Speculating On #1 Picks

With the convergence of multiple baseball card manufacturers and the Internet in the 90s’, many collectors turned into speculators when it came to top prospects. Major League Baseball’s Amateur Draft has taken place every June since 1965, but the attention on the players has intensified ten-fold during that time. If you were a baseball fan in 1966, you probably didn’t know that Steve Chilcott, a High School Catcher from Lancaster, California was the first overall pick in the country (by the Mets). And, even if you did, it wasn’t anticipated that he would have a baseball card until he (someday) reached the Majors. The end result was that he had a seven-year minor league career; never had a baseball card and the Mets could have had Reggie Jackson instead.

 Bryce Harper, the #1 pick in 2010, was the hottest card in the industry in 2011 and he’s proved his worth ever since with a career that includes a MVP award. The same phenomenon took place in 2009 with Stephen Strasburg but he ended up on the operating table before the 2011 season was over. And, he’s injured again in 2021.

With the 2021 Draft just completed, let’s look at the top picks over a 20 + year span and see how the hype turned out…

> 1997 – Matt Anderson, Tigers P…a tall pitcher with a triple digit fastball, he never had any real success at the major league level.

> 1998 – Pat Burrell, Phillies OF…got to the majors in 2000 and had a fairly productive career that included almost 300 HR’s, but never a star.

> 1999 – Josh Hamilton, Devil Rays OF…lost his way to drugs and personal issues and was actually out of baseball before resurrecting his career with the Reds in ’07…eventually established himself as a  star with the Rangers and won the AL MVP in 2010…however, the last few years of his career are remembered mostly for injuries.

> 2000 – Adrian Gonzalez, Marlins 1B…two teams gave up on him before he established himself with the Padres in ’06…signed a huge free agent contract with the Red Sox in 2011 and ended a 15-year career with four Gold Gloves and over 2,000 Hits.

> 2001 – Joe Mauer, Twins C…the face of the Twins franchise after his debut in ’04, he won three AL Batting Titles…despite 2000+ hits and the ’09 MVP, he was never really a superstar.

> 2002 – Bryan Bullington, Pirates P…an example of why the Pirates weren’t relevant for so many years…Zack Greinke went #6.

> 2003 – Delmon Young, Devil Rays OF…was a productive player for a few years including finishing 2nd in the ROY voting in 2007, but his career was over before he turned 30.

> 2004 – Matt Bush, Padres SS…a complete bust, he ended up in jail before resurrecting his career as a relief Pitcher with the Rangers…Justin Verlander was picked next in this draft.

> 2005 – Justin Upton, D’Backs OF…now on his 5th team, his 321 lifetime HR’s show the potential, but he’s good, not great…and inconsistent.

> 2006 – Luke Hochever, Royals P…out of baseball, his lifetime ERA in nine seasons was 4.98…Clayton Kershaw was available at #7.

> 2007 – David Price, Devil Rays P…with 154 career Wins, a Cy Young award and a $200+ Million contract, you’d think he’d be thought of as an elite SP but not to collectors or Fantasy players. This season, he’s making $32 Million to be a relief pitcher.

 > 2008 – Tim Beckham, Rays SS…didn’t have a decent major league season until 2017 at age 27…in 2021, he’s hitting .279 at AAA Charlotte…Buster Posey was the #6 pick.

> 2009 – Strasburg

> 2010 – Harper

> 2011 – Gerrit Cole, Pirates P…blossomed in Houston and then signed a gigantic deal with the Yankees…but can he pitch without sunscreen?

> 2012 – Carlos Correa, Astros SS…ROY in 2015 and he’ll be a free agent in ’22. However, he’s only been able to play over 110 games once in his career.

> 2013 – Mark Appel, Astros P…gave up the game for three years at age 26 after five minor league seasons…currently pitching at AAA for the Phillies…Kris Bryant was the next pick.

> 2014 – Brady Aiken, Astros P…didn’t sign with Houston and was drafted as the 17th player by the Indians in 2015…hasn’t pitched since 2019…it seems Aaron Nola at #7 would have been a better choice.

> 2015 – Dansby Swanson, D’Backs SS…essentially given away by the D’Backs to the Braves in a trade prior to the ’16 season, he’s been a decent player with a lifetime .247 BA…Alex Bregman was the #2 pick.

