70’s Rookie Cards

One of the unusual consequences of the pandemic was how it impacted the hobby of baseball card collecting. With millions of people stuck at home, many of them revisited their own personal collections. Over the last 12-14 months, thousands of cards have been brought into baseball card shops in hopes of finding value. Many of those are from the 1970’s and while they don’t have the same scarcity of cardboard heroes from the 50’s & 60’s, they still come from an era where Topps was the only producer of cards.  Today, we’ll look at the decade’s prime rookie cards and the current values are based on “Near Mint” (NM 7) condition.

In 1970, Topps issued their largest set ever at 720 cards in six series. The key rookie card in the set was that of the Yankee Captain, Thurman Munson ($100). Interestingly, however, the 3rd year Nolan Ryan card is almost three times as valuable ($290) because it was part of the scarce high number run. Also included in the set are the rookie cards of Vida Blue, Oscar Gamble & Hal McRae (all worth $15-$20).

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The 1971 set was even larger at 752 cards and remains a distinct challenge to collectors even today for one primary reason…the cards had black borders. So, even the most careful of handling couldn’t prevent excessive wear and finding 71’s in nice condition is very difficult. The key rookie cards are the Dusty Baker / Don Baylor in the high number series ($80) and HOF Pitcher Bert Blyleven ($115). Ted Simmons RC has taken a jump ($90) since his HOF induction and you can also find the first cards of Dave Concepcion ($25) & Steve Garvey ($40).

In 1972, the Topps set expanded once again…this time to 787 cards. Carlton Fisk (who shares the card with Cecil Cooper) is the key rookie card ($60). 1973 found the set reduced to 660 cards (five series of 132) and includes one of the best rookie cards of the decade in Phillies great Mike Schmidt ($290). As with other years, this particular card was in the high series and Schmidt shared the card with two other players. ’73 also has the RC’s of Rich “Goose’ Gossage ($22), Bob Boone ($10) & Dwight Evans ($28).

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660 cards remained the standard from 1974-1977 and cards were no longer issued in series, making it easier for the collector to put together a set. Great rookie cards were found during that time including Dave Winfield ($45) & Dave Parker ($10) in ’74… George Brett ($220), Robin Yount ($90), Jim Rice ($35) & Gary Carter ($25) were all in the ’75 set…Dennis Eckersley ($30) & Ron Guidry ($12) in ’76. 1977 had Andre Dawson ($25), Dale Murphy ($15), Bruce Sutter ($12) & Mark Fidrych ($15).

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Topps went to 726 cards for 1978 and that remained the standard for the next four years. The ’78 set featured the rookie card of Eddie Murray ($100) and a combo rookie card including Paul Molitor & Alan Trammell ($80). Other combo RC’s feature Jack Morris ($25) & Lou Whitaker ($10). 1979 finished off the decade with the rookie card of the “Wizard”…Cardinals legend Ozzie Smith ($200).

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1980 was the last year of Topps exclusivity, so we’ll sneak it into this category with the rookie card of Rickey Henderson ($230).

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The end of an era for baseball cards and we’ll discuss the 1980’s in a future visit.

The 60-Day WAR

For baseball fans and Fantasy team owners, looking at the standings on June 1st reveals a telling statistic – the major league season is almost 1/3 over. 50+ games are in the books and it’s time for an honest evaluation of your team. No more excuses of slumps, shifts, off-season injuries, smoke & mirror performances and the like. As with most real-life situations, it’s all about what you’ve done for me lately and what you project to do moving forward.

Some very predictable things have already happened. Jackie Bradley Jr. can field but he still can’t hit, Marcell Ozuna didn’t deserve that contract, Alec Bohm is not Mike Schmidt, Justin Upton is still overpaid, Francisco Lindor has caved into the pressure of playing in a big market, Patrick Corbin is not going to turn things around, Eugenio Suarez is making a run at 200 K’s and hamstrings aren’t what they used to be. On the other end of the spectrum, how about the best-of-the-best? Who are really the top MLB players so far for 2021? Not just the obvious stars, but also the underrated contributors that help teams win, but may not get the headlines. Where do we find an objective, unbiased determination to create this list? The answer is…we go to WAR.

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is a new-age metric developed by SABRmetricians to gauge the value of an individual player to his team. It creates a number that represents how many wins the player adds to his team’s record above what a replacement player (AAA or AAAA) would add. A one-season figure of 8 or better is MVP caliber, while 5 or better is All-Star level. Some “old-school” fans don’t always buy into the stat, but the results tell you that it is very much on-target. The major league leader in three different seasons (2012, 2013 & 2016) was Mike Trout and the lifetime leader is Babe Ruth. The all-time top five also includes Willie Mays, Ty Cobb & Hank Aaron. Mookie Betts was the best in ’20 with a figure of 3.6 (estimated at 9.7 for a full season). So, with the help of baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com, let’s see where we are for the first third of 2021.

As your humble essayist is from the school of thought that hitters should win the MVP and pitchers should win the Cy Young, we’ll list the offensive players first and then the hurlers.

