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The moments we knew they were superstars

There's always that one game when a star reaches the next level
@michaelsclair
September 2, 2020

There’s always the moment. The spark of brilliance that lets us know that this is no hot streak, no run of statistical luck that will one day regress to the mean. There’s that singular game that tells us that our eyes are right: This player is special. He’s different. He’s

There’s always the moment. The spark of brilliance that lets us know that this is no hot streak, no run of statistical luck that will one day regress to the mean. There’s that singular game that tells us that our eyes are right: This player is special. He’s different. He’s made it.

It’s happening right now with Fernando Tatis Jr. as we marvel at another brilliant moment, day after day and night after night.

Today, let’s look at five superstars and the one game when we knew they had reached a new peak, when they had become the superstar they were always meant to be.

Mike Trout
It seems like destiny now: How could Trout be anything but a superstar? And sure, the signs pointed that way. He had decimated the Minor Leagues and made his big league debut at just 19 years old.

But he was never the top prospect in the game, either. After struggling in his 40-game taste of the Majors in 2011, Trout entered the 2012 season ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the game behind Matt Moore and Bryce Harper.

Trout was good, but like so many prospects, he was no guarantee.

Well, you likely know the rest. Trout went on to win the Rookie of the Year that season, finished second in MVP voting and is now in the running to be the greatest of all time when he hangs up his cleats.

But when did we know that Trout had achieved that level of stardom? It came that season, but it wasn't immediate.

Trout started the year in the Minors because of a bout with the flu during Spring Training. When he came up in April, he went 1-for-11 in his first three games. Sure, no reason to worry, but this also wasn't an immediate 5-for-5 with a cycle, either.

Soon, he got hot and had an .887 OPS at the end of May. He raised it another 30 points by the end of June. That's also when he made his most iconic home run robbery in Baltimore:

This was when the first mentions of Mickey Mantle comparisons were uttered. Tim Kurkjian said it, and so did Al Kaline.

Still, this was before the All-Star break. And plenty of hitters -- from Shane Spencer to Bryan LaHair -- have managed to impress for a few months before reverting to form.

So, when did everyone know Trout was Trout? Aug. 18, 2012.

That day, while facing the Rays, Trout went 3-for-4 and raised his OPS back over 1.000. He hit his 23rd home run, and he stole his 39th base. He put every single one of his unbelievable tools on display and there was nothing the opposition could do to stop him. Angel Stadium was a mere sandbox for him to play in.

Earlier that week, his rookie cards began selling for over $1,000 on eBay -- a good chunk of money, but a far cry from the $3.9 million that one went for recently. People started getting (bad) Trout tattoos. And when the next issue of Sports Illustrated came to press, Trout was the cover star. Suffice to say, he's lived up to the billing of "The Supernatural."

Mookie Betts
Teams may have underestimated Trout, but he was still a first-round pick and a top-3 MLB prospect. Betts was anything but.

The Red Sox drafted Betts in the fifth round and he came up through the Minors as a second baseman -- usually the position that players move to when it’s revealed they can’t cut it at shortstop any longer. Rare is the superstar that begins at the keystone.

But Betts wouldn’t stop hitting, and soon made it onto prospect maven's radars. He entered the 2014 season listed as the No. 62 prospect in the game and made that ranking look foolish as he hit well against Major League pitching immediately after being called up later that year. By the end of the 2015 season, Betts' combination of speed, defense, and batting eye made him one of the game's best outfielders.

But it was in 2016 when he became a superstar.

After carrying an OPS below .800 into late May, Betts started a hot streak that has basically continued until today. He had his first -- of what is now six -- three-homer games on May 31. Still, the AP story didn't believe it, writing that the leadoff hitter had merely “slipped into the role of slugger.”

His defense -- always good -- began earning accolades, too, and he was named July's American League Player of the Month. He was the heart of an incredibly fun Red Sox team that celebrated victories with outfield dances.

Betts had already set a career-high in home runs by early August, so manager John Farrell moved Betts down to third in the lineup. The right fielder rewarded his manager's decision on Aug. 14 -- the day when he reached his zenith.

