The Best Hitters Of 2016

50 years ago, if a baseball fan was asked who the best hitters were, the only significant resource would have been the sports section of the Sunday newspaper. Somewhere in the back pages, there was a long, slender list in very small type showing all current major league players. And those players were ranked by their BA (Batting Average) because that had historically been the benchmark for position players.

 

Looking back at 1966, we find that the top five BA’s belonged to Matty Alou (.342), Manny Mota (.332), Felipe Alou (.327), Rico Carty (.326) & Dick Allen (.317). Fine players all, but were they the five best hitters in baseball? Not when you consider that the two MVP winners (Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson) finished 6th & 7th. Matty Alou, for example, had 2 HR’s & 27 RBI’s in 535 AB’s. Even OBP (On-Base Percentage) would have been a better gauge, as the top five were Ron Santo (.412), Joe Morgan (.410), Robinson (.410), Allen (.396) & Al Kaline (.392).

 

As modern baseball analytics have evolved, one of the most accepted statistics has become OPS (On-Base % + Slugging %). Not only does it prioritize getting on base, it also adds the concept of moving more runners around the bases. After all, Slugging Percentage is defined as Total Bases /At Bats. Old school fans might question the veracity of the stat but baseball history tells the tale. The five highest lifetime OPS numbers belong to Babe Ruth (1.16), Ted Williams (1.12), Lou Gehrig (1.08), Barry Bonds (1.05) & Jimmie Foxx (1.04). There are only two other hitters with a number over 1.00… Hank Greenberg and Rogers Hornsby.

 

With Spring Training around the corner, here’s one Duck’s opinion on the top dozen hitters for 2016 and their projected OPS…

 

1) Bryce Harper, Nats OF, .982 OPS – At age 23, he’s proved the hype was real back when he graced the cover of SI at age 16. Barring injury, 35 HR’s & 100 RBI’s with a .300 BA should be the norm.

 

2) Mike Trout, Angels OF, .976 OPS – 20 years from now, people will be describing his career as “once in a generation”. Almost the exact projection as Harper, but he could steal a few more bases and bring back a few opponent HR’s from over the fence.

 

3) Paul Goldschmidt, D’Backs 1B, .947 OPS – Incredibly consistent performer in the batter’s box and also won a Gold Glove in 2015.

 

4) Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins OF, .937 OPS – We say this every year, but it all comes down to him staying on the field…150 games will produce 40+ HR’s.

 

5) Miguel Cabrera, Tigers 1B, .936 OPS – Finally showed a slight decline last season at age 32, but he’s a bona fide Hall of Fame candidate.

 

6) Joey Votto, Reds 1B, .928 OPS – Still gets criticized for his plate discipline and will lead all of baseball in Walks (100+). Like Ted Williams, he won’t expand the strike zone to satisfy writers and broadcasters.

 

7) Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays 1B, .901 – Part of Toronto’s three-headed monster, he’s heading into his age 33 season but with that line-up, opposing teams can’t pitch around him.

 

8) Andrew McCutchen, Pirates OF, .898 OPS – Still under 30, he has power, speed and plate discipline…and also plays a great CF.

 

9) Anthony Rizzo, Cubs 1B, .885 OPS – The face of the new-age Cubbies, he’ll hit 30+ HR’s and add double-digit SB’s.

 

10) Jose Bautista, Blue Jays OF, .879 OPS – Another mid-30’s slugger in Toronto’s line-up, both he and Encarnacion have better projected OPS figures that the AL MVP Josh Donaldson, who finished just out of the top 12 at .866.

 

11) Jose Abreu, White Sox 1B, .870 – Entering his 3rd big league campaign at age 29, he could get even better. 30+ HR’s and 100+ RBI’s seems like a lock.

 

12) Nolan Arenado, Rockies 3B, .870 – His numbers are slightly inflated due to the thin air in Denver, but they still count. In addition, he’s only 25 and won the 2015 Gold Glove at the hot corner.

 

Did your favorite player get left off the list? Maybe Chris Davis makes good on his new contract? Or youngsters like Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts or Miguel Sano take the next step? Or players coming back from injury such as Freddie Freeman and Yasiel Puig prove their worth. We’ll all be watching.

