Pacific Coast League Circa 1957

In a recent visit, we explored the category of “Quadruple A” (AAAA) ballplayers and how AAA teams can be a stepping stone to the majors for young players and the last chance for glory when it comes to veterans. This time, we’ll look deeper into one of the most famous AAA leagues in the history of the game…the Pacific Coast League.

The PCL has been in existence for over a hundred years and was the breeding ground for many all-time greats. Joe DiMaggio played for the San Francisco Seals from 1933-35; Ted Williams was a San Diego Padre in 1937 and Joe’s Brother Dom was also a Seal in 1939 before becoming the Red Sox CF for over a decade. In 1952, the league was given the classification of “Open”, a plan to have it become a tier above AAA with the hope of becoming a third major league. That dream faded when Walter O’Malley & Horace Stoneham moved their teams to the West Coast in 1958 but during those few years, the best baseball west of St. Louis took place in cities like Portland, Sacramento and Vancouver.

For this visit, we’ll take the baseball time machine back to 1957 and look at the last true glory year of the PCL. There were eight teams and they played a 168-game schedule. The Seals won the pennant with 101 victories, while the Vancouver Mounties were a close second with 97 and the Hollywood Stars chipped in with 94 to finish third. Utilizing the help of baseball-reference.com, let’s look at the top hitters & pitchers from that historic season…

  • Steve Bilko, Los Angeles Angels – was the Babe Ruth of the league with 56 HR’s, 140 RBI’s and 1.071 OPS. He got some big league stops with the Cardinals, Dodgers and others, but his glory days were in the PCL.
  • Preston Ward, Padres – hit .330 with 22 HR’s in his age-29 season. His best major league campaign was ’58, when he hit .284 with the Indians & Athletics. He had over 2,000 major league AB’s over parts of nine seasons.
  • Joe Taylor, Seattle Rainiers – was 31 at the time and contributed 22 HR’s and a .305 BA. He had less than 300 MLB AB’s and hit .249.
  • Bert Hamric, Angels – had 19 HR’s and 11 SB’s to go with his .291 BA. His big league career consisted of one hit in 11 AB’s.
  • Bob Lennon, Padres – a .309 BA and .885 OPS was impressive. In the majors, he was 13-for-79 (.165 BA).
  • Dave Pope, Padres – already 36, he was still playing the game well with 18 HR’s and a .313 BA. In 551 big league AB’s, he only hit 12 HR’s.
  • Ken Aspromonte, Seals – one of the younger players at age 25, he hit .334 with 73 RBI’s. The following season, he was the starting 2B for the Washington Senators.
  • Fran Kellert, Seals – at age 32, he hit 22 HR’s and batted .308. His major league career was over at this point with a .231 BA in parts of four seasons.
  • Spider Jorgensen, Mounties – a grizzled veteran at age 37, he still hit .291 with 16 HR’s. He was the Dodgers regular 3B in 1947, the year that Jackie Robinson debuted.
  • Earl Averill, Padres – the other 25 year-old on the list, he had 19 HR’s for the Friars. Went on to play seven big leagues seasons and was a teammate of Bilko on the 1961 expansion Los Angeles Angels.

As for the best starting pitchers… 

  • Morrie Martin, Mounties – at age 34, he went 14-4 with a 1.89 ERA. He was a member of the A’s rotation in the early 50’s and had a lifetime major league record of 38-34.
  • Red Witt, Hollywood Stars – at age 25, he went 18-7 with a 2.24 ERA. Got to the big leagues with the Pirates in ’58 but his lifetime mark was only11-16.
  • Jim Grant, Padres – at only 21, he was outstanding as he registered a 2.31 ERA with 18 Wins. “Mudcat” went on to play 14 seasons in the majors with 145 victories and two All-Star appearances.
  • Mel Held, Mounties – 10 Wins and a 2.71 ERA in 21 starts. He only got to pitch in four games at the big league level.
  • Erv Palica, Mounties – 15-12 with a 2.80 ERA at age 29. He pitched in the majors from 1947-56 and had a record of 41-55.
  • Bennie Daniels, Stars – posted a 2.95 ERA with 17 Wins. At age 25, he went on to pitch eight seasons with the Pirates and Senators with a career mark of 45-76.
  • Larry Jansen, Rainiers – still plugging along at 36, he won 10 games and had a 3.15 ERA in 25 starts. His glory days were with the Giants in the early 50’s and he led the NL with 23 victories in 1951.

Hope you can recall a few of these heroes from the history of the PCL…

AAA Versus AAAA

Even the most casual fan understands that in minor league baseball, the AAA level is the stepping stone to the major leagues. This is where those top prospects in each organization prove their worth and make that final jump to “The Show”.

If you play Fantasy Baseball or are a rabid fan of a particular team, experience has shown you that being a success at AAA doesn’t always guarantee a similar outcome in the majors. Last week, a long-time Dodger fan lamented to me about the recent past where the team always seemed to have a minor-league player who made an immediate impact like Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger & Alex Verdugo. He compared this group with 2021 call-ups like Sheldon Neuse, Gavin Lux, Matt Beaty & Zack McKinstry and determined that the “cupboard is bare”.

This brings us to a category of players in every organization that scouts call “Quadruple A” (AAAA) players. These are the guys who very often excel at the AAA level but can’t seem to make that final jump. If a player isn’t considered a prospect after age 25, AAA rosters are filled with these “suspects”. Don’t kid yourself, these aren’t bums. Every single one was a stand-out player at one time but through injuries, lack of opportunity or inability to adjust, they are stuck. Interestingly, the 2021 season has seen a few of them break through like Adolis Garcia of the Rangers (age 28), Patrick Wisdom of the Cubs (age 30) and Tyler Naquin of the Reds (age 30).