Betts homered in the first off Zack Greinke. He did the same the next inning. He hit his third in the fifth off Adam Loewen and became the only Red Sox batter other than Ted Williams to have two three-homer games in a single season.

Immediately, tweets started pouring in saying he belonged in the MVP race.

The Providence Journal’s Bill Koch said Betts had become a superstar. Fans started claiming he was even better than Trout.

Betts didn't win the MVP that year, finishing second to Trout -- a feat in itself. But it was then that we knew an MVP Award was in his future.

Jacob deGrom
deGrom made his big league debut with the Mets in 2014, and at no point looked like the pitcher who had finished the previous season ranked as the Mets' 19th-best prospect -- a ranking generally fit for future middle relievers and defensive replacements.

Instead, deGrom won the Rookie of the Year in 2014 and dominated in the 2015 All-Star Game when he struck out all three batters he faced on just 10 pitches.

deGrom had quickly become one of the better pitchers in the league, but he was arguably not even the best pitcher on the team with some putting Matt Harvey or Noah Syndergaard ahead of him.

But deGrom kept improving. Somehow he kept finding more speed for his fastball, and his breaking pitches became sharper.

He made the leap to the next level in 2018. That season, he started the year behind Syndergaard in the rotation, with Syndergaard given the Opening Day start. There were even rumors -- lots of them -- that the right-hander should be traded because his value would never be higher.

It made sense at the time. Starting on April 21, deGrom gave up just two runs over his next 40 1/3 innings. While we now know that's simply who he is, at the time it might have been a fluke.

By the end of May, and with his ERA a sparkling 1.52, the narrative started to change. He was considered a "must-watch ace."

Tim Britton of The Athletic wrote a story titled, “How Jacob deGrom has become the best pitcher in the National League” on May 28, and in it, then-teammate Zack Wheeler said, “It’s incredible what he does. I want to do that also!”

deGrom solidified it on June 2. In a nationally televised Saturday afternoon game against the Cubs -- a lineup full of fearsome hitters that finished the year fourth in the NL in runs -- deGrom demolished them. He pitched seven innings and gave up one run, while tying a then-career-high 13 strikeouts. Anytime they threatened, deGrom squashed it. (Sadly, the Mets would waste the start in a 14-inning loss.)

Albert Almora was stunned:

"He was unbelievable. It's been a while since I've faced a pitcher like that. Everything was moving away from my barrel. His fastball had some late life, his slider was sharp, and he threw me one of the nastiest changeups I've ever seen."

No longer was he just an ace, he was now a classical composer on the mound.

Aaron Judge
When there’s a player like Aaron Judge, there’s simply no mold. So, it makes sense that perhaps scouts underestimated the giant slugger.

It wasn't like Judge's Minor League performance necessarily indicated what was to come, either. He hit 19 home runs in 93 games in Triple-A in 2016, but struggled in a 27-game debut with the Yankees -- hitting just four home runs and batting .197.

So, you can understand why his MLB Pipeline scouting report noted that “he could be a higher-average hitter with 20 or so homers per season or more of a masher who delivers 30-plus long balls.”

But then the 2017 season started. After going homerless for the first five games, Judge's bat woke up. He homered in three straight games after that, and ended April with 10 dingers in 17 games.

He hit seven the next month -- and batted .347. The Judge's Chambers showed up in Yankee Stadium. When the All-Star break came around, Judge was hitting .329 with 30 home runs -- fifth in the Majors in average and first in homers and FanGraphs WAR. He impressed in the field, too, always surprising people with his ability to move -- really move -- at his size.

And here’s where I’m going to break the precedent that I set for Trout.

Under those rules, we should have to wait until the second half to determine when Judge was a star, that he was the real deal -- even if his exit velocity and home run distances already couldn't be touched by anyone else.

