With the added pressure of being both a pitcher and position player, Shohei “Showtime” Ohtani has certainly lived up to most of his advanced billing.
A star in the Japanese Baseball League (NPB) for several years before his much publicized and big money move to the major leagues and the Anaheim Angels, Ohtani has taken the MLB by storm. He was a MVP at age 22 in 2016 and once had a fastball clocked at a NPB record speed of 102.5 MPH.
Various injuries have kept the Japanese wunderkind off the mound in his first season with the Halos, where he started nine games — his last on June 6 — and has logged a 4-1 record, with a 3.10 ERA and 61 strikeouts.
He has remained in the line-up, despite injuries, as a designated hitter and as of this past weekend was clobbering the likes of Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander for big bombs. He is hitting a respectable .276, with 15 homers and 43 RBI in 77 games this year.
Ohtani is among a select group, then, of young superstars who didn’t let the hype swell their head and did well in their sport. We have selected these top picks in the “Big 4” based on not only their statistical prowess, but their ability to make others around them better, as well as play a big part in post-season success.
Bryce Harper – MLB
Seven times since the “Golden Spikes” award has been handed out to the top amateur baseball player 40 years ago, the recipient went on to become the first overall pick in the MLB draft. Harper was a junior college phenom who actually started out as a catcher and later transitioned to outfielder. A prolific home run hitter, Harper claimed the 2010 Golden Spikes award and was taken numero uno by Washington that year. He roared through three levels of the minors from 2010 to 2011 and by the start of the 2012 MLB season, when Harper was still just 19, he was starting for the Nationals. A five-tool player with wheels, Harper would go on to be an All-Star that season and later the Rookie of the Year. He has been an All-Star in six of seven big league seasons and was NL MVP in 2015 when he hit .330 with 42 homers and 99 RBI. Now a grizzled seven-year veteran, but just 25 years old, the only thing he needs to do is help Washington win a championship.
Miguel Cabrera – MLB
We didn’t just focus on no. 1 picks, as most foreign born major leaguers aren’t drafted, but rather scouted and signed to big league deals using allotted money. In 1999, when he was just 16 and already a pro in his home country of Venezuala, a strong-armed, line-drive hitting Miguel Cabrera signed a free agent contract with the Florida Marlins and by 2003 he was a regular major leaguer. Not a big home run hitter in the minors, a teenaged Cabrera grew into his body and was lighting it up with the Marlins by his second season (33 HR, 112 RBI) . Originally a third baseman/shortstop with a cannon for an arm, Cabrera transitioned to outfield with the Marlins and eventually to first base with Florida and now with Detroit. He has won a rare triple crown, four batting championships and won back-to-back AL MVP awards in 2012-13. The icing on his career cake was a World Series title with Florida during his rookie season, 2003.
David Price – MLB
Some might find this hard to believe, but future American League Cy Young award winner David Price nearly quit playing baseball at Vanderbilt University so he could work at a McDonald’s in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Good thing his coach talked the frustrated freshman hurler out of it. Just a couple of great years at the NCAA level later, Price was the Dick Howser Award winner as top collegiate player and the Golden Spikes Trophy for top amateur in 2007. Originally picked in the 19th round by the Dodgers in 2004, he didn’t sign so he could go to college and was subsequently taken first overall by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2007. One short year later he was in the big leagues and appeared in five games of the 2008 post-season as the Devil Rays made their first World Series appearance. Since that auspicious debut, Price has had great regular season success, winning a Cy Young in 2012 and two ERA titles. All Price needs to do now is pitch lights out for Boston in a playoff run and win a title.
Joe Mauer – MLB
Mauer was such a great hitter in high school, he struck out only once in four years and routinely hit above 500. An accomplished three sport athlete, Mauer initially committed to attending Florida State on a football scholarship, but chose to enter the 2001 draft instead. Wise move, as Minnesota took him first overall. In 2004, at the age of 21, he got called up and played 35 games in an injury shortened season, hitting .308 with 15 extra base hits and 17 RBI. The catcher stayed with the big league club and in 2006 won the first of three batting titles, later becoming the only such catcher ever to accomplish the feat. In addition to his hitting prowess (.306 career average), Mauer won the AL MVP award in 2009, has been an All-Star six times, Gold Glover three times and owns five Silver Slugger trophies. Like a few others on this list, on a championship title has eluded him, to this day.
Alex Rodriguez – MLB
Not many high schoolers can say they tried out for the U.S. national baseball team, a club of which A-Rod was the first member. He was a phenom at Westminster High School in Miami, both as a shortstop and a quarterback, and signed a letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Miami, whose football club also recruited him. He ultimately chose neither and was drafted by Seattle first overall in 1993. After couple of so-so call-ups as a teenager in 1994 and 1995, A-Rod was the Mariners full-time shortstop at age 20 in 1996. He won his first and only batting title that year and was an All-Star for the first time among 14 career nominations. For the next 15 seasons, A-Rod rarely took his foot off the gas, topping the AL in homers five times, RBIs twice and slugging percentage four times. He finished his illustrious, though at times controversial, career with 696 homers and a World Series title with the Yankees in 2009.