> Position Players

1) Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays 1B 3.1 WAR – Many fans seemed to forget about the pedigree when he had a mediocre 2020 season. Let’s not forget that he’s only 22 years old…his OPS in ’21 is over 1.100!

T2) Nick Castellanos Reds OF 2.8 WAR – Leading the NL in BA & OPS.

T2) Max Muncy, Dodgers IF 2.8 WAR – Plate discipline matters, as he leads the NL in OBP at .433 thanks to 44 BB. As a reminder, he was released by the A’s prior to the 2017 season.

4) Kris Bryant, Cubs 3B 2.8 WAR – Injuries clouded the fact that he’s really a good player. For you finance majors, this is his walk year.

5) Marcus Semien, Blue Jays 2B 2.7 WAR – Gambled on himself by taking a one-year deal as a free agent and it will pay off handsomely.

6) Byron Buxton, Twins OF 2.6 WAR – A great talent but can’t stay in the line-up. One of the more frustrating Fantasy players each year.

7) Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox SS 2.5 WAR – Despite playing in a major market, it seems like he’s underrated. In his 8th productive season at age 28.

T8) Mike Trout, Angels OF 2.4 WAR – On the shelf for an extended period, he’s already accumulated over 76 WAR and he’s not yet in his 30’s.

T8) Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves OF 2.4 WAR – Another amazing young talent, he leads the NL in HR’s.

T8) Yoan Moncada, White Sox 3B 2.4 WAR – Even though the SB potential hasn’t materialized, the plate skills continue to get better. His OBP this season is .429.

> Pitchers

1) Jacob deGrom, Mets 3.3 WAR – The cream of the crop, his ERA this season is 0.71!

2) Gerrit Cole, Yankees 3.0 WAR – The Bronx Bombers investment is paying off.

T3) Zack Wheeler, Phillies 2.7 WAR – Has become an “Ace” in his early 30’s.

T3) Corbin Burnes, Brewers  2.7 WAR – Try stepping in the box against a guy who has 81 K’s and only 7 BB in 52 IP’s.

5) Kevin Gausman, Giants 2.5 WAR – Looks like last year’s breakout campaign wasn’t a fluke.

6) Brandon Woodruff, Brewers 2.3 WAR – A 1.27 ERA, he and Burnes are both still in their 20’s.

And what about the incomparable Shohei Ohtani of the Angels? His offensive WAR number is 1.7 and his pitching WAR is 1.2. Not surprisingly, that makes him one of the five most valuable players in the game.

We’ll check back around the trade deadline to see if the names have changed.

Telling Stories Across The Counter

When you become a septuagenarian, recalling details can be a challenge. For those of us who are lifelong baseball fans, remembering players from long ago isn’t that difficult. Maybe all that time we spent reading the backs of baseball cards left the information in our gray matter forever.  

Looking through collections at the baseball card shop makes me feel like a winning contestant on “Jeopardy”. As I flip through the pages of a dusty album or rummage among the cards in an old shoe-box, the stories of the players bounce directly to the front of my brain. Fortunately, the customers seem entertained by these recollections as the stories unfold. We’re not talking about the famous players. After all, even casual fans know about Yogi, Ted, Hank, Roberto, Willie, Mickey and the Duke. It is the obscure story and the infamous player that gets their attention. Do you know which Yankee wore #3 after Babe Ruth and #7 before Mickey Mantle? You’ll find the answer at the end of our visit.

In a recent blog, the 1957 Topps set was highlighted and we talked about the Hall of Famers. But, what about the hundreds of other ’57 cards in that shoe box? Let’s grab a handful of cards and see what history we can find.