Let’s look at some of the tops hitters & pitchers at AAA that are over 25 (stats as of 9/10)…

  • Henry Ramos (ARI, age 29) is hitting .371 and just got his first major league AB last week.
  • Jason Krizan (SFG, age 32) sports a .896 OPS and has played six seasons at AAA without ever being on a major league field. 
  • Jamie Ritchie (ARI, age 28) has hit .299 in three AAA seasons but has never gotten the call.
  • Austin Allen (OAK, age 27) has 20 HR’s and a .321 BA at AAA this year, but in 104 major league AB’s, his BA is .212.
  • Braden Bishop (SFG, age 28) is hitting .315 with 9 HR’s & 9 SB’s at AAA but in 90 big league AB’s, he’s hit .133.
  • Matt Lipka (MIL, age 29) has swiped 26 bases this season in the minors but he’s in his 11th pro season without ever being called up.
  • Aderlin Rodriguez (DET, age 29) has 25 HR’s at AAA Toledo but this is his 12th minor league campaign.
  • Mikie Mahtook (CHW, age 31) has 21 HR’s in 306 AB’s at Charlotte but has only 33 HR’s in 884 major league AB’s.
  • Josh Lindblom (MIL, age 34) appeared in eight games for the Brewers this year with a 9.72 ERA but he has the best ERA of any AAA pitcher this season at 2.81.
  • Raynel Espinal (BOS, age 29) just made his first big league appearance after posting a 10-4 record at AAA.

Of course, this is not unique to the players of today. In the days before the Dodgers & Giants left New York, the most popular ballplayer of the Pacific Coast League was a slugging 1B named Steve Bilko. Playing for the Los Angeles Angels from 1955-57, he hit 37, 55 & 56 HR’s while averaging 142 RBI’s. His major league career was intermittent during the 50’s & 60’s as he posted a lifetime BA of .249 with a total 76 HR’s.

More recently, Mike Hessman set the record in 2015 for lifetime minor league HR’s when he blasted his 433rd round-tripper for AAA Toledo. He was 37 at the time and it was his final season. He only had 223 major league AB’s over the years with 14 HR’s and a .188 BA.

These are the guys who deserve our respect for their fortitude and desire. No Boos…only cheers.

The Rookies Go To WAR

The truncated 2020 baseball season impacted players in a myriad of ways. Those possibly affected the most were the ones getting close to the major leagues. With no minor league season, limited access to facilities and the threat of the virus itself, nothing was normal. So, heading into 2021 what could we expect of prospects? Would their potential overcome the obstacles or would they fall behind on the road to “The Show”.

Looking at a top-100 prospect list published in January, it’s easy to find some poor results (stats are through 9/3)…

  • #4 Jared Kelenic has been up with Mariners twice this season and is hitting .158 in 240 AB’s
  • #24 Spencer Howard was traded from the Phillies to the Rangers at the deadline and has zero Wins with a 6.56 ERA.
  • #25 Christian Pache began 2021 in the Braves line-up but hit only .111 with 25 K’s and 2 BB. He’s now at AAA.
  • #30 Vidal Brujan got a “cup of coffee” with the Rays and went 2-for-26.
  • #71 Leody Taveras has played 24 games for the Rangers and is hitting .113.

OK, let’s not toss our ROY ballots in the trash just yet. With the help of “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR), we’ll get a feel for which rookies are really contributing to the success of their team.

First the offensive players…

  • Jonathan India (NR, 3.4 WAR) has been a force in the Reds line-up with 18 HR’s, 61 RBI’s and 9 SB’s.
  • Adolis Garcia (NR, 3.1 WAR) came out of nowhere as a 28 year-old with 29 HR’s, 77 RBI’s & 9 SB’s.
  • Patrick Wisdom (NR, 2.2 WAR) was a marginal prospect with the Cardinals in 2018, but his age 29 campaign with the re-building Cubs has been amazing…25 HR’s.
  • Randy Arozarena (#35, 2.1 WAR) had an over the top post season in 2020 for the Rays and most fans didn’t even realize that he was still rookie-eligible this year. Having a very solid 2021 with 18 HR’s, 60 RBI’s & 12 SB.
  • Tyler Stephenson (NR, 1.9 WAR) has taken over the catching duties for the Reds and has a .371 OBP.
  • Wander Franco (#1, 1.8 WAR) had to wait at AAA but has now made his presence felt with a 30+ game on-base streak.
  • Dylan Carlson (#13, 1.7 WAR) was somewhat over-hyped but has performed well with 13 HR’s and a .344 OBP…he’s only 22.
  • Ramon Urias (NR, 1.6 WAR) – This 27 year-old has been playing professional baseball since 2011 but you don’t really need great credentials to join the Orioles line-up. A .351 OBP in 265 AB’s has been quite good.
  • Ryan Mountcastle (#82, 1.6 WAR) has been another bright spot for the Birds with 25 HR’s.
  • Edmundo Sosa, Jazz Chisholm & Akil Baddoo have also contributed 1.6 WAR.

Now, for the Pitchers…

  • Trevor Rogers (NR, 3.3 WAR) has made 20 starts for the Marlins with a 2.45 ERA.
  • Luis Garcia (NR, 2.8 WAR) leads all rookies with 10 Wins and the Astros are very happy with his 3.23 ERA.
  • Shane McClanahan (NR, 2.2 WAR) is 9-5 in 21 starts for the league-leading Rays.
  • Cole Irvin (NR, 2.1 WAR) has been the most durable of the group with 149 IP in 26 starts for the A’s.
  • Ian Anderson (#20, 2.0 WAR) hasn’t disappointed the Braves with his 3.36 ERA.
  • Dane Dunning (NR, 1.9 WAR) came over the Rangers from the White Sox in the Lance Lynn deal and should be a long-term asset.
  • Emmanuel Clase (NR, 1.8 WAR) has emerged as the Guardians Closer with 20 Saves.
  • Logan Gilbert (#59, 1.8 WAR) is a bright spot for the Mariners at age 24.
  • Garrett Whitlock (NR, 1.6 WAR) has had 7 Wins and a 1.63 ERA out of the Red Sox bullpen.