 

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He Hit The Ball Real Hard!

Back in the mid-90’s when ESPN was actually watchable, Keith Olbermann & Dan Patrick manned the anchor desk for “SportsCenter” and entertained us with catch-phrases and clichés that made fun of sports. From Patrick’s “En Fuego”, “Gives him the high cheese” & “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” to Olbermann’s “They’re not going to get him”, “I can read his lips and he’s not praying” & “He beats him like a rented goalie”, it all amused and entertained.

 

During baseball highlights that included a Home Run, Keith’s fall back cliché was “He hit the ball real hard” and reminiscing about those broadcasts got me to thinking…how hard and far do they really hit the ball? In today’s analytic environment, we actually know the answer. So, with some help from fangraphs.com and baseballheatmaps.com, let’s look at the last three years and the players who hit the ball real hard.

 

The basic criteria is to determine the average distance a batter hits a ball in the air. This includes both fly balls and home runs and gives us a peak into the power potential of hitters. Of course, as with most statistics, it doesn’t stand alone because we also have to consider all the variables. If a player strikes out 35% of the time and hits .190, the distance of his fly balls isn’t really significant because he won’t help your team.

 

Here are some observations from looking over the leaderboard…

 

> For 2013-15, there are about 20 hitters each year who average over 300 feet in distance.

 

>  The best performance over the last three seasons was Giancarlo Stanton’s 2015 average of 323 feet.

 

> Paul Goldschmidt just might be the most consistent hitter in baseball. He’s finished 2nd, 1st & 4th with averages of 314, 315 & 310 feet.

 

> Carlos Gonzalez was the 2013 leader with 314 feet (just edging Goldy), but he plays half of his games at altitude.

 

> Jose Abreu has finished 5th & 6th in his first two major league seasons (305 & 308).

 

> Miguel Cabrera was in the top six for ’13 & ’14 but dropped to 29th last season.

 

> J.D. Martinez has gone from 291 feet in ’13 to 299 in ’14 to 305 in ’15.

 

> Pedro Alvarez finished 3rd in both ’13 & ’15 (311 feet each time) but doesn’t have a job.

 

> The best rookies in 2015 were Kyle Schwarber (5th at 308 ft.), Stephen Piscotty ( 13th at 305), Joc Pederson (17th at 304), Miguel Sano (21st at 303) and Randall Grichuk (23rd at 302).

 

> The two Rookies of the Year faired well with Carlos Correa at 298 ft. and Kris Bryant at 297.

 

> Names you wouldn’t expect to see from the ’15 list include Jonathan Schoop (#8 at 306), Brandon Crawford (#9 at 306), Howie Kendrick (#14 at 305) and Alex Guerrero (#27 at 301).

 

> As for the MVP’s, Josh Donaldson was 15th at 304 ft. while Bryce Harper finished 33rd at 299.

 

> Others in the top ten last season included Chris Davis (#2 at 316), Nelson Cruz (#7 at 307) and Starling Marte (#10 at 306).

 

So, in April when one of your favorite players is on the highlights and hits a high drive toward the seats, get off the couch and yell, “He hit the ball real hard”.

The Big Baseball Card Box – Row 1

In order to be a “Power Seller” of baseball cards on eBay, you don’t necessarily have to be a baseball fan…but it sure makes life more interesting.

 

Each year, tens of thousands of baseball cards go through my hands and are viewed by these weary eyes. Sometimes, it’s a collection I have purchased from a private party. Other times, it might be a collection that someone has acquired and they want my opinion on the value. And, occasionally, I act as a conduit between people who are selling and buying cards. In all of these cases, the first thing to know that is that 95+% of the cards have no real value. They represent players known in the business as “commons” and even though every card has a book price, they are basically worthless in the marketplace.

 

For a real fan, however, there is no such thing as a “common” player because there’s a story behind every photo on every card. So, whenever this type of “junk” collection comes my way, I revert to being a fan. One of my clients dropped off a small collection last week and included was a 5,000-count box that he said had “nothing of value”. I’m still going to look through the cards but instead of having any monetary expectation, the history of small stories and legends fill my brain. The first row included baseball cards from the late 70’s, so let’s see who was found.