  • #155 Jim Brosnan, Cubs P – Won 55 games in a modest nine-year career. His fame, however, came from being the first ballplayer to write an “insider’s” book about the game. 1960’s “The Long Season” took readers behind the scenes and into the locker room. It is still a great read after all these years.
  • #167 Vic Power, A’s 1B – Played 12 seasons and won 7 Gold Gloves but the back story is about his name. One of the first stars from Puerto Rico, his given name was Victor Pellot. His first minor league stop was in Canada (in 1950) and it turned out that “pellot” was a rather risqué word in French. So, he became Vic Power and the name stuck for his entire career. In fact, some of his baseball cards have him listed as Victor Pellot Power.
  • #173 Roger Craig, Dodgers P – A baseball “lifer”, he pitched for 12 years and managed for another 10. Taken by the expansion Mets for the 1962 season, he was the best Pitcher on a sorrowful team. His record for 1962 was 10-24 and then 5-22 in ’63. 46 losses in two seasons!
  • #174 Willie Jones, Phillies 3B – 15 seasons and over 1,500 hits but he is best remembered for his nickname…”Puddin’ Head”.
  • #184 Tito Francona, Orioles OF – Yes, this is the dad of Indians Manager Terry Francona.
  • #187 Virgil Trucks, A’s P – Yes, his nickname was “Fire”.
  • #192 Jerry Coleman, Yankees IF – A legendary broadcaster after his career, he was one of only two players to serve in both World War II and Korea. The other one was Ted Williams.
  • #3 Dale Long, Pirates 1B – One of only three major league players to hit home runs in eight consecutive games. The other two? Don Mattingly & Ken Griffey Jr.
  • #217 Gene Stephens, Red Sox OF – A back-up for BoSox, he set a major league record in 1953 by getting three hits in one inning as the Sox scored 17 runs against the Tigers.
  • #225 Harry Simpson, A’s OF – Played for five different teams in his eight-year career, so his nickname was “Suitcase”.
  • #96 Hank Aguirre, Indians P – Just in case you don’t believe in the DH, over 16 seasons he went 33-for-388 as a hitter (.085).
  • #201 Sandy Amoros, Dodgers OF – Made that sensational catch in Game 7 of the ’55 World Series to help the Dodgers win their first title.
  • #103 Joe Nuxhall, Redlegs P – Another long-time broadcaster, he was the youngest player to appear in a big-league game at age 15 in 1944. Didn’t get back to the “Show” until 1952.
  • #117 Joe Adcock, Braves 1B – Broke up Harvey Haddix’s 12-inning perfect game in 1959.
  • #28 Gene Conley, Braves P – At 6’8”, he pitched 11 seasons and also won three NBA championships as a member of the Celtics.
  • #37 Frank Torre, Braves 1B – Yes, he’s Joe’s Brother.

As with all vintage baseball card sets, every picture tells a story.

As for our trivia question, the Yankees had a rookie OF in 1948 who wore uniform #3. After Babe Ruth’s passing, the team retired the number and the player took #7 in 1949. When Mickey Mantle joined the team in ’51, “The Mick” wore #6 and only became #7 after this player was traded. He was Cliff Mapes.

Drop in at the card shop and we’ll talk baseball.

Exploring the Whiff

As a dedicated Fantasy Baseball participant for 35+ years, I’ll readily admit that studying baseball analytics has been a productive endeavor. Over the years, many of the Old Duck’s accumulated championships have been a direct result of understanding statistics such as OPS, FIP, BABIP and so many more. Debates have ensued with numerous friends from my generation who think it is all a bunch of hooey and that seeing a player with your eyes is all you need. You only need to watch “Moneyball” and focus on the scene where Billy Beane tries to convince his scouts how important it is to prioritize OBP.

With that being said, watching baseball still influences my decision making. As a fan, the game has changed dramatically over the last 15 years to the point where executives and pundits are more and more concerned with the increase in the “three true outcomes” (Home Runs, Strikeouts & Walks) leading to less action on the field. The part of me that is old school finds the ultimate frustration is that players no longer seem to care when they strike out. For 2021, the strikeout rate for all batters is 24%…an increase of almost 50% in those 15 years. Gone are the days of “putting the ball in play” and making “productive outs”. And, if you’re wondering why shifting works so well, maybe it’s because hitters aren’t willing to adapt.   

Of course, there are other factors. For the most part, starting pitchers don’t face a line-up more than twice and it seems that every arm coming out of the bullpen throws 95 mph. But isn’t it possible that the way to neutralize that impact is by having better plate discipline and changing the two-strike approach at the plate? Swinging for the fences is no longer limited to power hitters….the stats and your eyes tell you that.

Let’s look at Niko Goodrum of the Tigers, who is on the roster of one of my Fantasy teams. He is best described as a “Utility” player, as he can play multiple positions. Now in his 5th season with the Bengals at age 29, his stats (as of 5/18) include a .226 BA with 4 HR’s, 10 RBI’s & 7 SB’s. Not overly impressive but somewhat helpful in a deep Fantasy league (due to the SB’s). However, if you look more closely, you’ll find that he leads all of baseball in one particular stat…he’s struck out in 39.7% of his AB’s. You might expect that from a free-swinging power hitter, but not from a player with 37 lifetime HR’s. Wouldn’t he be a more productive player if he could cut that number down to even the 24% league average? And, being that he has good speed, wouldn’t a few more balls in play equate to more hits?

So, for those who take the position that strikeouts don’t really matter and that “an out is just an out”, let’s use analytics to ponder the question. One new-age stat that seems to have widespread acceptance is WAR (Wins Above Replacement). It uses statistics to determine how many more wins a team would accumulate when comparing a particular player to a replacement level player. This has become a reliable measure for writers, especially when it comes to MVP voting. The challenge is figuring out if a player can have a decent WAR rating if he strikes out a significant percentage of the time. This might seem like a daunting task, but it turns out to be rather easy. With 25% of the season in the books, here are the 20 players with a WAR number of 1.5 or better…