Jameis Winston – NFL
How’s this for advanced press? Jameis Winston, who led his Alabama high school football team to a championship as a junior, later became the youngest recipient ever of the Heisman award. After quarterbacking Florida State to a 13-0 record and an ACC title in his freshman year, the won the coveted award at the age of 19 years, 342 days on Dec. 14, 2013. He won just about every collegiate award that year and set a FBS record for yardage by a freshman QB. He then topped it off by being MVP of the BCS National Championship game, won 34-31 over Auburn. Also a Texas Rangers draft pick, he didn’t sign and after one more good year in college, entered the 2015 NFL draft, where he was taken first overall by Tampa Bay. Even though the Bucs would go on to a 6-10 record his first season, Winston was a Pro Bowler, passing for 4,042 yards and 22 TDs. He’s been a fairly consistent threat since then, even with a losing record in three season (18-27). His next step is take the Buccaneers to the playoffs.
Cam Newton – NFL
When he was a 16-year-old high school junior in Atlanta, Cam Newton passed for 2,500 yards and 23 touchdowns and ran for 638 yards and nine touchdowns. Needless to say, college team’s were beating down his door to get him to commit thereafter. Several big schools, including his home state Georgia Bulldogs, were in the mix, but ultimately the rifle-armed pivot chose the Florida Gators. But, he was just a back-up to Tim Tebow there and after two forgettable years, left to play junior college ball in Texas. It proved beneficial, as he had a monster year that got him a scholarship at Auburn. It was there that he would win a Heisman Trophy in 2010 and lead the Tigers to a BCS National Championship in January 2011. His at times controversial NCAA career would end in 2011 when he was taken no. 1 overall by Carolina in the draft. As good a runner as he was a passer in high school and college, Newton has kept it up in seven seasons in the NFL, routinely passing for over 3,000 yards every year. In addition, he has logged 4,320 rushing yards (620 average) and an astounding 54 TDs, including 14 in his rookie year.
Jake Long – NFL
Seldom is an offensive tackle taken no. 1 overall in the NFL draft. Not one of the sexier positions, it’s a gamble for any team to go after a hulking lineman instead of a talented QB or running back. In 2008, the Miami Dolphins made him just the third ever OT taken first, out of the University of Michigan. Before Michigan, Long was a three-sport star who also excelled at basketball and baseball. He so impressed Wolverines brass at a mini-camp after his junior year of high school, they made him an offer right on the spot. Not long after, Long was helping lead Michigan to a Big 10 title and was twice named First Team All-American. He concluded his great collegiate career with that first overall honor in 2008, where Miami felt it needed a robust lineman to protect Chad Pennington and later Long’s teammate at Michigan, Chad Henne. In his first four seasons in the NFL, Long played 62 of 64 games and was a Pro Bowler every season and a First Team All-Pro in 2010. His career ended prematurely in 2017 when he tore his Achilles tendon during the 2017 pre-season.
Eli Manning – NFL
Not only is it tough to live up to the hype of being a no. 1 pick, but try being Eli Manning, circa 2004. With a famous father who played 13 seasons in the NFL and an even more famous brother who was drafted first overall in 1998, the pressure must have been suffocating for the San Diego Chargers first overall selection. Before that pivotal day (which would result in an impactful trade to the Giants after he refused to go to San Diego), Eli had big shoes to fill at Ole Miss, where his Dad Archie played college ball. He didn’t waver much with the Rebels, winning a Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award and SEC Offensive Player of the Year in 2003. Manning’s first nine games in the NFL in 2004 were forgettable, however, in the 13 seasons that have transpired, he has missed just one game. In that time, the durable signal-caller has won two Super Bowl titles and been named to four Pro Bowls. And he’s still the Giants’ starter heading into the 2018 season.
Jadeveon Clowney – NFL
While the club of defensive ends taken no. 1 overall in the history of the draft isn’t exclusive, Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney is in good company among a dozen such players. Two, Bruce Smith and Lee Roy Selmon, are Hall of Famers, while others like Ed “Too Tall” Jones and John Matuszak brought fame to the position by winning Super Bowl titles. Clowney also has the distinction of being only the second South Carolina Gamecock to be drafted first overall (RB George Rogers was selected first by New Orleans in 1981). Clowney was s physical freak in high school, coming in at 6’3″ and 200 lbs. in his freshman season and wreaking havoc in three positions. After his high school career, Clowney was regarded as the top player in the nation and ESPN said he could have dominated even before his senior year. He would star at his home state university, winning several big accolades including SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. After the Texans selected him at no. 1 in 2014, Clowney has been on a mission to get better every year in the NFL. He’s been a Pro Bowler the last two seasons and was a Second Team All-Pro in 2016.