> 2016 – Mickey Moniak, Phillies OF…still trying to make it but he’s currently batting .213 at AAA.

> 2017 – Royce Lewis, Twins SS…still highly rated but he’ll miss all of 2021 with an injury.

> 2018 – Casey Mize, Tigers P…in the Bengals rotation this season and has 5 Wins with a 3.59 ERA.

> 2019 – Adley Rutschman, Orioles C…hitting .283 with 12 HR’s at AA.

> 2020 – Spencer Torkelson, Tigers 1B…at age 21, he’s smacked 12 HR’s with a .999 OPS at A+ / AA.

So, if you “invested” in the initial baseball cards of these 20 + players, what kind of success would you have realized? Harper & Correa would be blue chips while some others might still be in your portfolio. The sage advice is to collect, not speculate.

Putting In the Clutch Half-Way

The definition of “clutch” seems to be somewhat elusive for many people. The slang dictionary describes it as “the ability to deliver when peak performance is needed” and your imagination can take that beyond the realm of sports. The urban dictionary concurs by saying, “the ability to perform well on a certain activity at a particular moment, despite external pressures, influences or distractions.” Of course, the term also has a tendency to fit other circumstances such as, “you are really craving a beer…you go to the fridge and there’s one left…so clutch.”

For long-time baseball fans, clutch has always been linked with RBI’s. After all, don’t the leaders in that statistical category come through in the clutch? The answer, of course, is never that easy. The folks who study baseball statistics have known since the 70’s that raw stats can be misleading. Batting in runs is a very important factor in a player’s success but that outcome is influenced greatly by where he hits in the line-up, whether he has protection in that line-up and, more importantly, how many runners were on the base paths when he came to the plate. To this end, baseballmusings.com gives you the historical data to determine “RBI Percentage”. It is a result of a player’s (RBI – HR) / Runners On, or in simplistic terms, what percentage of base runners did a player drive in during the season. In 2020, the stat told us that Freddie Freeman & Jose Abreu (the two MVP’s) finished 3rd & 4th in all of baseball with marks over 22%.

So, as the mid-point of the season comes and goes, let’s look at the best (and worst) clutch hitters in the game. The statistical information is as of July 2nd and includes players who had at least 100+ runners on base when they came to the plate.

1) Eddie Rosario 22.7% – Cleveland gave him a cheap one-year deal and while his overall numbers aren’t great, he’s come through with 45 RBI’s.

2) Adam Duvall 22.2% – Another bargain free agent, his 56 RBI’s have been a big part of the Marlins offense.

3) Ramiel Tapia 21.9% – The Rockies lead-off hitter has very productive and he’s added 11 SB’s.

4) Ozzie Albies 21.7% – The Braves have a legitimate star in this 24 year-old. He’s leading the NL with 58 RBI’s.

5) Manny Machado 21.6% – Padre fans have forgotten about his mediocre 2019…and he’s still in his 20’s.

6) Shohei Ohtani 21.6% – You do realize that this is a generational player?

7) Yadier Molina 21.3% – The fountain of youth must be under the Gateway Arch.

8) Sean Murphy 20.7% – A Catcher with these offensive numbers is golden.

9) Rafael Devers 20.5% – This is a genuine star at the Hot Corner for the BoSox. He leads the AL in Doubles & RBI’s.

10) Taylor Ward 20.4% – A nice surprise for the Halos.

11) Matt Beaty 20.3% – Where do the Dodgers find these guys? Maybe we should ask Max Muncy.

12) Alex Kirilloff 20.2% – The next star in the Twin Cities.

Fernando Tatis Jr. shows up in the next level (19+ %) as do three Blue Jays in Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez.  When it comes to everyday players, the bottom of the barrel looks like this…

> Kevin Newman 6.3% – Hitting .207 overall

> Nick Ahmed 6.9% – The D’Backs have won 23 games.

> Brett Gardner & Victor Robles 7.0% – Bad performances include veterans and youngsters.

There are also some significant surprises on this year’s list…

> Bryce Harper 8.1% – His .881 OPS obviously doesn’t tell the entire story.

> Andrew Vaughn 8.6% – Possibly an over-hyped prospect?