But Judge's performance in the Home Run Derby that year means we can't do that. Perhaps you don’t remember it now, three years removed and buried beneath last year’s amazing performance from Vlad Guerrero Jr. But Judge’s slugfest was jaw-dropping, you-have-to-see-this stuff. Yankees fans like to think every single game they play is of national interest, but this was a true superstar-laden national event.

Judge smashed 47 home runs. He topped 500 feet with four different blasts. He was automatic -- he loaded up his swing and sent it out of the park, over and over and over again. Sure, this wasn’t a real game, and the pitches weren’t coming at game speed, but anyone watching knew in their very bones that Judge was a special kind of player.

He wound up leading jersey sales that season, but that could have been predicted from the minute he collected his Derby trophy.

Justin Verlander
Stardom was in Verlander’s future. He was drafted second overall in 2004 and was considered the best overall talent in that year’s pool, but San Diego chose the local kid Matt Bush instead. Verlander looked the part of a prototypical pitcher: Tall and lean, all levers and legs. He had the velocity, the breaking stuff.

This is what Baseball America wrote after the draft:

“Verlander might have the best pure stuff in the draft. He has a tall, upright delivery with a lighting-quick arm, and a fastball that tops out at 99 mph with hard run and sink. He complements it with a curveball that has good late depth and sharp bite, and a deceptive changeup that has fastball arm speed and late fade and sink. Verlander's biggest obstacle is his lack of command as he struggles to repeat his delivery.”

From when he made his debut in 2005 through 2008, Verlander was a mystery, though. He showed signs of the dominant ace inside, while also struggling through a year like ‘08 when he led the league with 17 losses and posted a 4.86 ERA. He was striking out batters -- but not nearly as many as his stuff would indicate he could. He would show flashes of brilliance -- even throwing a no-hitter -- and then struggle once again.

Entering the 2009 season, Baseball Prospectus wrote in their annual, “One could write a full-length book trying to document all of the disappointments to be found in the Tigers' 2008 season, and if some masochistic fool does it, Verlander will be the recipient of an early and very long chapter."

But the Verlander we know now, the one who terrifies batters and can seemingly throw a no-hitter at will, showed up. Even if it didn't at the beginning of the season. Through four starts in 2009, Verlander had a 9.00 ERA in 21 innings.

Jim Leyland didn’t doubt his starter, though.

"When you get in a little stretch like that, you're waiting for something bad to happen," Leyland said. "Sometimes, you just want something so bad, and that's the only thing going on with him right now. He just wants to contribute so much. But he's going to be outstanding for us, no doubt in my mind."

Leyland was right to have faith. In his next start, Verlander pitched seven shutout innings, striking out nine and walking no one.

He struck out 11 in seven innings the next start -- giving up one run -- then struck out 11 more in a complete game shutout. From April 27 through July 18, Verlander posted a 2.24 ERA in 108 1/3 innings. This was the Verlander the Tigers had been hoping for.

Verlander proved it his next time out. Facing the White Sox in the first game of a doubleheader on July 24, Verlander wasn’t at his sharpest. But that is precisely the point: he proved he could be counted on no matter the circumstances.

After retiring the first five batters, the White Sox loaded the bases in the second. He got out of the jam.

The White Sox threatened in the third, but once again, Verlander wriggled out of it. It happened again in the fourth, but Verlander allowed only one run on a sacrifice fly.

From there, he got into the flow and cruised into the ninth inning, with the Tigers holding a 5-1 lead. Chicago then loaded the bases with three straight singles. Perhaps today, with a pitch count well over 100, Verlander gets pulled for a fresh arm.

Instead, the right-hander got Gordon Beckham to ground into a double play, and followed that up by getting Dewayne Wise to roll over a pitch to end the game. That was it. Ballgame. It was the first time that a pitcher loaded the bases with no one out in the ninth inning and kept runs off the board in 24 years.

He led the league in wins that year. In innings and strikeouts, too. He finished third in the Cy Young Award voting, but if you watched him on July 24, you knew there was much more to come.

Michael Clair writes for MLB.com. He spends a lot of time thinking about walk-up music and believes stirrup socks are an integral part of every formal outfit.