With just a few weeks left in the season, the ROY Awards are still to be decided. Who do you like?

The Fantasy Baseball Time Machine Goes Back To 1986

If you didn’t play Fantasy Baseball before the Internet, the historical concept of 1980’s Rotisserie Baseball might be slightly hazy. For the Old Duck, it is an era filled with the best memories one could imagine.

In March of ’81, I read an article in Inside Sports magazine entitled, “The Year George Foster Wasn’t Worth $36.” It was written by Dan Okrent and was one of the very first references to “Rotisserie” (Fantasy) baseball.

By 1984, the originators of the game (including Okrent and Glen Waggoner) published the first edition of “Rotisserie League Baseball.” When I spotted the book, the ’81 article came to mind and I couldn’t wait to consume the details of this fascinating hobby. After reading the entire book in one sitting, I got on the phone and began calling numerous baseball-loving friends with the following challenge – “Go buy this book and tell me if you’re in.” Within 48 hours, the “Bowling League of Rotisserie Baseball” was born. Why Bowling? Well, almost everyone in the group (including me) worked in the bowling industry…owners, executives, managers, sales reps and the like.

So there we sat in the spring of ’84, eight guys who were baseball fans but didn’t have a clue about this new game other than the minimal strategies talked about in the book. No Internet, no Fantasy magazines, no Sabrmetrics and no Rotisserie Gurus. Our main resource was the Sporting News and its Baseball Register. I chose Donald’s Ducks for my team name and we went boldly where no fan had gone before.

In going through some personal archives, I came across an article from the L.A. Times published in 1986. As you’ll see, the writer was trying to make sense of this strange hobby and interviewed me along with a number of other “pioneers”. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the perspective of our great game from 35 years ago.

For Rotisserie Baseball Fanatics, a Grand Sham

April 30, 1986|FRANK CLANCY 

    Email      Share    

April 3 was not a good day for local baseball fans. On that day Pedro Guerrero, the Dodgers’ star left fielder, ruptured a tendon in his left knee, causing fans throughout Southern California to bemoan his misfortune. But J. R. Williams probably reacted more strongly than most fans to the injury, which will keep Guerrero idle at least until July.

“I was really upset,” the 23-year-old computer operator recalled later. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.

“I hate to see any player get hurt,” Williams added, but his concern was not entirely selfless. Williams owns the “J. R. Ewings” of the Golden State League of Rotisserie Baseball Clubs; Guerrero, who hit 33 home runs last year and batted .320 for the Dodgers, was also the Ewings’ star. On April 1, Williams had signed Guerrero to one of the richest contracts in league history: $7 a year for three years.

Confused? You’ve never heard of Rotisserie Baseball or the Golden State League, let alone the J. R. Ewings? Don’t worry. Except in the hearts and minds of J. R. Williams and 10 friends, the Ewings exist only on paper.

> Thousands of Fans

But how does this league, and hundreds like it, exist in the minds of owners! Indeed, Rotisserie League Baseball (named after a Manhattan restaurant, at which the first known league was conceived in January, 1980) has attracted thousands of baseball fans, causing some to lose sleep worrying about their players, others to run up large phone bills, and many–heresy among baseball fans–to root against the home team.

The object of such devotion, also known as “ghost” or “fantasy” baseball is on its surface a disarmingly simple game. It has no board, no dice, and no cards. It requires only imagination–and an incredibly detailed knowledge of baseball.

While rules vary somewhat from league to league (often being altered at winter meetings by “club officials”), basically here is how it goes: Soon after baseball season begins, about 10 “owners” gather to select real players from major league teams. Each chooses 22 or 23 players, including eight pitchers, at auction or through a draft. As in major league baseball, the challenge is to evaluate players and assemble a balanced team.

Throughout the six-month long baseball season, owners trade, cut, and move players, measuring their success by the actual statistics of their players. In October, leagues use eight statistical categories, such as home runs (5 points in a typical league) and pitching victories (30 points for a starting pitcher, 20 for a reliever), to determine the best team. The top three split the money collected from the player auction or from entry fees. One local league, for example, charges $60 per team to enter and pays $350 to the top team, $150 to second place and $100 to third.

(The concept is not confined to baseball, and a handful of leagues play a similar game with pro football, using only offensive players. In one, the “Hollywood Football League,” owners chip in $500 apiece.)

If J. R. Williams’ reaction to Pedro Guerrero’s injury seems extreme, in context it is not at all so.

Last summer, mononucleosis and hepatitis forced Matthew Irmas, owner of Matt’s Fat Bats in the Westwood Rotisserie League, to miss three months of work. But Irmas, 29, remained an active owner. “For three months I was completely consumed by baseball,” the Marina Del Rey resident remembers. “I would wake up at 3:30 in the morning waiting for the paper to come.”

A fellow owner avoided that problem by subscribing to a computer data base that provides detailed baseball results. Now he can find out how his players did minutes after a game ends.

> Penny Pincher League

Donna Turner, 51, a banking consultant, owns the DT’s in the Penny Pincher League. The Torrance resident says her long-distance phone bill doubled last summer because she was calling major league teams for information.

Turner isn’t unique. According to Toby Zwikel, assistant publicity director for the Dodgers, the team received a number of calls from Rotisserie players asking about Guerrero. Zwikel says his office gets “too many” such calls: “They are a pain for us. We’re here 14 hours a day and more during the season. To answer those questions is just one more thing we have to do.”