 

1979 Topps

 

> #31…Tom House, Mariners Pitcher – After nine years in the majors, he had only won 29 games. Later, however, he became one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game and even helped NFL QB’s with their throwing techniques. And, of course, in 1975 he was in the Braves bullpen and caught Hank Aaron’s 715th Home Run ball.

 

> #94…Len Barker, Rangers Pitcher – His record in ’78 was 1-5 with a 4.85 ERA, but in 1979 he was traded to the Indians and in 1981, he became one of only 23 players in history to pitch a perfect game.

 

> #309…Ralph Garr, White Sox OF – This back-story was told recently at a SABR meeting attended by Mike Port and Roland Hemond. The Angels were battling for the AL West title in September of 1979 when their DH Willie Aikens got injured, putting them in desperate need of a LH bat for the stretch drive. Port, the Angels Assistant GM called Hemond, the White Sox GM, and made a cash offer for Garr that was only valid if the player could be in Kansas City that night for the Angels game. The White Sox were starting a road-trip and flying to Seattle, so Roland had to get to O’Hare Airport in time to get Ralph off the Sox charter and across the airport to the KC flight. The deal got done and the Angels won the Division.

 

> #327…Art Howe, Astros 2B – Played for 11 seasons and managed for 14 more, but his legacy will always be the negative portrayal of him by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie “Moneyball”.

 

> #329…Joe Coleman, Blue Jays P – This was his last of 15 seasons in the big leagues. His Dad (also named Joe) pitched in the majors from 1942-55 and his son Casey debuted with the Cubs in 2010.

 

> #399…David Clyde, Indians P – The #1 pick out of High School in the 1973 Amateur Draft, he started 18 games for the Rangers at age 18 without throwing one pitch in the minor leagues. By 1979, at age 24, he won only 3 games with a ERA of 5.91 and never pitched in the major leagues again.

 

> #442…Doyle Alexander, Rangers P – Pitched 19 seasons and won 194 games. In 1987, the Tigers acquired him from the Braves in August for the stretch drive and he went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA that helped them win the AL East. The obscure minor league player the Braves got in the deal went into the Hall of Fame last year…his name is John Smoltz!

 

> #455…Bill Lee, Red Sox P – His outrageous personality overshadowed his baseball ability and it’s easy to forget that he won 17 games in three consecutive seasons during the mid-70’s. With that being said, he didn’t acquire the nickname “Spaceman” for nothing. He once said, “They asked me about mandatory drug testing. I said I believed in drug testing a long time ago. All through the 60’s, I tested everything”.

 

> #511…Paul Reuschel, Indians P – Being the second best baseball player in the family never makes you famous. Hank Aaron hit 755 HR’s, his brother Tommie hit 13. Rick Reuschel won 214 games in a 19-year career, while Paul won 16 games in five big league seasons.

 

> #605…Rick Monday, Dodgers OF – In 1964, Dodger scout Tommy Lasorda tried to sign this 18 year-old out of Santa Monica High School. The prospect decided to play college baseball at Arizona State and while he was there, MLB instituted the amateur draft. In 1965, Monday was the first player ever picked in this manner by the Kansas City Athletics. He made his major league debut in 1966 and was eventually traded from the Cubs to the Dodgers in 1977. The Dodger Manager at the time? You guessed it…Tommy Lasorda.

 

Maybe some of these names brought back a few memories. As for me…row #2 awaits.

Fantasy Rookies – Hook, Line & Stinker

For over 30 years, Fantasy players have bought the hype on prospects and overpaid for rookies on major league rosters. We just can’t help it, as the intrigue of finding the next Mike Trout counterbalances that pea-sized portion of our brain that holds the logic. Even Fantasy pundits use axioms such as, “pay for the future, not for the past” and we end up going hard after players with no future. The only efforts we really remember are the ones like drafting Tony Gwynn for $5 in 1984. All the failures drift out of our memory like so many losing weekends in Las Vegas.

 

Well, I’m here to tell you that it will get worse before it gets better. According to one analytic website, 2015 was the best season for rookies in the history of the game. Just look at the list! The top four vote-getters in the NL were Kris Bryant, Matt Duffy, Jung-ho Kang & Noah Syndergaard. In the AL, it was Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano & Roberto Osuna. Beyond those top choices, you also had Obubel Herrera, Randal Grichuk, Addison Russell, Joc Pederson, Billy Burns & Eddie Rosario. All of the “extra” guys had a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 2.3 or better. Certainly an unprecedented level of talent.