> Jason Heyward 9.3% – He’s making $23M and has 15 RBI’s.

> Francisco Lindor 10.2% – A salary of $22M with a contract that goes until 2031!

For those of us from a certain generation, it would have been nice if Carlos Gonzalez was still playing and had made the list because it would have brought back memories of “Clutch Cargo”.

Staying Too Long

Branch Rickey has an esteemed place in the history of baseball and his quotes are intelligent and insightful. One of the most famous is a microcosm of his General Manager philosophy…”Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late”. That may seem somewhat cold and heartless but the GM’s job is to win games, not make friends. Athletes in general and baseball players in particular, usually have to be dragged away from the game kicking and screaming. It is easy to say that the primary factor is money, but that would be much too simple an answer. In the days before free agency and guaranteed long-term contracts, players almost always played well past their prime and in numerous cases, embarrassed themselves and tarnished their reputations. The reasons are varied, but it comes down to just wanting to be a ballplayer. It is what they’ve always done and leaving the lifestyle is never easy. Very few players went out “on top” and many of those didn’t really do it voluntarily.

Some of the best final seasons that weren’t actually by choice include…

> Joe Jackson, 1920 White Sox – “Shoeless Joe” hit .382 with 121 RBI’s and led the AL in Triples with 20. For you stat geeks, his OPS was 1.033. Even at age 32, he was at an elite skill level before being banned from baseball due to his involvement with scandal of the 1919 World Series.

> Roberto Clemente, 1972 Pirates – At age 37, the Bucs legend still hit .312 and won a Gold Glove despite being limited to 102 games. It seems clear that he could have made a positive contribution for a few more years if not for the tragic plane crash on December 31st.

> Jackie Robinson, 1956 Dodgers – After 50+ years, the perception seems to be that this pioneer was washed up at age 37. A closer look, however, shows that his .275 BA with a .382 OBP included double digit HR’s & SB’s. Not bad for a player who also appeared at four different defensive positions during the season. The Dodgers did win the pennant and took the Yankees to seven games, so in retrospect, his retirement may have had more to do with being traded to the Giants after the season.

> Sandy Koufax, 1966 Dodgers – The premiere example of a player going out on top, this Hall of Fame Lefthander completed a season that included 27 Wins, 27 Complete Games, 323 IP, 317 K’s and a 1.73 ERA. Imagine what might have happened if more modern methods were available to fix his elbow. He was only 30 when he retired.

> Kirby Puckett, 1995 Twins – Another player impacted by injury, his final season at age 35 showed very little regression. The All-Star appearance was his 11th in a row and he hit .314 with 23 HR’s & 99 RBI’s.

> Lyman Bostock, 1978 Angels – Not really remembered by fans under the age of 40, this budding star was shot and killed at age 27 in September of ’78. He had just completed his first season with the Angels after hitting .323 & .336 for the Twins the previous two years. In 2,000 + major league AB’s, his BA was .311, but the prime of his career never materialized.

David Ortiz was an exception to the rule, as he had an excellent season (127 RBI’s) at age 40 before hanging it up. Many players have tried to accomplish this feat, but more often than not, the attempt was futile. Not everyone can be like Ortiz or Ted Williams, who after hitting .254 in an injury-plagued 1959 campaign, came back at age 42 to hit .316 with 29 HR’s in his final year. Hank Greenburg (25 HR’s & .884 OPS), Will Clark (.319 BA & .964 OPS) and Mike Mussina (20-9 with over 200 IP) also belong in this category.

This season’s baseball landscape has Jon Lester signing a free agent contract at age 37 despite the fact that he’s made over $198 Million in his career…he has one Win and a 4.99 ERA. Albert Pujols was released by the Angels and took a minimum deal with the Dodgers even though he’d make $30 Million to stay home…his BA is the same as last year at .224.

Too often, we painfully watch great players hang on to the dream as their performance deteriorates…

> Mickey Mantle – His last two seasons (’67 & ’68) produced batting averages of .245 & .237, which dropped his lifetime figure under .300. That statistic scarred him emotionally and he once said, “My biggest regret was letting my lifetime average drop below .300. I always felt I was a .300 hitter, and if I could change one thing that would be it.”