Yao Ming – NBA
When he was 10 years old, Yao Ming was already a giant, measuring 5’5″ and having doctors predict he would reach 7’3″ as an adult (he would eventually scrape the clouds at 7’6″). He quickly became a junior star with the Shanghai Sharks, one marred by foot injuries that would dog him later. In his final season with the Sharks, when he was 21, Ming won a championship and during the playoffs he averaged a ridiculous 38.9 points and 20.2 rebounds per game. In 2002, the Houston Rockets tabbed the wildly popular giant at no. 1 and before he ever set foot on NBA hardwood many learned commentators predicted he’d be a bust. How wrong they would be. In his first season, he averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. He would go on to be an All-Star every year he played and would be a five-time All-NBA selection. To top it off, Ming was inducted, alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson, into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
Kyrie Irving – NBA
Kyrie Irving was great from the time he started high school in New Jersey. At Montclair Kimberley Academy in New Jersey, he became only the second player in school history to score 1,000 career points, and he did that as a sophomore. He transferred out of Montclair and went to St. Patrick, a bigger school, teaming with big-time baller Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. By the time he was finished high school and had played in every big tournament, including for the champion American team at the FIBA U-18 tourney in 2010, he was a five-star recruit. He picked Duke among all suitors. He played for Coach K and the Blue Devils in 2010-11 but was limited to just 11 games — three in the NCAA tournament — because of an injury. Yet, he scored 28 points against Arizona in the 2011 Sweet 16 game, his last at Duke. Cleveland, undeterred by his limited showing in college, took him no. 1 in 2011 and never looked back. He was Rookie of the Year in 2012 and has been a superstar guard since, helping the Cavs win a championship in 2016.
LeBron James – NBA
Life wasn’t easy for young LeBron James, who grew up in a single parent home in Akron, Ohio where money was tight. His mother, sensing he needed a more stable environment, he moved in with a local football coach and while there he started playing basketball. And he didn’t just play, he dominated. With his “Fab Four” buddies in tow, Bron-Bron progressed from being a star in AAU to a superstar at St. Vincent-St. Mary varsity high school team. In his senior year, he was already so bankable that Time Warner Cable offered his school’s games to subscribers on Pay-per-View. Playing college ball was never in the cards, and Cleveland swooped in to pick the hometown kid at no. 1 in 2003. We don’t need to tell anyone about the Hall of Fame career he has had, other than to say he has more than lived up to his advanced billing as one of the greatest hoopsters ever.
Anthony Davis – NBA
The South Side of Chicago is not a forgiving place. A young Anthony Davis no doubt had to navigate a high crime neighborhood, while growing into his body at a charter school that played in a division of the Chicago Public High School League that pretty much everyone ignored. Originally a guard and on no one’s radar after three years in high school ball, a growing Davis eschewed playing at a more recognizable school and eventually the scouts found him. In his senior year his game exploded, to the point he was no. 1 according to Scout.com, and the NCAA offers started pouring in. He eventually chose the University of Kentucky and in his lone season with the Wildcats (2011-12) he started all 40 games, scoring 14.2 points per game, along with 13.0 rebounds and a crazy 4.7 blocks. In his last game, the national final against Kansas in 2012, Davis hauled in 16 rebounds and blocked six shots to help UK win the title. Taken first overall by New Orleans in 2012, Davis has become a true NBA superstar, playing as well defensively as offensively.
Tim Duncan – NBA
As a native of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Tim Duncan’s first love was swimming. He was a teen phenom in several events and was on track to make the 1992 Olympic Games with the U.S. team. But life delivered a big block in the form of Hurricane Hugo, which destroyed the only worthy swimming pool on the island and not long after that Duncan’s beloved mother died of breast cancer a day shy of his 14th birthday. Thereafter, Duncan lost interest in swimming and took to basketball — and the rest is history. He excelled in the basketball backwater and later secured a scholarship to Wake Forest. Still a relative newcomer to hoops, Duncan flourished as a Demon Deacon, earning Collegiate Player of the Year in 1997. The San Antonio Spurs grabbed him at no. 1 in ’97, thus beginning a mutually beneficial partnership that saw the big man lead the Spurs to five championships in 19 seasons. He is a lock for the Hall of Fame, on the first ballot.