“Being a baseball fan is one thing,” Donna Turner explains, “but to really let your fantasies go in a league is another. You get the ‘owners’ syndrome–you really think these players are yours. Your mind runs away.”

Rotisserie leagues have made dedicated Dodger fans reconsider their loyalties. “You never watch a baseball game the same way again,” says Don Drooker, 40, of Canoga Park, whose team, Donald’s Ducks, competes in the Bowling League of Rotisserie Baseball (a group of bowling industry managers and executives). “You could be a lifelong Dodger fan, but if you go to the stadium and one of your pitchers is pitching against the Dodgers, you root against the Dodgers.”

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar leagues. Ghost League Baseball, a San Francisco company selling computer software to run leagues, has responded to more than 1,000 inquiries about the program and a statistics service since both were introduced in February, says part-owner Jules Tygiel. Bantam Books’ Rotisserie League Baseball, a humorous guide, has 51,000 copies in print, and more than 400 leagues, including about 40 in Southern California, have paid $50 apiece to join the Rotisserie League Baseball Assn.

For their money, association members get a mixture of serious information (final major league rosters, lists of players by position) and humor that has from the beginning marked this game. At the end of each season, for example, the original Rotisserie Leaguers ritually pour Yoo-Hoo, a soft drink once endorsed by ex-New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, on their league champion; the association will send a can of Yoo-Hoo to any league that cannot obtain the syrupy chocolate beverage. Few, it seems, actually emulate the ritual.

With names like the the Wulfgang (owned by Steve Wulf) and the Sklar Gazers (Robert Sklar), the original league also spread a plague of puns that play on owners’ names. The J. R. Ewings compete against Harper’s Bizarre (Ben Harper), the Fuller Brushmen (Alan Fuller), and the Haskimos (Mike Haskins).

> Fall in Love’

Devotees of Rotisserie baseball offer various explanations for the game’s popularity. “It begins with little boys,” suggests Glen Waggoner, 45, a founding member of the original Rotisserie League, the editor of Rotisserie League Baseball, and now a contributing editor at Esquire. “Just before sex, boys fall in love with baseball. In adolescence they get their heads turned by sex, but in their 20s and 30s baseball comes back; by then you no longer have a credible fantasy of playing major league baseball yourself. The next greatest fantasy is to (own a major league team). With Rotisserie League Baseball you can do that, and you don’t need $25 million.”

Although league champions have been known to win more than $1,000, players say money is hardly a motivation. “The money is irrelevant,” Don Drooker insists. “The people in our league would do this for 260 match sticks.”

Along with the leagues have come a host of related businesses selling statistics services, winning systems, a scouting service, and leagues via computer modem. One new company, Ghost League Baseball, grew out of the Pacific Ghost League, formed in San Francisco five years ago.

At 37, part-owner Jules Tygiel is no ordinary businessman. A professor of history at San Francisco State University, he is the author of “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.”

“Baseball has been booming,” Tygiel says, “and part of it has to do with the computer. Baseball is so much a game of numbers, of statistics; the marriage of baseball and computers is a fortuitous one. Baseball first became popular in an age of mathematics, the 1880s, so it doesn’t surprise me that this resurgence in popularity of baseball coincides with the introduction of the personal computer.”

But if the Dodgers cannot replace Guerrero, it will be a long summer. In his absence, the team is using Franklin Stubbs, a promising rookie, and Cesar Cedeno, an aging superstar.

The J. R. Ewings are no better off. Drafting on Sunday, April 13, at a league meeting in a Glassell Park residence, owner Williams acquired Andy Van Slyke and Greg Gross, who last season hit 20 fewer home runs and batted 60 points lower than the Dodgers’ popular star.

At that five-hour auction, Golden State League owners showed they can be as ruthless and unforgiving as George Steinbrenner, the temperamental New York Yankees owner with a penchant for firing managers and publicly berating players. Consider, for example, the case of Ken Landreux.

Two nights earlier, the Dodger center fielder played poorly against the San Francisco Giants: with several Golden State League owners watching, Landreux made an error that allowed the Giants to score three runs. By Sunday, his Rotisserie League value had plummeted. Selected by Commissioner Pete Arbogast (the “Arbohydrates”), Landreux was the very last player chosen. His auction price and 1986 salary: 10 cents.

Hope you enjoyed the quick trip in the time machine…maybe next year; I’ll try to draft that English prospect H. G. Wells.

Secrets of the Scrap Book

Being retired is supposed to be fun. Spending time with family & friends, traveling, activities you enjoy, volunteer work or finally having time for that hobby you love.

The Old Duck is especially fortunate to spend three days a week interacting with folks who share my passion for sports and the collectibles that spring from the games that are played.

Card collecting is over 100 years old and the hobby has evolved into a complex and ever-changing marketplace. From the tobacco cards of the early 20th century to the sporadic issues of the Depression era and World War II to the post-war cards from companies like Bowman & Leaf, it wasn’t until almost 70 years ago that the Topps Company started the real boom era of sports card collecting. While they issued a couple of playing card style sets in 1951, the 1952 set marked the true beginning of baseball cards as we know them today with over 400 numbered cards that included statistics and player bios. Bowman also issued card sets during this time, but Topps bought them out in 1956 and became the exclusive distributor of major league cards for a period that lasted through 1980. They had to compete against numerous other manufacturers for the next 25 years, but became the exclusive producer again about 15 years ago.

A recent set of circumstances can possibly be defined as juxtaposition. Last week, various news reports confirmed that Major League Baseball had made an agreement with a sports apparel company to take over the licensing and production of baseball cards by 2026. In essence, this means that in five years, there will no longer be Topps Baseball cards. For collectors and fans, it almost seems unfathomable, as the history of these products is so embedded in the fabric of the game.