> Willie Mays – Hit .211 for the 1973 Mets.

> Hank Aaron – Played his final two seasons with the Brewers (’75 & ’76) compiling BA’s of .234 & .229.

> Pete Rose – Even the “Hit King” wasn’t immune, hitting .219 with the Reds in 1986.

> Duke Snider – His last two years (’63 & ’64), he hit .243 & .210.

> Steve Carlton – Pitching for a succession of teams in his 40’s, he had ERA’s of 5.10 & 5.74 in ’86 & ’87.

> Ernie Banks – Hit .193 in his age 40 season…he didn’t have the energy to “play two”.

> Reggie Jackson – Went back to Oakland at age 41…and hit .220.

> Harmon Killebrew – Played his final season in Kansas City as their DH and hit .199.

> Babe Ruth – Played 28 games for the Braves at age 40 and hit .181.

> Ken Griffey Jr. – Returned to Seattle for 33 games at age 40 and hit .184.

> Mike Schmidt – 42 games into his age 39 season, he walked away. He was hitting .203 with an OPS of under .700 for the first time in his career.

> Nap Lajoie – This legendary player had over 3,000 Hits and a .338 lifetime BA. In 1916 at age 41, he hit .246 with 35 RBI’s in over 400 AB’s.

> Trevor Hoffman – Went into his age 42 season needing just nine Saves to reach 600 for his career. It was an enormous struggle as he ended up with 10 Saves but a 5.89 ERA.

> Dave Winfield – The oldest player in the Majors at age 43, he hit .191 in 46 games before hanging up the cleats.

Of course, Billy Chapel pitched a perfect game to end his career…oh, wait that was a fictional story. Even on that magical night, Billy said, “I don’t know if I have anything left”.

1909 – When Baseball Cards Began

Arguably, this is the greatest baseball card set of all time. It is the tobacco card set from over 100 years ago nicknamed “The Monster”. To put some perspective on the timeframe, on opening day of the 1910 season, President William Howard Taft declared that baseball would officially become our “National Pastime”. That is the backdrop for a massive set that essentially began the history of the hobby while also helping to create the heroes of the game.

T206’s were sold as a premium item in tobacco products from 1909 through 1911. Almost all the cards have only a tobacco advertisement on the back promoting the most popular brands of the American Tobacco Company. So, when you turn over a T206, it might say “Piedmont”, “Old Mill”, “Sweet Caporal” or some other name. There are 16 varieties in all and include numerous scarcities, the most famous of which is a Ty Cobb card with “King of the Smoking Tobacco World” on the red back portrait. Even though it wasn’t a scarcity at the time of production, the Honus Wagner card has become the pinnacle of the hobby, as the star objected to the product and it was pulled from the set after only relatively few were made.

The series includes 524 different cards measuring only 1-7/16″ by 2-5/8″ with a white border and the size was dictated by the packages they shared with the company’s products. The collection includes 390 cards of major league players as well as 134 minor leaguers and the speculation is that the minor league players were added late in the run to interest fans living outside the areas of major league cities. While the basic set is 524, there are thousands of variations due to the different tobacco backs, switched poses of the players and updated team affiliation due to trades.

The most amazing fact about the set is that there are 76 different cards featuring Hall of Fame members. In that category are famous names from the past that even casual fans might recognize. How about “Home Run” Baker, Ty Cobb, Tinker-Evers-Chance, Walter Johnson, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Plank, Tris Speaker & Cy Young?

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of assisting collectors in preserving and sharing these beautiful collectibles. Here’s a review highlighting some famous, and not so famous, baseball players whose cards are included in this historic set.

> Jake Beckley, Kansas City Blues Manager – “Eagle Eye” Beckley was a 1B who hit over .300 14 times during his 20-year career in the National League. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1971

> George Davis, White Sox SS – Batted over .300 nine times and led the Pale Hose to a World Series Championship in 1906. He was elected to Cooperstown by the Veteran’s Committee in 1998.

> Miller Huggins, Reds SS – “Mighty Mite” played 13 seasons in the NL but his claim to fame came as the Manager of the New York Yankees from 1918-1929, which included the legendary 1927 team with Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1964.