 

So, how do we curtail our enthusiasm in 2016? Taking on Mr. Spock from Star Trek as a partner would be one solution, but maybe roster research could also help. As we sit here in late January with most of the available free agents in the fold, which rookies will really have the opportunity to get significant playing time this season? Using one of the many “Top 100” lists from the baseball section of the Internet, let’s try to gain some traction as Drafts get closer.

 

> Byron Buxton, Twins OF – Still only 22, he’s been stalled by injuries. Should be the CF and lead-off hitter on opening day, but don’t forget that he hit .209 in 129 MLB AB’s last season…with 6 BB’s & 44 K’s.

 

> Corey Seager, Dodgers SS – Slated to be the team’s everyday SS after a solid AAA campaign and impressive September performance. Let’s not forget, however, that a year ago the same things were being said about Joc Pederson and his Fantasy owners are currently jumping ship.

 

> Steven Matz, Mets P – The #4 starter in the rotation for ’16, this LH was very impressive after his late-season call-up.

 

Are you impressed with these three players? Well, you better be, because after going through the top 50 on the list, I can’t find anyone else who seems like a lock for a job on April 3rd. Pitchers like Lucas Giolito, Julio Urias, Tyler Glasnow & Jose Berrios will still be in the minors. Joey Gallo & Trea Turner don’t have places in the line-up. Yoan Moncada, Brendan Rogers & Dansby Swanson are too far away. Alex Reyes is suspended, J.P. Crawford is injured and small-market teams won’t start the clock on Orlando Arcia, Blake Snell & Bradley Zimmer. That pretty much covers the top 20, so 2016 might not have the firepower to match the previous season. Temper your expectations rather than losing your temper in April.

 

Watching Your P’s & Q’s And The MLE’s

For Fantasy players, prospects are a passion and a plight. This time of year, we scour lists from Baseball America, MLB.com, magazine annuals and numerous websites that claim to have that crystal ball. The reality is that each season’s top 100 list includes a logjam of bums who will never make an impact on your team or their MLB employer. Do the names Rick Ankiel, Paul Wilson, Brandon Wood, Joba Chamberlain & Jesus Montero sound familiar? They should because, over the last 20 years, they’ve each been one of the top three prospects in baseball.

 

In our ongoing quest to find talent, we look at pedigree (in terms of draft position or contract), athleticism, roster opportunity, scouting reports and statistics. One of those statistics should be Major League Equivalents (MLE’s). Originally outlined in 1985 by Bill James, the concept is to evaluate minor league statistics and create a reasonable expectation of how they would correlate to major league performance. A number of analytic sites have formulas in place to determine these outcomes and while no one statistic is carved in granite, it’s another item for your Fantasy toolbox.

 

Looking back at some of the surprising players from 2015, it’s interesting to see what their MLE’s looked like from 2014. It’s a reasonable guess that these guys weren’t highly valued in your Draft last Spring, but they turned out to be the kind of bargains that help win leagues…

 

> Kevin Pillar, Blue Jays OF – Not a top prospect and known more for his glove than his bat, his ’14 minor league numbers equated to a .287 BA, 22 SB’s and a 86% contact rate. His first full major league season resulted in a .278 BA, 25 SB’s and a 79% contact rate.

 

> Greg Bird, Yankees 1B – Those of us who watched him in the 2014 Arizona Fall League knew there was potential. In less than 100 AB’s at AA in ’14, he profiled for 6 HR’s and a 13% walk rate. If you knew that background, his 11 HR’s and 11% walk rate in 157 AB’s after being called up in ’15 were not a surprise.

 

> David Peralta, D’Backs OF – His projected .249 BA in AA early in ’14 wasn’t that impressive on the surface, but a predicted 88% contact rate and above-average power told another tale. After getting called up in ’14, he hit .286 with 8 HR’s and then exploded in ’15 with a .312 BA, 17 HR’s & 78 RBI’s.