The day after the announcement, I received a call from a nice lady by the name of Shirley. As with many clients, she came to me through a referral from someone who had a positive experience with their own collection. She proceeded to tell me that she had some old baseball cards that were in poor condition and didn’t know if it was really worth the time, but could I fit her into my schedule. Of course, the pandemic has brought hundreds of people to my corner at the baseball card shop that seem to think cards from 1988 are “old” but I’m always willing to give time to anyone who wants to drop in.

When Shirley arrived a few days later, she placed a small red scrapbook on the counter that looked like it was from the 1940’s. Upon opening the book, I discovered close to 100 cards from the iconic 1952 Topps set. Mixed emotions would be the only way to describe the experience, as the cards are certainly scarce but Shirley’s description of the condition was correct because the cards were taped onto the pages.  The retail value of cards in this type of condition isn’t much but the memories are priceless. Especially when they came from Topps first set in the same week where we hear about the end of the Topps era.

Let’s take a trip down baseball’s memory lane and look at the cardboard heroes on a few random pages.

  • Al Schoendienst, Cardinals 2B – Known better as “Red”, this lifelong redbird was Stan Musial’s closest friend and played 19 seasons in the big leagues. A 10-time All-Star, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.
  • Eddie Stanky, Cardinals Manager – Known for jumping on the back of Leo Durocher when Bobby Thomson hit that famous Home Run in ’51, he managed St. Louis for the next four seasons.
  • Mel Parnell, Red Sox Pitcher – The BoSox best hurler in the late 40’s and early 50’s, he won 27 games in 1949 and 21 in 1953.
  • Robin Roberts, Phillies Pitcher – Won 20 games or more from 1949-1955, pitching over 300 innings in each of those seasons. Won a total of 286 games and was voted into Cooperstown in 1976.
  • Johnny Mize, Yankees 1B – Even missing three years in his prime serving in World War II, this prolific power hitter made the Hall of Fame in 1981. Hit 51 HR’s for the Giants in 1947.
  • Bob Feller, Indians Pitcher – Broke into the majors in 1936 as a 17 year-old and was the most dominant pitcher of the era. Another player who spent three years of the 1940’s in the military, he led the AL in Wins six times and was inducted into Cooperstown in 1962.
  • Other familiar names found in the pages include Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Sain, Warren Spahn, Preacher Roe, Enos Slaughter, Ted Kluszewski, Dom DiMaggio & Monty Irvin.

And just think, every pack of cards came with a stick of bubble gum.

Fantasy MVP – Stats or Value?

As a true baseball fan, what are your criteria for choosing a “Most Valuable Player” (MVP)? Everyone seems to have a different take on this award and for the 60 baseball writers who vote on the award each year, there seems to be just as much confusion. Even the directions mailed out with the ballot say, “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means”.

Are you in the camp of those who feel that the Cy Young Award is for Pitchers and the MVP is for everyday players? In the 1980’s, both Willie Hernandez (’84) & Roger Clemens (’86) were awarded both in the same year. It happened again in 1992 with Dennis Eckersley and as recently as 2011 & 2014 when Justin Verlander & Clayton Kershaw captured both trophies.

Or maybe you feel strongly that the MVP needs to come from a winning team that makes the playoffs? Ernie Banks won the NL MVP in both 1958 & 1959 playing on Cubs teams that were under .500. In those two seasons, he hit 92 HR’s and had 272 RBI’s making his dominance difficult to ignore. In fact, there are some who feel that winning teams dilute the value of star players because there are usually multiple members of the roster making significant contributions.

A few years ago, baseball writer Jeff Passan added another talking point to the MVP debate. He asked if “value” also includes a player’s contribution to his team relative to his salary and posed the question, “have we been missing what should be one of the chief criteria of value”. Bryce Harper is having an MVP-type season, but his salary is $25 Million. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has even more amazing stats, but makes only $605,400. The basic theory is “MVP in actuality is the one that most improves postseason chances given payroll limitations.” Passan wasn’t quite ready to use performance vs. contract as a primary factor in MVP voting but felt that when a spot on the ballot is “too close to call”, he would consider it as secondary criteria.

Of course, experienced Fantasy players have been utilizing this approach for decades. Unlike major league baseball, we all choose and manage our teams under the umbrella of a salary cap. When every team’s budget is $260, “value” becomes a relative term. While some may say that once you leave the Draft table, it’s all about performance, a given player’s salary impacts your roster’s flexibility throughout the season. So, let’s take a look at the MVP race in a real world fantasy baseball league.

For this laboratory experiment, we’ll use the industry’s premiere “experts” keeper league, the Xperts Fantasy League (XFL). A 15-team mixed, auction-style league with 5×5 stats (OBP replaces BA), the league is in its 19th season. As with most leagues, it has some interesting rules including dynasty-type salary guidelines, but the essence of the stats vs. value argument will be clear. Adhering to recent real-world MVP balloting, we’ll look at teams in contention as we head into the final quarter of the season. The current standings have five teams with 100 points or better and they are clear of the field by at least 10 points. Statistics are as of August 13th.

For purposes of anonymity, we’ll call the contenders the Mallards, Barristers, Gandhis, Broadcasters & Ronettes. Only players either kept or drafted in the December 2020 auction will qualify, eliminating $1 bargains chosen in the March 2021 supplemental phase like Emmanuel Clase, Jesus Aguilar and Jake McGee.

The  Mallards have received stellar production from Marcus Semien, who has produced a $29 return. However, his salary of $24 creates a gap of only $5 while Kevin Gausman has also contributed $29…with a $6 salary.

The defending champions Barristers have a plethora of great values with Bo Bichette, Rafael Devers & Ozzie Albies but the MVP is an easy call. Even with time spent on the IL, Fernando Tatis Jr. has contributed $39 in value for a $7 price tag.

