrote there still remains true. He had a knack for coming through with clutch hits in the first half, and his defense has been absolutely stellar this season. His bat has come back down to earth in the second half but he’s still managed to retain his fan-favorite status. Despite his second half struggles, there is just something about Trevino that makes me want to root for him. His unlikely big hits might be few and far between lately — though, I obviously have to acknowledge that he had a huge hit on Friday night — but he still remains one of my absolute favorite players on the team.

Oswaldo Cabrera is actually the player that made me want to write about this topic, though. From the moment he came up, Yankees fans, myself included, fell in love with the kid. Obviously, the ability to play excellent defense all over the field helped his case — and, in particular, the ability to slide almost flawlessly into outfield positions he had rarely, if ever, played before — but it was clear he wasn’t a well-rounded player yet. His bat has really started to come around lately in a big way, and he might have forced the organization to give him a long look for the postseason roster, but over his first month with the team he was a well below-average hitter who looked overmatched more often than not.

Somehow, for a lot of fans like myself, those struggles didn’t really matter. That's especially weird for me, given how much I rely on analytics to understand what I’m seeing on the field. Despite his early struggles at the plate, I wanted to see him in the lineup every day because he was, simply put, a joy to watch. His youthful energy made the team more entertaining, and his electric personality drew my attention to him. He might have looked overmatched at the plate, but he somehow made us certain he belonged in the majors. The outfield assists were a bonus.

So, why do some guys become so beloved by fans, even when they’re not setting the league on fire?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this phenomenon lately. Last year’s unlikely rise of Nestor Cortes first got me thinking about this topic, and Trevino and Cabrera brought it back to the front of my mind this year. I think I’ve finally settled on an answer to why I find myself cheering for these guys: It’s their regular-ness.

Allow me a brief divergence into a different sport to help illuminate what I’m talking about. When Kawhi Leonard became the best player in the NBA during his run with the Toronto Raptors, a story from his time at San Diego State went viral. Apparently, his coach had asked him to play help side defense, and Kawhi couldn’t understand why his teammates couldn’t just guard their guy straight up like he could. He wasn’t being a jerk about it or anything; he genuinely could not understand why he could do something that his teammates could not.

Bringing this back to baseball, it’s easy to understand why freaks of nature like Aaron Judge become fan favorites: Their natural talent enables them do things that no one else is capable of on a nightly basis. As I’ve written before, we marvel at their awe, and find ourselves wishing we had even a sliver of the talent they possess in their pinky finger.

But this little divergence also highlights why I think guys like Trevino and Cabrera endear themselves to fans like me so quickly. They aren’t naturally gifted with all the talent in the world like the Aaron Judge’s of the world, but, like the rest of us average folks, they have to work their butts off to make a name for themselves.* As far as Major League Baseball players go — remember, pretty much all of these guys were, at one time, the absolute best players in their respective leagues growing up and represent the most talented baseball players in the world — they are as “regular guy” as you can get. In other words, they’re relatable. To me, that was the missing piece of the puzzle. Obviously the hits and the defense and the personality and everything else helps, but at its core, I gravitate towards these players because they’re just so damn relatable.

*Author’s Note: This is not to say that Trevino or Cabrera aren’t talented. Drop either of them onto my beer league softball team and they’d look like literal gods. This also isn’t to say that naturally talented athletes like Aaron Judge don’t have to put in the work either — we simply know that’s just not even remotely true of him.