 

> Eugenio Suarez, Reds SS – In the Tigers system during .14, his BA equaled .251 but he showed good power potential for an IF. After getting traded to the Reds, he hit .280 with 13 HR’s in less than 400 AB’s.

 

> Kevin Kiermaier, Rays OF – In minor league stops during ’13 & ’14, he profiled as a .265 hitter with good contact skills (80%) and outstanding speed. So, while winning the Gold Glove in ’15, he also rewarded Fantasy owners with .263 BA and 18 SB’s.

 

> J.T. Realmuto, Marlins C – At AA in ’14, his stats equated to .259 BA with exceptional speed at a scarce position. Now the main backstop for Miami, he finished ’15 with a .259 BA, 10 HR’s & 8 SB’s.

 

Wouldn’t you have loved these six guys at single-digit prices in an auction or late round picks in a snake? As we head toward the 2016 season, let’s look at some top prospects with solid MLE’s along with a few that might be flying under the radar. The ranking of the player will be their position on the current MLB.com top 100 prospect list.

 

> Corey Seager, Dodgers SS (#2) – No surprise here with his splashy debut last September. The MLE’s from AAA say a .269 BA with 16 HR’s is a reasonable expectation.

 

> J.P. Crawford, Phillies SS (#5) – A 20 year-old at AA last season, his predicted .241 BA isn’t great, but the 10% walk rate and 88% contact rate tells you about the skills.

 

> Orlando Arcia, Brewers SS (#12) – At AA in ’15, this 21 year-old had stats equivalent to a .297 BA with 23 SB’s.

 

> Manuel Margot, Padres OF (#25) – Acquired from the Red Sox in the Craig Kimbrel, this 20 year-old made it to AA last season and the MLE’s included a .263 BA, 16 SB’s and a 85% contact rate.

 

> Albert Almora, Cubs OF (#89) – Almost forgotten in the Cubs tsunami of prospects, his ’15 season at AA (age 21) shows potential with a .249 projected BA, 87% contact rate and good speed.

 

> Max Kepler, Twins OF (#96) – This German-born player is moving quickly. His MLE’s from AA included a .294 BA with 14 SB’s and a 11% walk rate.

 

> Trey Mancini, Orioles 1B (NR) – The signings of Chris Davis & Mark Trumbo cloud the future but his MLE BA at AA was .332.

 

> Andrew Knapp, Phillies C (NR) – Barely in the Phils top 20 list and certainly behind Jorge Alfaro as a Catching prospect, he still offers switch-hitting power with a MLE BA of .311 at AA.

 

> Trevor Story, Rockies SS (NR) – Troy Tulowitzki is in Toronto and Jose Reyes might be in jail, so he’s a player to watch. At A level in ’15, his MLE’s were .260 BA, 17 HR’s & 16 SB’s.

 

Just for the record, guess who had spectacular MLE’s before being called up last season? Some guy named Carlos Correa.

 

 

 

What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

As the calendar turns and baseball fans start counting down the days to when Pitchers and Catchers report, Fantasy players begin to worry more about the Pitchers than the Catchers. When it comes to being successful at this game, the most difficult challenge is always predicting the performance of starting pitchers. There are certainly a dozen or so fairly reliable commodities (think Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and others) but even if you manage to roster one of those stars, you still need 4-5 other rotation members. The inconsistency of these other hurlers equates to finding any tool that might help you draft the SP’s that won’t make you cry by Memorial Day.

 

In an earlier visit, we talked about an advanced pitching metric called “Fielding Independent Pitching” (FIP), which measures what a player’s ERA would have been if the pitcher were to have experienced league average on balls in play. A similar stat called “Defensive Independent Pitching Statistics” (DIPS) addresses the same concept. You can find a pitcher’s FIP at “fangraphs.com” and his DIPS at “espn.com”, but the premise is to determine if a pitcher was lucky or unlucky in a given season. While this is only one measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness, it might help determine if you go the extra dollar (or wait that extra round) when choosing a pitcher in your league.

 

Based on a comparison of ERA versus FIP in 2015, there were 13 SP’s whose ERA should have been at least a half run (0.49) better than the actual results…

 

1) Carlos Carrasco, Indians – 3.63 ERA, 2.84 FIP = .79 differential…seems to be targeted in every trade rumor during the off-season.