The emerging Gandhis have boppers like Max Muncy and Joey Gallo, but they also get to put Shohei Ohtani into their line-up. Even though he takes up two spots on the roster, his $10 salary makes him the obvious MVP.

The Broadcasters have a number of outstanding players but the aforementioned Guerrero laps the field with a $7 salary and a $39 season.

The Ronettes have gotten $27 of value from Whit Merrifield but his salary of $21 won’t make him their MVP. How about Adam Frazier’s $16 season for a $2 salary and throw-in multiple position eligibility.

If you consider yourself an expert at this game or just a fan that plays for the love of the game, the theory of “value” should always be in your thought process, especially if you’re re-building for 2022. It impacts trade decisions as well as keeper choices next Spring. Determine your MVP for this year and you’ll be a step ahead of your competition.

Futures Card Game

Through the first three decades of the era of modern baseball cards, collecting was what it was all about. Opening packs, making your Dentist rich by chewing the bubble gum, finding your favorite players and putting together a complete set. When the Topps monopoly ended in the early 80’s, the hobby began to change and customers were no longer just collectors, to a great extent they also became speculators. People had seen the dramatic increase in the valuation of cards from the 50’s & 60’s and determined they could make a profit by investing in this unique commodity.

As a dealer in sports cards, I have the unenviable task of telling sellers that all those cards they saved from the 80’s & 90’s don’t have any value. The factor left out of their thought process back then was the lack of scarcity. Manufacturers supplied an enormous amount of product and values went south quickly. In fact, this phenomenon almost ruined the industry, as collectors got fed up with too many products and too much supply.

The hobby started to reinvent itself about 15 years ago and created a new breed of speculator. By seeding packs with limited edition, autograph and relic (jerseys & bats) cards, they found customers who were willing to gamble on high-priced products in hopes of getting that extremely rare (and valuable) card. Of course, there are still millions of fans who collect cards for the joy of the hobby, but even they are always hoping for a great “pull” from a pack.

For today’s speculator, one of the most popular investments is the card of a prospect. As Fantasy Baseball aficionados, we all know that only a small percentage of the top 100 each year actually become stars, but the appeal of the next Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Juan Soto is too much for these collectors to resist. Historically, the Bowman brand (owned by Topps) is known for highlighting minor leaguers with potential. This goes all the back to their 1992 set where you’ll find Mariano Rivera’s rookie card a full three years before he wore a major league uniform. Now, of course, the prospects even have autographed cards in the packs. Now understand that we’re not talking about rookies who have already made a splash like Dylan Carlson or Ke’Bryan Hayes. We’re scouting the minor leaguers you probably haven’t heard of yet.

  So, with the annual Futures Game in the rear-view mirror, let’s get a feel for some of the prospects and their market demand. The price reflects the current market value of an autograph card from 2021 Bowman Chrome Prospects.

> Blaze Jordan, Red Sox 1B/3B – A great name for a hitter on a hot streak, this 18 year-old is batting .362 in Rookie League ball and his card is at $150.

> Hedbert Perez, Brewers OF – Also 18, his Dad (Robert) played six seasons in the majors. He’s hitting .342 in Rookie ball and his card will set you back $100.

> Maximo Acosta, Rangers SS – Hobbyists love the young guys and this 18 year-old is on a fast track to be the Rangers next long-time SS. His autograph card is a $100 investment.

>Yoelqui Cespedes, Marlins OF – The younger Brother of Yoenis, he defected from Cuba to pursue the game. He’s 23 and playing at the A+ level with an OPS of .822 and a card value of $100.

> Spencer Torkelson, Tigers 1B/3B – The #1 pick in last year’s draft, he signed for over $8 Million. On track to replace Miguel Cabrera, his card is worth $100.>Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.

Jeremy De La Rosa, Nationals OF – Still a work in progress, he’s playing A ball at age 19. The hype is there with a card price of $60.

  • Garrett Mitchell, Brewers OF – At age 22, he’s honing his skills at AA and his card will set you back $50.
  • Kevin Alcantara, Cubs OF – Recently acquired from the Yankees in the Anthony Rizzo trade, this 19 year-old is batting .364 at Rookie ball. $75 will get you his card.
  • Aaron Saboto, Twins 1B – Having contact issues at A ball, he’s a power prospect and a card investment of $50

For Fantasy players and card collectors, prospects can make your day…or break your heart.

1959 Topps Baseball Cards

To some extent, 1959 not only marked the end of a decade but the start of a new baseball era. The statistics on the back of the cards highlighted the first major league season of West Coast expansion, as the Dodgers & Giants left New York to build new legacies in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It also was a time of change for baseball, as many established stars were winding down their careers and the final barrier to players of color was removed when the last team integrated a full 12 years after Jackie Robinson first played in Brooklyn.

 This was the fourth year of the Topps monopoly after Bowman ceased operating in 1956 and the company issued their largest set ever with 572 cards. Beautifully done, with bust pictures of the players in a colored circle, it included Sporting News All-Star selections in the scarce high series and the first cards designated as “Rookie Prospects”. For this visit, we’ll focus on Hall of Famers in the ’59 set and the values are based on cards in “Near Mint” (NM 7) condition.

> #10 Mickey Mantle, Yankees OF ($1,500) – Still in his prime at age 27, “The Mick” was coming off a season in which he led the AL in Runs, Home Runs & Walks and had a 1.035 OPS. This is the most valuable card in the set.

> #20 Duke Snider, Dodgers OF ($55) – Age and the move to the L.A. Coliseum meant that things would never be the same for the “Duke of Flatbush”. Following five consecutive seasons of 40+ Home Runs in Brooklyn, he hit only 15 during the ’58 season and injuries limited him to 106 games.