  1. Mike Trout 2.5
  2. Xander Bogaerts 2.3
  3. Vladimir Guerrero 2.3
  4. Trea Turner 2.1
  5. Kris Bryant 2.0
  6. Ronald Acuna Jr. 2.0
  7. Nick Castellanos 2.0
  8. Nolan Arenado 1.9
  9. J.D. Martinez 1.8
  10.  Max Muncy 1.8
  11. Cedric Mullins II 1.7
  12. Aaron Judge 1.6
  13. Bryce Harper 1.6
  14. Isiah Kiner-Falefa 1.6
  15. Jose Ramirez 1.6
  16. Yuli Gurriel 1.6
  17. Adolis Garcia 1.5
  18. Tim Anderson 1.5
  19. Trent Grisham 1.5
  20. J.T. Realmuto 1.5

Our next top 20 list will highlight the players who have struck out at least 29% of the time…

  1. Niko Goodrum 39.7%
  2. Javier Baez 38.0%
  3. Willy Adames 35.8%
  4. Joey Gallo 34.9%
  5. Michael A. Taylor 34.1%
  6. Matt Chapman 33.3%
  7. Eugenio Suarez 33.1%
  8. Adam Duvall 32.1%
  9. Dylan Moore 32.1%
  10. Garrett Cooper 31.5%
  11. Jackie Bradley Jr. 31.4%
  12. Franmil Reyes 31.3%
  13. Justin Upton 31.0%
  14. Willi Castro 30.7%
  15. Dansby Swanson 30.5%
  16. Brandon Lowe 30.5%
  17. Randy Arozarena 30.5%
  18. Ryan Mountcastle 30.0%
  19. Hunter Dozier 29.8%
  20. Shohei Ohtani 29.4%

More than half of these players have 5 HR’s or less.

Now, look at the two lists one more time. Did you notice that not a single player appears on both lists? If you became a major league hitting coach tomorrow, what advice would you give? The best WAR on the second list is Ohtani at 1.3…and he’s leading the league in HR’s.

That’s my rant for today. Now, I can go back to looking at box scores where my “punch n’ judy” hitters go 0-for-4 with 3 K’s.

1957 Topps Baseball Cards

As a long-time purveyor of baseball cards both old and new, it is still a great adventure when a unique collection comes across the counter at the baseball card shop. Last week was one of those times when a very nice gentleman walked in with a half dozen shoe boxes filled with cards.

These were the cards he collected as a youngster and being that he’s 74 years-old, the math isn’t complicated. Each battered shoe box contained a particular year of cards and the range was 1953-1958. As with most kids of the 50’s, he played with the cards extensively and the condition showed some significant wear. Not surprisingly, the condition of the early cards was much worse than the later pieces of cardboard and the 57’s & 58’s were the best.

For this visit, we’re going to feature one of the most underrated sets of the era and focus on 1957 Topps. This set was a significant departure from the first five that Topps produced. First, they returned to a vertical look and adopted what is now called the standard card size. As with many of the offerings during this era, it also featured a particular run (#265-#352) that was scarcer. The real change was the simple, uncluttered color photograph of the player. The full color images have stood the test of time and continue to be hugely popular with collectors.

Let’s review some of the Hall of Famers in the set and the values will be based on cards in “EX” (PSA 5) condition. A complete set (411 cards) would be valued at $7,500.

  • #1 Ted Williams ($200) – Still iconic in the twilight of his career, he hit .388 at age 38.
  • #10 Willie Mays ($150) – His last season before the Giants moved to San Francisco, he led the NL with 20 Triples and 38 SB’s
  • #18 Don Drysdale ($100) – This is Big D’s Rookie Card and he won 17 games for Brooklyn at age 20.
  • #20 Hank Aaron ($150) – Produced 44 HR’s & 132 RBI’s on his way to the NL MVP.
  • #35 Frank Robinson ($220) – He won the NL Rookie of the Year in ’56, but this is his first card.
  • #76 Roberto Clemente ($125) – This is his 3rd-year card and it continues to have a high demand factor.
  • #95 Mickey Mantle ($650) – Still the most popular player of the time, he was coming off a Triple Crown season in ’56.
  • #302 Sandy Koufax ($175) – Only won five games in ’57 but his meteoric career took off once the Dodgers moved to L.A.
  • #328 Brooks Robinson ($365) – This is his Rookie Card and he didn’t become an everyday player until ’58, but 16 consecutive Gold Gloves followed.
  • $407 Yankee Power Hitters ($215) – This was the first time that Topps added cards with multiple players and they became extremely popular. This one features Mantle along with Yogi Berra.

Other Hall of Fame members you’ll find in the set include Berra, Whitey Ford, Pee Wee Reese, Ernie Banks, Warren Spahn, Al Kaline, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Jim Bunning and others. And, let’s not forget the history attached to these pieces of cardboard, as they’re the last cards featuring the “Brooklyn” Dodgers and “New York” Giants.

When Errors Aren’t in the Box Score

OK, this is just between us, so you can admit the truth. When one of your Fantasy Pitchers gives up a bunch of runs, you immediately look to see if his team made any errors, praying to the Fantasy Gods that some of the runs were unearned. In fact, you’re not even upset if he made one of the errors himself, as long as your ERA doesn’t take it in the shorts. So, sometimes, errors can be good or bad and it also works that way with baseball cards.