> Christy Mathewson, Giants Pitcher – One of the five charter members of the Hall of Fame inducted in 1936, “Big Six” is one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. He won 373 games over a 17-year career and had 30 or more wins in a season four times.

> Gavvy Cravath, Minneapolis Millers OF – Even  though he spent many years in the minors, after joining the Phillies at age 31, he led the NL in Home Runs six times and was one of the great power hitters of the dead-ball era.

> Sherry Magee, Phillies OF – Played 16 seasons in the majors and in 1910, led the NL in batting with a .331 average. He also led the NL in RBI’s on four separate occasions and swiped a total of 441 bases.

> John Anderson, Providence Grays 1B/OF – Born in Norway, “Honest John” had 14 productive seasons in the majors and was in his last year at age 35 when he appeared in the T206 set.

> Bill Bergen, Dodgers Catcher – Considered one of the best defensive Catchers of the time during his 11-year career, he was also one of the worst hitters. In over 3,000 lifetime AB’s, his batting average was .170.

> Bill Clymer, Columbus Senators Manager – “Derby Day Bill” knew early on that he wasn’t destined to be a major league player when he went 0-for-11 in his 1891 debut. He went on to win 2,122 games as one of the best minor league Managers of all time.

> Monte Cross, Indianapolis Indians SS – A weak-hitting infielder who played 15 seasons in the majors, he hit the first home run of the 20th century on April 19,1900.

> Mickey Doolan, Phillies SS – “Doc” led the NL in fielding twice and was one of the most eduacated players of the day, with a degree from Villanova where he studied dentistry. Stayed in the game as a manager and coach until 1932 and then practiced dentistry until his retirement in 1947.

> Clyde Engle, New York Highlanders Utility – “Hack” didn’t have much of an overall career, but he was a significant part of baseball history. In the 1912 World Series, his lazy fly ball in the 10th inning of the deciding game was dropped by the Giants’ Fred Snodgrass leading to the Red Sox victory.

> Tommy Leach, Pirates OF – Amassed over 2,000 hits in a 19-year career and hit four triples in the first World Series ever played (1903).

> Carl Lundgren, Cubs Pitcher – Played on two World Series championship teams with the Cubs (1907 & 1908) and had the nickname “The Human Icicle” for his ability to pitch in cold weather.

> Fred Mitchell, Toronto Maple Leafs Pitcher – Only an average player, he went on to coach with the Braves and then managed the Cubs to the NL pennant in 1918.

> Ollie Pickering, Minneapolis Millers OF – Played eight seasons in the majors with six different teams. In 1901, he was the first batter in the new American League while playing for the Cleveland Blues.

> Ossee Schreck, Columbus Senators C – A good catcher, he was Rube Waddell’s battery mate for six years with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s. He was born Ossee Freeman Schreckengost.

> Frank Smith, White Sox Pitcher – He was the son of a furniture mover and claimed that he could carry a baby grand piano up four flights of stairs without a break. That led to his nickname…”Piano Mover” Smith.

> Mike Donlin, Giants OF – One of the most notorious characters of the era, “Turkey Mike” was a drinker and playboy known for his lifestyle and baseball ability. He hit over .300 in ten of his 12 seasons but also ended up in prison for public drunkenness in 1902. Donlin took several seasons off to act in vaudeville and appeared in silent movies after his baseball career ended.

That’s just a sprinkling of the players from this incredible century-old set. The amazing part is that even a player you’ve never heard of can still have a prominent place in baseball history. Thanks to baseball-reference.com and the T206 book authored by Tom & Ellen Zappala for supplying some of the source material.

Teddy Ballgame & Leroy

When you enter my humble home, it isn’t difficult to know who my favorite ballplayer might be. On one wall is an autographed Red Sox jersey signed by Ted Williams surrounded by four autographed Sports Illustrated covers of “The Kid” ranging from 1955 to 1976. Across the way is a small bookcase displaying a collection of his baseball cards including the rookie card from 1939 “Play Ball”.

Having had the opportunity to grow up in New England when Williams was playing in Fenway Park made my decision easy; as I’m sure it did for New York kids of the 50’s with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Discussing the accomplishments of great ballplayers usually involves statistics and fond memories, but today we’ll take another approach and talk about the person behind the uniform.