> #30 Nellie Fox, White Sox 2B ($32) – Won the AL MVP Award in ’59 as he led the “Go-Go Sox” to the pennant.

> #40 Warren Spahn, Braves P ($70) – Even in his late-30’s, the left-hander with the most victories in history was still at the top of his game. Won 20 games or more from ’57 – ’61.

> #50 Willie Mays, Giants OF ($250) – The move to the Bay Area didn’t slow down the “Say Hey Kid” at all. His first season in San Francisco included a .347 BA, 29 HR’s, a league leading 31 SB’s and a Gold Glove.

> #149 Jim Bunning, Tigers P ($25) – Led the AL in Strikeouts in both ’58 & ’59 before his glory days with the Phillies in the 60’s.

> #150 Stan Musial, Cardinals OF-1B ($125) – Still All-Star caliber in his late 30’s, “Stan The Man” hit .337 in ’58.

> #155 Enos Slaughter, Yankees OF ($28) – 1959 was the last season for this legendary player who served three years in World War II during his prime and came back to have 130 RBI’s for the championship Cardinals in 1946.

> #163 Sandy Koufax, Dodgers P ($200) – Still learning his craft at age 23, he was 8-6 in 23 starts during the ’59 season. The 173 K’s in 153 IP showed the promise and he did start one game in the World Series as the Dodgers won the title from the White Sox.

> #180 Yogi Berra, Yankees C ($95) – Was an All-Star for every one of the years of the 50’s decade, in which he won three MVP Awards.

> #260 Early Wynn, White Sox P ($28) – Was at 249 Wins after the ’58 campaign and would eventually get to the magic 300 number in 1963.

> #300 Richie Ashburn, Phillies OF ($35) – 1959 was the last of his 12 years with Philadelphia. He played three more NL seasons including 1962 with the expansion Mets.

> #310 Luis Aparicio, White Sox SS ($35) – Led the AL with 56 SB’s in ’59 and finished 2nd in the MVP balloting to teammate Nellie Fox.

> #338 Sparky Anderson, Phillies 2B ($45) – The card says George, as this is the rookie card of the future HOF Manager. ’59 was his only major league season and he hit .218 in 477 AB’s.

> #349 Hoyt Wilhelm, Orioles P ($22) – 1959 was the one season where this famous knuckleball reliever was actually a member of the starting rotation. How did he fare? How about 15 Wins and a league-leading 2.19 ERA?

> # 350 Ernie Banks, Cubs SS ($90) – 47 HR’s & 129 RBI’s in ’58, then 45 HR’s & 143 RBI’s in ’59. The result was back-to-back MVP Awards.

> #360 Al Kaline, Tigers OF ($65) – 1959 was a great year for this Detroit legend – .327 BA, 27 HR’s, 94 RBI’s and a Gold Glove.

> #380 Hank Aaron, Braves OF ($200) – Ultimately known for his Home Run prowess, it is forgotten that in 1959, he led the NL with 223 Hits and a .355 BA.

> #387 Don Drysdale, Dodgers P ($45) – ’59 was his breakout season as he had 17 Wins and a league-leading 242 K’s. Not surprisingly, he also led the NL with 18 hit batters.

> #390 Orlando Cepeda, Giants 1B ($40) – Rookie of the Year in ’58, he followed up with a .317 BA, 27 HR’s & 105 RBI’s in ’59.

> #430 Whitey Ford, Yankees P ($60) – Right in the middle of his great career, he led the AL with a 2.01 ERA in ’58.

> #435 Frank Robinson, Redlegs 1B-OF ($50) – At age 23, he was already an established star with 98 HR’s in his first three seasons.

> #439 Brooks Robinson, Orioles 3B ($50) – Still developing at this point in his career, he didn’t win a Gold Glove until 1960. Of course, he then captured 15 more consecutively.

> #450 Eddie Mathews, Braves 3B ($65) – In his prime at age 27, he led the NL with 46 HR’s in 1959.

> #455 Larry Doby, Tigers OF ($28) – The first AL player of color, this was his final major league season.

> #478 Roberto Clemente, Pirates OF ($215) – Due to his legacy, most fans don’t grasp the work it took him to become a star. 1959 was his 5th year with the Pirates and he didn’t make an All-Star team until 1960.

> #480 Red Schoendienst, Cardinals 2B ($28) – In his mid-30’s by this point, he was injured for almost all of the ’59 campaign and never played another full season.

> #514 Bob Gibson, Cardinals P ($1,250) – Not only is this the Rookie Card of the Redbirds great hurler, it also comes from the scarce high series run of this set. Other than the Mantle, this is the toughest card to find in nice condition.

> #515 Harmon Killebrew, Senators 3B ($145) – Spent five seasons languishing on the bench before getting his chance in ’59. The result was a league-leading 42 HR’s, the first of eight years with 40+ HR’s.

> #550 Roy Campanella, “Symbol Of Courage” ($150) – This card pictures “Campy” in a wheel chair and tells the story of his tragic automobile accident as written by NL League President Warren Giles.

In a future visit, we’ll look at some of the other great and not-so-great players represented in this classic set.

Baseball Card Condition & Grading

Prior to the 1980’s, most kids who collected baseball cards weren’t concerned with the condition of the cards. We wrapped them in rubber bands, put them in the spokes of our bicycle tires, flipped them against the wall (in a contest to win cards from other boys) and occasionally even wrote on them with a pen or pencil. So, today, when someone has a 1980 Rickey Henderson card, the first question is “what’s the condition?”

As with most hobbies, the condition (of stamps, coins, comic books, etc.) will determine the real value in the marketplace. For baseball cards, the key factors are centering, corner wear, creases and stains. Prior to the mid-90’s, collectors and dealers used a subjective method of determining if a card was “Mint” or “Near-Mint” or “Excellent”. With the hobby changing and the introduction of the Internet, buyers & sellers needed a better way to agree on condition…and, therefore, pricing. Into that void stepped the third-party authentication and grading companies, who would give the card a number grade (1-10), encase it in a tamper-proof holder and register the card with a serial number. Eventually, this would become an industry standard…especially for older cards.