Marc-Andre Fleury – NHL
In the 55-year history of the NHL entry draft, only three goaltenders have ever been taken no. 1. And for good reason, since only one of them has had a career worthy of being included here. Fleury, who hails from Sorel, Quebec, was the last so honored, taken numero uno by Pittsburgh in 2003. The Flower started his ascent to the NHL playing for the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, becoming a full-time starter in his second season in the loop, 2001-02. Over the course of two seasons, he would progress to the point that he helped backstop the Canadian junior team to a silver medal at the 2003 world championships. After many years of success, the Penguins were a woeful hockey club in the early part of the millenium’s first decade, which meant they owned the first pick in the ’03 draft. Knowing full well Rick DiPietro’s struggles after being selected no. 1 in 2000, the Pens rolled the dice. And won. By 2009, the workhorse goaltender played a major part in a Stanley Cup and helped the team to two more before leaving for Vegas in 2017.
Alexander Ovechkin – NHL
Had he not finally stepped out of the monstrous shadow cast by Sidney Crosby this spring, finally winning a Stanley Cup, Alex Ovechkin could just as easily been included in a list of young superstars who have never really lived up to the hype. OV’s rise to the NHL began as a 16-year-old in the old Russian pro league in 2001, scoring four points in 21 games playing against men, some who were twice his age. The sturdy, gap-toothed youngster steadily progressed to the point that the NHL couldn’t ignore his next-level capabilities. In fact, the Florida Panthers tried drafting him in 2003, even though his birthday fell two days after the cut-off (Sept. 17), arguing that leap years should come into play. However, the Moscow born sniper was taken no. 1 by Washington in 2004. In his first year, he lived up to all the chatter about his innate ability to score, firing 52 goals and adding 54 assists in 81 games. He has hit the 50-goal plateau seven times and currently has 607 regular season tallies. Greatness, however, finally came this past spring when he erased painful memories of getting beat by Sidney Crosby in big games on all stages, leading the Caps to their first Stanley Cup finals.
Sidney Crosby – NHL
Sid the Kid was a phenom from the get-go. By the age of seven, his hockey exploits earned him an interview with a local paper in his home town of Cole Harbour (near Halifax, N.S.). At age 13, his family petitioned to have him play midget hockey (for 15-17 year olds) but lost it. The next year, Crosby couldn’t be stopped, joining the Dartmouth AAA Midget team and scoring an astounding 217 points in just over 80 games. He then went at age 15 to the hockey factory known as Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, excelled there (162 points in 57 games) before lighting it up with the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL, which made him the no. 1 midget aged pick. In 143 regular season and playoff games, Crosby scored 141 goals and added 209 assists. That eye-popping production gave way to a first overall selection by Pittsburgh, where he was dubbed “The Next One” to follow in the footsteps of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Sid has never disappointed, winning three Stanley Cups, two scoring championships and two Hart Trophies as MVP, among a hoard of other accolades. He’s also the author of “the Golden Goal” at the 2010 Olympics, one of the iconic markers of all time.
Patrick Kane – NHL
In a shorter period of time, 2007 first overall pick Patrick Kane has had as much team success as Sidney Crosby, and nearly as much individual success. Since winning the Calder as Rookie of the Year in 2008, the Buffalo native has won three Stanley Cups, a Hart trophy and a scoring title in 2016 and a Conn Smythe in 2013 as the playoff’s top performer. Before he was 16, Kane was a fixture with the US National Team Development Program U-18 squad, scoring 71 points in 55 games over two seasons. In 2006, the Hunter family convinced Kane to join their London Knights. A noted dangler, Kane amassed 62 goals and added 83 assists in just 58 OHL games, followed by 31 points in 16 playoff games. It would be his only junior experience, as the Blackhawks made him the first pick in ’07. Kane had immediate chemistry with 2006 no. 3 pick Jonathan Toews, the duo becoming near unstoppable as Chicago won three titles in the space of six seasons.
Connor McDavid – NHL
McDavid won’t be the last hockey phenom to be put on a pedestal, but he is the most recent. And what a load of hype to live up to. In 2012, when he was just 15, the Toronto-area puckster was granted “Exceptional Player Status” to start his OHL career early. He was just the third player to be bestowed with that status, after John Tavares and Aaron Ekblad, who both went on to be no. 1 NHL picks. Even though both Ekblad and Tavares could have made this list, there was way more hype surrounding young McDavid. With his exceptional speed and playmaking ability, he was touted as the next Sidney Crosby/Mario Lemieux/Wayne Gretzky. The Richmond Hill native never wavered, enjoying huge success with the Erie Otters and the Canadian world junior team. In 166 OHL games, McDavid scored 97 goals and added 188 assists. He also tallied 68 points in 34 playoff games. He was CHL player of the year in 2015 and was the most decorated OHL player ever. The Oilers, who had whiffed on Nail Yakupov in 2012 at no. 1, took McDavid first overall in 2015. After an injry shortened rookie season, McDavid became the youngest captain in NHL history in 2016 and has led the NHL in scoring the last two season straight. Amazing, he is.