 

2) Rick Porcello, Red Sox – 4.92 ERA, 4.13 FIP = .79 differential…two consecutive years on this list, so maybe he’s unlucky and lousy?

 

3) Gio Gonzalez, Nationals – 3.79 ERA, 3.05 FIP = 0.74 differential…the forgotten man in the Nats rotation, so maybe he’ll finally be under-rated instead of over-rated?

 

4) Jeff Samardzija, White Sox – 4.96 ERA, 4.23 FIP = .73 differential…moves to a NL park with big dimensions.

 

5) Chris Sale, White Sox – 3.41 ERA, 2.73 FIP = 0.68 differential…when you watch him pitch, you wonder how he could have a record of only 13-11.

 

6) Wade Miley, Mariners – 4.46 ERA, 3.81 FIP = 0.65 differential…got off to a horrible start in Boston and now moves to a pitcher’s park.

 

7) Kyle Hendricks, Cubs – 3.95 ERA, 3.36 FIP = 0.59 differential…rumors always have the Cubbies looking for another starter and he could be the odd man out, but the numbers say why?

 

8) Jeff Locke, Pirates – 4.49 ERA, 3.95 FIP = 0.54 differential…still not very tempting for a NL starter.

 

9) Corey Kluber, Indians – 3.49 ERA, 2.97 FIP = 0.52 differential…a 9-16 record following a Cy Young season, but there is no issue with the underlying numbers.

 

10) Yordano Ventura, Royals – 4.08 ERA, 3.57 FIP = 0.51 differential…still some upside in that electric arm.

 

11T) Andrew Cashner, Padres – 4.34 ERA, 3.85 FIP = 0.49 differential…based on the expectation, even the FIP was too high pitching in Petco.

 

11T) Taijuan Walker, Mariners – 4.56 ERA, 4.07 FIP = 0.49 differential…same comment as Cashner, with Safeco replacing Petco.

 

11T) Colby Lewis, Rangers – 4.66 ERA, 4.17 FIP = 0.49 differential…neither number should be on your roster.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, there were 12 SP’s who seemed to have luck on their side this past season with ERA’s over 0.49 runs better than expected.

 

1) Marco Estrada, Blue Jays – 3.13 ERA, 4.40 FIP = -1.27 differential…turned these numbers into a 2-year, $26 Million deal.

 

2) Hector Santiago, Angels – 3.59 ERA, 4.57 FIP = -1.18 differential…another suspect in the Halos’ rotation.

 

3) Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks – 1.66 ERA, 2.76 FIP = -1.10 differential…the Snakes would be thrilled with even the FIP number in Chase Field

 

4) John Lackey, Cubs – 2.77 ERA, 3.57 FIP = -.80 differential…moving to the friendly confines won’t help.

 

5) Scott Kazmir, Free Agent – 3.10 ERA, 3.98 FIP = -0.78 differential…moving to a contender and a pitcher’s park, but don’t over-bid.

 

6) Sonny Gray, A’s – 2.73 ERA, 3.45 FIP = -0.72 differential…a really good hurler, but an ERA under 3.00 again might be wishful thinking.

 

7) Jake Arrieta, Cubs – 1.77 ERA, 2.35 FIP = -0.58 differential…nothing to worry about here.

 

8) Yovani Gallardo, Free Agent – 3.42 ERA, 4.00 FIP = -0.58 differential…hitting the market at the right time, but will be overpaid.

 

9) R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays – 3.91 ERA, 4.48 FIP = -0.57 differential…durable but hittable.

 

10) James Shields, Padres – 3.91 ERA, 4.45 FIP = -0.54 differential…and this was in a pitcher’s park.

 

11) Mike Leake, Cardinals – 3.70 ERA, 4.20 FIP = -0.50 differential…that $80 Million contract better be for durability because he doesn’t miss bats.

 

12) Michael Wacha, Cardinals – 3.38 ERA, 3.87 FIP = -0.49 differential…don’t expect another 17-7 campaign.

 

So, when your friends want to know what a baseball fanatic does during those cold Winter nights, tell them you’re studying your FIP & DIPS.