In collecting parlance, an “error card” is defined as one with erroneous information, spelling or depiction on either side of the card. While most errors aren’t corrected by the card producing companies, on occasion they notice the mistake soon enough to make changes and then resume the print run. In these cases, both the error card and the corrected version are sometime known as “variations”. Many collectors feel that they don’t own a complete set of a particular year and brand unless it includes all the variations, but some of these cards can be relatively scarce. In the early years of modern baseball cards (the 50’s & 60’s), quality control from Topps and other companies left a lot to be desired but you’ll find numerous examples in every decade.

While a comprehensive list would require a volume, here are some of my favorites from over the years…

> 1953 Topps Satchel Paige (#220) – The Negro League legend and Hall of Fame Pitcher has his name spelled “Satchell” on the card.

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> 1955 Bowman Mickey Mantle (#202) – The “Mick’s” birthday is listed as 10/30/31 but should be 10/20/31.

> 1956 Topps Hank Aaron (#31) – The smaller photo on the card front is actually Willie Mays.

> 1957 Topps Hank Aaron (#20) – This beautiful set used a large uncluttered color photo on the front and “Hammerin’ Hank’s” had a reverse negative showing him batting left-handed.

> 1961 Topps Whitey Ford (#160) – The back of the card has the Hall of Fame Pitcher incorrectly listed as 5’0″ tall.

> 1962 Topps Sandy Koufax (#5) – The back of the card indicates that he “Struck ou 18”.

> 1962 Topps “Green Tint” – The second series of this issue (#’s 110-196) were printed without enough ink for the photographs. This caused the sky and dirt in the background to look green.

> 1964 Topps Pete Rose (#125) – Lists him as born in 1942 instead 1941.

> 1965 Topps Bob Uecker (#519) – Shows him posing as a left-handed batter (maybe he thought it would help).

> 1966 Topps Jim Palmer (#125) – This is the Rookie Card of the Orioles Hall of Fame Pitcher and the back of the card describes him as a “lefthander”.

> 1969 Topps Aurelio Rodriguez (#653) – This card showed a picture of Leonard Garcia, the Angels team batboy.

> 1974 Topps Washington National League Cards – There was a possibility that the Padres were going to re-locate to Washington D.C. for the ’74 season. Topps used “Washington National League” on the first run of 15 Padre Player cards. They are valued at about twice the corrected card.

> 1982 Fleer John Littlefield (#576) – An early example of the variation issues with new companies entering the market, the original card had a reverse negative and showed him as left-handed. Fleer corrected the card early in the run, so the first card is worth $30 while the second one can be had for about a nickel.

> 1985 Topps Gary Pettis (#497) – Pettis was the Angels CF and used to bring his younger brother to the ballpark, where the youngster would get into uniform and shag fly balls prior to home games. On this particular day, the Topps photographer spotted the last name on the back of the jersey and took the photo. 14 year-old Lynn Pettis will forever be pictured in that baseball card set.

> 1987 Donruss Opening Day Barry Bonds (#163) – This was a boxed set and the original Bonds card actually had a photo of Pirates 2B Johnny Ray wearing a black shirt. Donruss had to correct the card, as Bonds was one of the top young players in the game. The original “Ray” version books for about $250 while the Bonds version is less than $10.

> 1989 Fleer Billy Ripken (#616) – Probably the most infamous error card in history, it all started when no one noticed that Ripken’s photo included a profanity on the knob of the bat he was holding. The company went into panic mode because parents were not happy about their children giggling over the mistake. Fleer proceeded to make four additional variations in their print runs including one where the bat knob is whited out, another with a black box over the knob and two others that included scribbling over the words. At the time, it was the hottest card in the hobby. Ripken claimed it was a practical joke perpetrated by teammates but about twenty years later, he finally confessed and admitted that he had written the words on the bat knob himself.  Supposedly, one of the bats shipped to him from the manufacturer was slightly heavier and he only used it for batting practice and not for games. In order to recognize that particular bat quickly, he wrote the obscenity on the knob. The original card can now be found for $10 while the much scarcer “whiteout” version is at least $50.

> 1989 Upper Deck Dale Murphy (#357) – The Company’s first product included this card which had a reverse negative on the original issue. It was corrected and the left-handed Murphy card is $15 while the corrected one is just pennies.

> 1990 Topps Frank Thomas (#414) – The Rookie Card of “The Big Hurt” came out without his name on the front of the card. Topps corrected this so quickly that the “No Name on Front” version is worth over $1,000 while the corrected card is about $1.

> 1995 Topps Traded Carlos Beltran (#18T) – This set contained the Rookie Cards of both Beltran and an obscure player named Juan LeBron. The only problem is that Topps switched the photos and never corrected the cards. So, if you want a Carlos Beltran Rookie Card, you’ll be gazing at the face of Juan LeBron.

We’ve just touched the surface of this topic and down the road; we’ll talk about more variations and oddities. Hope you enjoyed the baseball card trivia.

CSW…WTF?