This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues and it’s important to not lose sight of the how the sport of baseball has grown in it’s understanding of that era. Ted Williams was an integral part of that change, as he took the time in 1966 to tell baseball what they needed to hear. 45 years ago next month, Williams included in his Hall of Fame induction speech a plea to all of baseball when he said, “I hope that someday, the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson can be added as a symbol of the great Negro League players that are not here only because they were not given the chance”.

That speech was the impetus for things to move forward and in 1969; the Baseball Writers’ Association formed a committee to push for Negro League inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Progress was somewhat slow, but in 1971, Satchel Paige became the first of the great Negro League players to be enshrined in Cooperstown. There are now 35 people from that era in the Hall and Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Museum has said, “The only way you can judge how good you are is playing with and against the best. I don’t think it was out of the ordinary to have a great Major Leaguer to have appreciation for the talent of those great Negro League players. Williams was bold enough to use his Hall of Fame platform to bring it to light.” 25 years later, Williams told Bob Costas that speaking up for Negro League players was one of his proudest moments in baseball.

The 100th anniversary has created another marvelous artifact for baseball fans and that is the project to research the available statistics from the Negro Leagues and include them in baseball’s history. It was certainly a daunting task and the numbers may never be complete due to spotty information and so many “unofficial” games that were part of the barnstorming legacy of the time, but the record book has now been updated. Baseball Reference is the go-to site for statistics and you can read their recent announcement by accessing baseball-reference.com.

So, let’s learn together about the first nine players that were inducted during the 1970’s

  • 1971, Leroy “Satchel” Paige – This legendary Pitcher is undoubtedly the most famous player on our list. He began his career in 1927 (at age 20) with the Birmingham Black Barons and in 1928 posted 11 Wins, 4 Saves and a 2.32 ERA. He finally made it to the Majors in 1948 with the Indians (at age 41) and had a 5-year ERA of 3.29. In 1952 with the St. Louis Browns, he had 12 Wins & 10 Saves…at age 45!
  • 1972, Josh Gibson – The most powerful hitter in the league’s history, he was also an outstanding Catcher with Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. He led the league in Home Runs 10 times and had a lifetime BA of .374. His final season was 1946 and he passed away at age 35 before ever getting a chance to play in the Majors.
  • 1972, Buck Leonard – The Homestead Grays was his only team and he was their 1B from 1935-48. His lifetime BA was .345 and his OBP% was .450. He led the league in HR’s twice and RBI’s three times.
  • 1973, Monte Irvin – Talk about a resume, he played four seasons with the Newark Eagles in the late 30’s and early 40’s, leading the league with a .395 BA in 1941. He was in the military during World War II and fought in the “Battle of the Bulge” before returning to baseball. He played four more seasons with the Eagles before joining the New York Giants in 1950. When the Giants won the ’51 pennant, Irvin led the NL with 121 RBI’s.
  • 1974, Cool Papa Bell – Possibly the fastest baserunner in the history of the game, he taught Lou Brock the art of stealing bases. His career spanned from 1922-46 and he led the league in SB’s seven times. Primarily a Pitcher during his first three years, he compiled a record of 20-15 before becoming the preeminent Centerfielder of the era.
  • 1975, Judy Johnson – Most historians have him as the greatest 3B in the Negro Leagues. Playing primarily for the Hilldale Club, his career was from 1923-36 and he led the league in Hits on two occasions.
  • 1976, Oscar Charleston – The first real star of the Negro Leagues, his career began in 1920 and he it over .400 four times in the 1920’s. In the 1930’s, he led the Crawfords to three pennants as their Manager. He had a lifetime BA of .364.
  • 1977, Martin Dihigo – A Cuban native, he may have been the league’s most versatile player, as he could handle multiple positions and also pitch. Playing for the Cuban Stars, he led the league in HR’s twice in the 1920’s and posted a lifetime 3.34 ERA as a Pitcher.
  •  1977, Pop Lloyd – Long before modern players were called nicknames for their fielding prowess, this Shortstop was know as “The Shovel”. He was already 37 years-old when the league started in 1921 and he played eight seasons with a lifetime BA of .349. In 1928 at age 44, he batted .383 for the New York Lincoln Giants.

Hope you enjoyed the visit and treasure the importance.

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.