Junior Joins The Hall

For baseball fans, the name of a Hall of Fame player brings up instant images from the history of the game. For those of us falling into the category of “vintage” fans, those mental snapshots include moments we actually witnessed such as…

 

> Ted Williams hitting a milestone home run (#400) at Fenway Park.

 

> Being at Angel Stadium the night that George Brett went 4-for-4 to reach 3,000 hits.

 

> Seeing Carl Yastremzski playing left field at the old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in his rookie season.

 

> Hearing Sandy Koufax’s fastball hit the Catcher’s mitt at Dodger Stadium.

 

> Watching Cal Ripken Jr. hit a home run at Camden Yards.

 

> Sitting at Jack Murphy Stadium and having the privilege to see Tony Gwynn hit an opposite field single.

 

For the newest HOF member Ken Griffey Jr., the memory is different because it went unnoticed by history. In the early 90’s, a group of baseball fanatics from Southern California did a Spring Training road-trip to Arizona and took in four games in three days. On a beautiful day at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels were hosting the Mariners and some unlucky member of the home team hit a deep drive to left-center field. Junior got a great jump on the ball and ended up making the catch with a head-long dive on the warning track. He proudly showed off the ball to the crowd and then got up and sprinted to the dugout (it was the 3rd out) with a smile that everyone could see. Yes, a meaningless game and a dangerous play by a star player, but it told you everything you needed to know about his enthusiasm and love of the game. I still remember that catch like it was yesterday and it will jump into my consciousness again when he’s at the podium in Cooperstown this Summer.

 

Interestingly, Ken Griffey Jr. also had a profound impact on the baseball card industry. In the February issue of Beckett Baseball Magazine, Dave Sliepka chronicles the background of the turbulent story of baseball cards in the 80’s. As we’ve talked about in previous articles, Topps lost their monopoly of cards in 1980, allowing Donruss & Fleer to enter the market in 1981. By the late 80’s, other companies were entering the fray and collectors were becoming more and more frustrated due to over-production and too many similar products. That all changed in 1989, when a fledgling company called Upper Deck received licensing and started producing sports cards.

 

Putting together their first baseball card in 1989, the company decided to alter the landscape by offering a higher quality collectible with thicker paper stock, beautiful photography and a hologram for authenticity. They even had the audacity to charge $1 a pack, which was more than twice what Topps cards cost at the time. Sliepka describes it as “going from a rotary phone to an iPhone”. Another significant factor in their success, however, was the willingness to take chances. They decided to go out on the limb to feature “prospects”. Other companies had always had “rookie cards” in their sets, but Upper Deck opted to have the first 26 cards in their 700-card offering to be “Star Rookies”.

 

The best decision was to have Ken Griffey Jr. be the #1 card in the set. Today, that seems like a no-brainer but when the calendar turned to 1989, Griffey was only 19 years old and had never played a game above AA. In fact, due to injuries, he only played 75 games in the minors in 1988. To verify how “out of the box” this thinking was, Topps didn’t even include Griffey in their 1989 set. Two members of last year’s HOF class were also in that 26-card subset…John Smoltz & Randy Johnson. However, what would have happened if one of the other prospects had been chosen to be #1, like Doug Dascenzo, Mike Harkey or Felix Jose?

 

Griffey exploded onto the scene in 1989 by hitting 16 HR’s with 61 RBI’s and 16 SB’s to finish 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting. And the perfect storm of the Upper Deck set dominated the hobby with the Griffey RC becoming the most popular card. The good news for today’s collectors is that Upper Deck joined the competition in producing mass quantities of the product and you can still buy a factory-sealed set for around $50 on eBay. To show the popularity of the individual Griffey card over the years, grading company PSA has had over 60,000 of them submitted. Only 4% have been determined to be “Gem Mint 10” and if you have one, it’s worth about $300. A “Mint 9” (about 33% of those submitted) books for $45-$50 and a “NM – MT 8” (44%) is worth about $30. The downside to the glossy sheen of this product is that even a card coming out of a sealed pack or set could have enough slight damage to impact the grade. For collectors, this background allows you to own one of the most famous cards in the history of the hobby for a reasonable price.

 

As for me, every time I see the card, it also takes me back to the warning track in Tempe, Arizona.