As the 2021 season has unfolded over the last few weeks, a new pitching statistic has been creeping into game reports and baseball analysis. It is called CSW and stands for “Called Strike plus Whiff Rate”.

Those of us who are easily recognized as “Statheads” have always been trying to gain an edge in evaluating players…especially with regard to our success at Fantasy Baseball. Over the years, we’ve paid close attention to pitching stats such as Earned Run Average (ERA), Walks & Hits Per Innings Pitched (WHIP), Strikeouts Per Nine Innings (K/9), Strikeout To Walk Ratio (K/BB) and a more obscure stat known as “Swinging Strike Rate”, which is calculated by the number of swinging strikes a pitcher gets divided by the total number of pitches thrown. All this is done in an attempt to recognize pitching skills that go beyond what you see on the back of a baseball card.

CSW is the latest arrow in the quiver for those of us with baseball-themed pocket protectors. It adds called strikes to the swinging strike rate to give credit to pitchers for strikes thrown when the batter doesn’t swing. There is some logic to this addition, as a called strike is just as effective as a swinging strike. Now, when you read the summary of a game on your favorite outlet, they just might mention a pitcher’s CSW in evaluating their performance. Just last weekend, Marcus Stroman lasted just four innings and had a terrible CSW rate, while John Gant pitched six shutout innings with an absurdly high CSW. These results were reported on an NBC sports site.

To put this into some perspective, let’s set a guideline. Here are the stats from the 2019 season…

  • Total pitches thrown: 732,473
  • Called Strike Rate: 16.4% 
  • Swinging Strike Rate: 11.2%
  • CSW Rate: 27.7%

With the knowledge that the league average is 27.7%, we can evaluate your team’s pitching staff and see if the hurlers have the right “stuff”.

Looking at the shortened 2020 season, the top ten includes numerous hurlers that you’d anticipate but also a few surprises.

#1 – Jacob deGrom 34.6%

#2 – Dylan Bundy 34.0%

#3 – Shane Bieber 33.8%

#4 – Yu Darvish 33.7%

#5 – Dinelson Lamet 33.4%

#6 – Aaron Nola 32.8%

#7 – Kenta Maeda 32.8%

#8 – Brady Singer 32.3%

#9 – Zack Greinke 32.0%

#10 – Lucas Giolito 31.7%

 The AL Cy Young Award winner (Bieber) and a two-time NL winner (deGrom) aren’t a surprise but did you expect Bundy & Singer? And how about Zac Gallen finishing 11th, just ahead of Gerrit Cole? The rest of the top twenty included the old (Adam Wainwright), the young (Framber Valdez) and a soft-tosser (Kyle Hendricks).

Now, let’s see how our new toy is working after the first four weeks of the 2021 season.

#1 – Corbin Burnes 38.2%

#2 (T) – Shane Bieber 36.5%

#2 (T) – Joe Musgrove 36.5%

#4 (T) – Jacob deGrom 35.5%

#4 (T) – Tyler Glasnow 35.5%

#6 – Trevor Bauer 34.9%

#7 – Gerrit Cole 33.4%

#8 (T) Dylan Bundy 33.3%

#8 (T) Trevor Rogers 33.3%

#10 Huascar Ynoa 32.9%

#11 – Clayton Kershaw 32.8%

#12 – Yu Darvish 32.7%

Even after only a month, it seems like the cream has come to the top. Burnes & Musgrove are reaching their long-awaited potential, Bundy is confirming his status and Kershaw is proving he’s not over-the-hill. What about the two rookies? Rogers is 23, has a 1.29 ERA in five starts and a K/9 rate of 12.2. Ynoa wasn’t even an afterthought in most Fantasy Drafts, yet this 23 year-old has also made five starts with a 2.96 ERA and a K/9 of 11.2.

The remainder of the top 20 shows that Tyler Mahle might be for real (#14 at 32.0%), Adam Wainwright can still fool hitters (#15 at 31.9%) and Nathan Eovaldi’s stuff is still tantalizing (#19 at 31.2%).

Assuming good health, these are the guys to watch. At the end of June, we’ll see how the CSW stat looks half-way through the season. Keep that pocket protector handy.

The Challenge of Perfection

Recently, we were reminded of how difficult certain baseball accomplishments can be. The White Sox Carlos Rodon entering the 9th inning without having allowed a base runner, giving him the opportunity to pitch a “Perfect Game”. After retiring the fist batter, he let a breaking pitch get away and it hit the batter in the foot. Rodon got two more outs to finish with a no-hitter, but the perfecto got away.

To understand the scarcity involved, this would have been the first perfect game in almost nine years and only the 24th in the history of the game…and five of those were before 1923. What’s even more interesting is that this singular feat has not always been done by well-known hurlers. In fact, only six of them belong to members of the Hall of Fame.

Let’s take a look at the famous, infamous and ordinary pitchers who belong to this exclusive club. We’ll begin after World War II with arguably the most famous one of all.