The value of a particular card can vary greatly depending on the condition. The monthly Beckett price guide shows the ’80 Henderson Rookie Card as having a book value of $60. That estimate, however, assumes that the card is in NM (Near-Mint) condition…defined as a “7” by the grading company.

Of course, the real world isn’t defined by estimates and the current market price of an ’80 Henderson that is graded “7” is about $120. The real key, however, is the differential of the values on the same card based on condition. The most recent sales on Internet sites (like eBay) show the following for our ’80 Henderson example…

“5” = $60

“6” = $70

“7” = $120

“8” = $275

“9” = $1,750

As you can see, each level represents an increase in value for the seller and as the condition gets better, the price increases dramatically. Could you tell the difference between a “7” and an “8” with the naked eye? Probably not, but the companies that specialize in grading have equipment that can see imperfections in order to gauge centering and wear exactly.

What probably caught your eye is the huge difference between a card graded “8” and one graded “9”. This is exactly why the baseball card hobby is in an unusual place in 2021. During the pandemic, while people were stuck at home with no sports on TV and social gatherings at a minimum, they found all those cards that they had squirreled away in the garage or attic or extra bedroom. When they discovered a Henderson card that was possibly worth $60, they decided that by grading it, they would get rich…because, of course, theirs must be a “9”. So many cards were sent in for processing that it essentially shut down the two major grading companies due to the overwhelming demand and the Henderson is just an example. Orders were taking 6-8 months or longer and the grading providers stopped taking orders until they could get caught up.  That is where the industry sits at the moment and no one knows exactly when we’ll be back to normal. It will come as no surprise to you that thousands of collectors will be disappointed when their orders come back. By nature, we are all optimists, but the fact is that over 23,000 Henderson RC’s have been graded by PSA and less than 10% of them have judged to a “9”. After all, these are 40 year-old pieces of cardboard.

Grading is an important part of the hobby but collectors must understand that gauging if a card should be graded is an essential step. If you’re building a set of cards from the 1950’s or 1960’s, by all means consider grading the major stars. If you are collecting the cards of a certain player or team, getting them graded for display in your office is a great idea. My Ted Williams rookie card is from 1939 and it is graded a “2” but that’s OK because it is my Ted Williams rookie card.

The other factor in grading your cards is that it proves the card is authentic and has not been altered. It is not unheard of to find older cards that have been trimmed (to shave off edge wear or improve centering) or retouched with a marker to make the card look more appealing. So, if you’re selling older baseball cards, don’t assume they’re in NM condition…be prepared for a more realistic offer. If you’re keeping your cards, think about grading them to improve your ability to display your collection while protecting the cards from damage.

The entire grading process has also created new markets and challenges for card collectors. One of the grading companies has even created a “Set Registry” where collectors list their sets of vintage cards in which every card has been graded. Currently, there are thousands of baseball card sets registered on the website by collectors and some feature cards in amazing condition. For example, there are two 1956 Topps sets that have an average grade of “9” (Mint Condition). Can you imagine the journey those collectors made to acquire 342 cards to meet that standard? What would that set be worth? One industry magazine estimates the value at $300,000+ but we’ll never really know because the sets probably won’t ever become available. In the meantime, I’ll be very happy with my 1956 Topps set, which based on the dozen or so star cards that have been graded, averages about a “5” (Excellent Condition).

As always, my advice is to collect, not speculate.

Show Me Ohtani

As an old school baseball fan, your humble scribe keeps watching the Angels SP/DH Shohei Ohtani with absolute wonder. Leaving aside the fact that he was the starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star game, can his batting skills really be this amazing? After all, he has struck out in 1/3 of his at-bats this season, so there are certainly holes in his swing.

Utilizing the new-age stats supplied by MLB’s “StatCast”, let’s look inside the numbers and see how Ohtani compares to his contemporaries who are only batters. Statistics are as of July 18th

  • Exit Velocity (EV) measures the speed of the baseball as it comes off the bat. Ohtani’s average speed is 93.6 mph, tied for 5th in all of baseball with Fernando Tatis Jr.
  • Maximum Exit Velocity (maxEV) gives us the fastest batted ball for each player. Ohtani’s is tied for 2nd with Aaron Judge at 119 mph.
  • Barrel Percentage (Barrel %) calculates how often a batter hits a baseball with at least a speed of at least 98 mph with a certain launch angle. Ohtani has a number of 25.5%…no other player is even at 21%!
  • Hard Hit Rate (Hard Hit %) shows how many of a player’s batted balls left the bat with a velocity of at least 95 mph. Ohtani is 4th at 56.3%.
  • Expected Slugging Percentage (xSLG) takes the historical slugging percentage stat and updates it to eliminate the defensive skills of the opposing team. Ohtani’s number of .675 is the best in the game by over 30 points.
  • Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) is an extension of a statistic originally introduced by Bill James. The calculation is adjusted so that the major league average is 100. Ohtani is at 173, 2nd only to Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
  • Isolated Power (ISO) measures the raw power of a player by taking only extra-base hits into account. Ohtani’s number of .405 is 40 points ahead of 2nd place.

Are you impressed yet? How about some basic research?

  • He is one of three players with an OPS figure over 1.000.
  • He leads all of baseball with 33 Home Runs.
  • He’s second in RBI’s.
  • He’s also stolen 12 bases.
  • And, turning to our old friend “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR), he’s the best in the game at 5.5 (3.6 batting and 1.9 pitching).

The big picture is that we’re all having the opportunity to watch history being made by a generational talent.