  • 1956 – Don Larsen, Yankees – Game 5 of the World Series against the Dodgers will never be forgotten. A journeyman pitcher throws strike three to Dale Mitchell and has Yogi Berra jump into his arms. It was the first perfect game since 1922.
  • 1964 – Jim Bunning, Phillies – This Hall of Famer pitched the first National League perfect game of the 20th century.
  • 1965 – Sandy Koufax, Dodgers – One of Sandy’s four no-hitters.
  • 1968 – Catfish Hunter, Athletics – He also had three hits and three RBI’s in the game.
  • 1981 – Len Barker, Indians – The first perfect game where designated hitters were in the line-up. His lifetime record was 74-76.
  • 1984 – Mike Witt, Angels – This came on the last day of the regular season versus the Rangers.
  • 1988 – Tom Browning, Reds – He beat the Dodgers 1-0 in mid-September but L.A. went on to win the World Series.
  • 1991 – Dennis Martinez, Expos – 45,000 fans at Dodger Stadium didn’t have much to cheer about.
  • 1994 – Kenny Rogers, Rangers – Jose Canseco hit two HR’s for Texas and Bo Jackson was in the Angels line-up.
  • 1998 – David Wells, Yankees – Bernie Williams hit a HR and Jorge Posada was the Catcher.
  • 1999 – David Cone, Yankees – The first perfect game done in interleague play, Cone only threw 88 pitches.
  • 2004 – Randy Johnson, D’Backs – The oldest to pitch a perfect game, he was 40. He also had another no-hitter 14 years earlier.
  • 2009 – Mark Buehrle, White Sox – A long-forgotten OF named Dewayne Wise reached over the wall to make a catch in the 9th inning.
  • 2010 – Dallas Braden, Athletics – He only won one more game after 2010 and had a lifetime record of 26-36.
  • 2010 – Roy Halladay, Phillies – Beat the Marlins 1-0 on an unearned run.
  • 2012 – Philip Humber, White Sox – The following season, he was 0-8 and then retired at age 30.
  • 2012 – Matt Cain, Giants – Had 14 K’s to tie Koufax’s record in a perfect game.
  • 2012 – Felix Hernandez, Mariners – Three perfect games in one season and none since.

Of course, this history also has some controversy…

  • Armando Galarraga of the Tigers would have had a perfect game in 2010 if instant replay had been available and utilized.
  • Pedro Martinez pitched nine perfect innings for the Expos in 1995 but lost the game 1-0 in the 10th inning.
  • Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings for the Pirates in 1959 but lost the game in the 13th inning. Lew Burdette pitched a 13 inning shutout for the Braves and got the win.

Catfish Hunter was once asked why he was not able to pitch another perfect game. His response was, “The sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass all the time”.

The Heritage of Topps

Everyone you know probably considers themselves an expert at something, but Fantasy Baseball players are at the top of the food chain. Even though we play the game for money and bragging rights, the real truth is that we actually think we’re smarter than MLB GM’s & Managers. After all, would you have traded your best player from a 26-34 team like the Rockies? Or would you have given Anthony Rizzo a $14 Million per year offer when Paul Goldschmidt got $26 Million at the same age for the identical stats?  Or would you give any player a 10-year deal? The Old Duck participates in a 15-team Fantasy Baseball “experts” league where it is abundantly clear that each owner considers himself to be smarter than the other 14, but none of them would make those moves. It isn’t arrogance, only knowledge gained from experience.

Avid baseball card collectors are no different in their approach to the hobby. After watching card manufacturers flail away at each other in the 80’s and overproduce products in the 90’s to the detriment of the industry, it’s easy to criticize almost any product offering. Card enthusiasts are quick to complain about too few autograph cards, but also aren’t happy when the autographs are on stickers applied to the cards because they want the authenticity of “on-card” signatures. They also don’t like redemption cards (when players have not yet had the opportunity to sign), but also whine when the better players aren’t included in a product. It is the nature of the consumer to always want more for less and consider themselves smarter than the folks in charge.

In an attempt to remove myself from this category (even temporarily), I’m willing to admit that the people at The Topps Company are brilliant!

In 2001, Topps was celebrating the 50th anniversary of their entry into the baseball card business. They utilized the framework of their historical 1952 set to develop a new product. Topps Heritage came into the marketplace with current players pictured on cards that had the format of the iconic 1952 set. The detail of the set and the photography took collectors back to the time when packs were a nickel and included a stick of gum. The set was designed for card enthusiasts to build it completely by opening packs and sorting through the cards. It even had some of the quirks of the original like short-printed cards, checklist cards and even bubble gum…even though the gum was enclosed in a plastic wrapper. To all of this, Topps also added some autograph & relic cards to make the set even more attractive. The real draw, however, was the 1952 look and the opportunity for kids of the 50’s to build a new set of cards for the 2000’s.

Topps Heritage has been a consistent top-selling product at a mid-range price ($3- $4 per pack) ever since. Each year, the cards mirror the old design of the appropriate Topps set with current players and this year’s release (which just hit stores), uses the 1972 card as its platform. If you collected cards in the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s, this is the product for you. The look of the ’72 set is especially iconic because the design is so unique.

In the last few years, Topps has added a few more twists with short printed cards that have variations of throwback uniforms or an action image. They even tugged at old-timers’ heartstrings by randomly adding a section of white on some of the card backs emulating how they would have looked had a dusty piece of gum been sitting against the card…very cool!

The Old Duck purchases a few boxes each year and builds the set from scratch. Of course, you also get one “hit” per box that is either an autograph or relic card.

In honor of this year’s release, let’s look back at that beautiful 1972 set of 787 cards, which includes over 25 Hall of Famers. The card values are based on “Near Mint” condition (PSA 7).

> #49 Willie Mays, $30 – The “Say Hey” kid in the twilight of his career, this is his last card as a Giant.

> #79 Carlton Fisk, $50 – The Rookie Card of the HOF Catcher, he played 24 seasons in the majors.

> #299 Hank Aaron, $45 – “Hammerin’ Hank” was still two years away from breaking the Babe’s record.

> #309 Roberto Clemente, $45 – The last season for the Puerto Rican legend, as he tragically died in December.

> #433 Johnny Bench, $30 – Won the NL MVP and a Gold Glove.

> #559 Pete Rose, $45 – Jump started the Reds offense with a .307 BA and 198 Hits.

> #595 Nolan Ryan, $65 – His first year with the Angels, he led the AL with 329 K’s.

> #695 Rod Carew, $35 – Won his 2nd (of 7) batting titles

The “Heritage” will continue next year with memories of the 1973 set…

Opening Day and Uncle Moe

Someone who isn’t a baseball fan can’t possibly fathom the importance of opening day. It is what we wait months for, it is when hope springs eternal for even the sorriest team, it is the electricity of the crowd and maybe most of all, it forms the memories that we carry forever.

The 2021 opening day seemed to be even more important because there was no real opening day in 2020…at least not in April. As the years pass through the looking glass, baseball is different but also very much the same. So, maybe it’s time to look back and recapture the feeling of a 10 year-old boy attending his first opening day.

Every family certainly has their quirky relatives and mine was no exception. The most interesting character was my Uncle Moe. Born in New England in 1902, his given name was Moses which was later Americanized to Morris. But to me, my Dad’s older Brother was always Moe. His personality was almost beyond description, as he loved to gamble, drink, smoke cigars, womanize and attend sports events. He had great stories like the one about attending the 2nd Joe Louis – Max Schmeling fight at Yankee Stadium in 1938 when he almost missed the 1st round KO because the cab driver got lost. He called my folks one day and said he wanted to take “Donny” to the county fair. When we got there, it was obvious that the only part of the fair he was interested in was the horse races. I was probably the only kid in my class who could read the racing form before learning long division.

Uncle Moe also shared Red Sox season tickets with a few friends since the 1930’s (an early version of “Fever Pitch”). They were box seats within shouting distance of the Sox dugout and how he could afford them is still a mystery. To this day, I’m still not sure how he made a living. By 1956, he decided that my time had come to join him for opening day at Fenway Park. It was a Tuesday day game and I’m sure my parents had to get me excused from school, but long division could wait for another day.

So, let’s look back at that game against the Orioles that drew a capacity crowd of 32,563. Here’s the BoSox line-up…

  • Billy Goodman, 2B – This was his 10th season with the team and he was a two-time All-Star along with being the AL Batting Champion (.354) in 1950.
  • Frank Malzone, 3B – His rookie season at the hot corner, he went on the make six All-Star teams and win three Gold Gloves.
  • Ted Williams, LF – The greatest hitter in the history of the game, he was in the twilight of his career at age 37. Of course, he still batted .345 for the season and led the AL in On-Base Percentage.
  • Jackie Jensen, RF – A former All-American football player at Cal, he would go on to win the MVP award in 1958.
  • Mickey Vernon, 1B – A veteran presence at age 38, this was his first year with the Sox. He still contributed 15 HR’s and a .310 BA.
  • Jim Piersall, CF – One of the great characters of the game, he was a Gold Glove outfielder.
  • Don Buddin, SS – I played SS in Little League, so I always rooted for him. His 6-year big league career never met expectations with a lifetime BA of .241.
  • Sammy White, C – The team’s primary backstop during the 50’s.
  • Frank Sullivan, P – Won 74 games over a five-year stretch in the 50’s and made two All-Star teams.

“Sully” pitched a complete game that day, as the Red Sox beat the Birds 8-1. They posted 16 hits including three each for Williams & Piersall. And, yes I had a “Fenway Frank”.

In the early 1990’s, I had occasion to be in Boston on a business trip. It allowed me to visit Uncle Moe at the rest home facility and enjoy his company for one last time. He would never admit to being sentimental but never having had children, he lit up when his Nephew showed up. I brought along an album of 1950’s baseball cards to leave with him and even though he wasn’t well physically, his mind was still sharp enough to remember, and talk about,  all those players. Here’s hoping you had an Uncle Moe.