If you're fed up with the volatility of the Dow Jones and the S&P to the point where most of your money is now inside your mattress, maybe your nerves aren't strong enough for baseball card investing. Since the dawn of modern baseball card collecting (early 1950's), fans have been fascinated in the "Rookie Cards" (RC's) of their favorite players. It probably links to that appeal of wanting the "first" of something and serves as a magnet for hobbyists even when the RC isn't that visually appealing. The perfect example is the RC of Pete Rose from the 1963 Topps set. That year, the manufacturer decided to put four rookies on the same card and for famous players like Rose and Willie Stargell, their images are cropped and almost unrecognizable. The 1964 Rose card, however, is something to behold with a beautiful photo and a superimposed image of the "Topps 1963 All-Star Rookie" trophy in the corner. If you wanted one of those '64 beauties in "Near Mint" (NM 7) condition, it would set you back about $275. If, however, you just must have the '63 RC in similar condition, the price would be $1,450.
At a point in the mid-to-late 80's, when the hobby was booming, collectors decided that speculating in cards could be a valuable endeavor. Instead of collecting certain cards, they started investing in the cards instead. And, of course, they believed RC's were their avenue to success. The card companies were more than happy to oblige and turned on the printing presses to full capacity, so every baseball fan could accumulate RC's of the hot prospects of the time. Today, when the Old Duck goes to look at a card collection, he invariably finds a stack with hundreds of the same card...and then another stack...and then another stack. Who are the potential Hall-of-Famers in these stacks? How about Gregg Jefferies from 1988 or Albert Belle from 1989 or John Olerud from 1990 or Carl Everett from 1991? You haven't really experienced the thrill of the chase until you open a box marked "83 Donruss" on the outside and find 200 Candy Maldonado RC's staring you in the face.
In addition to the card companies over-production, another significant factor in the investments of that era is the use of PED's by some of the biggest stars. Despite pundits always saying that fans don't care about steroids, the hobby tells you just the opposite. The value of the RC's of the usual suspects like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Juan Gonzalez has plummeted in the marketplace. McGwire's RC from the 1985 Topps set was the hottest card in the hobby at one time. The set also includes RC's of Clemens, Kirby Puckett, Dwight Gooden and Eric Davis. In 1998, when McGwire and Sosa were chasing the Home Run record, a case (20 boxes) of '85 Topps was worth $5,000. Earlier this year, one sold on eBay for $1,425.
Despite this background, investors still believe they can beat the system. To accommodate them, in the last 10-15 years, card manufacturers have started digging deeper into the prospect market. No longer do you have to wait for the next phenom to arrive in the majors, now you can buy his card while he's still in the low minors. Miguel Cabrera didn't appear in a Marlins uniform until 2003, but his RC is from the 2000 Topps Traded set. Joey Votto didn't debut with the Reds until 2007, but he has a RC in 2002 Bowman Chrome and 2002 Topps T206. Robinson Cano was the Yankees second baseman at age 22 in 2005, but you can find his RC in a number of 2003 Bowman products.
The reality, however, is that for every Kris Bryant there are dozens of players like Brandon Wood. Rather than looking at anecdotal information, let's do a small case study of the last decade. We'll look at RC's from 2005 and then see what their value was in 2010 and what it is today using the Beckett price guide. To be consistent, we'll use the Bowman Chrome brand as the base and some will be autographed cards ("A").
2005 Bowman Chrome & Chrome Draft
> Ian Kinsler - $7 in '10, $3.50 in '15
> Melky Cabrera - $5.50, now $2
> Chris Young (OF) - $5.50, now $2
> Justin Verlander "A" - $45 in '10, currently at $55
> Matt Kemp "A" - $60 in '10, now $40
> Billy Butler "A" - $60 then, now $10
> Jay Bruce - $8 in '10, now $5.50
> Andrew McCutchen - $5.50 to $8.50
> Jordan Schafer - $5.50 in '10, now $3.50
> Clay Buchholz - $10, now $2
> Troy Tulowitzki - $4, now $7
> Edinson Volquez $8, now $3.50
> Stephen Drew "A" - $35 in '10, now $7
> Jered Weaver "A" - $35, now $17.50
> Ryan Braun "A" - $135, currently $45
> Jacoby Ellsbury "A" - $90, now $42.50
> Colby Rasmus "A" - $60 in '10, $10 in '15
> Ryan Zimmerman "A" - $45, now $27.50
You're probably wondering about all the breakout stars who are missing from our list. What you must realize is that, in essence, we're comparing card values about five years into a career with card values ten years into a career. At five years, collectors had identified the good players and are hoping their careers will escalate to star status. At ten years, the harsh reality has set in and we know that what we see is what we get. Yes, Carlos Gonzalez has gone from $3.50 to $5.50 but a plethora of cards in that category have fallen off the chart altogether. Do you remember Humberto Sanchez or Chuck James?
In a future visit, we'll do the same analysis of RC's from 2006-07 to see if the pattern changes. In the meantime, please feel free to contact me if you're looking for a Brandon Wood Autographed Rookie Card.
Are you aware that each year's MVP winners receive an award
called the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award? As the Baseball Writer's Association has never really defined "most valuable", would the results have been different over the years if it was just called the "Landis Plaque" and went to the most outstanding player in each league? In other words, do fans think in terms of most valuable player or player of the year? And, do you agree that the MVP is for position players and the Cy Young Award is for pitchers?
While there have been some examples over the years of MVP winners on losing teams, like Ernie Banks of the Cubs in '58 and '59, the general consensus is that the award should go to a player on a contending team. Ted Williams won the Triple Crown (HR, RBI and Batting Average) in both 1942 and 1947 but didn't win the MVP Award in either year. In both seasons, he also led the AL in Runs, Walks, On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. The winner in '42 was Yankee 2B Joe Gordon and in '47, it was Joe DiMaggio. The Red Sox finished nine games behind the Yanks in 2nd place in '42 and 14 games behind in 3rd place in '47. If there were more than just two teams going to the post-season in the 1940's, maybe the results would have been different.
Now that just about any team at .500 or better still has a chance for the playoffs at the end of August, will the voters expand the list of players considered for MVP? And, if "most valuable" is really the criteria, how is that defined? It seems that there is some logic in value being related to teams winning games, so maybe WAR (Wins Above Replacement) can help us determine the real contenders. After all, being a difference-maker in team wins certainly equates to a player's true value. As a reminder, WAR represents a statistical analysis of how many wins a player is worth to his team over that of a replacement level player (think Triple-A or Quad-A). As you'll see in the ratings, WAR isn't just about hitting stats for position players. It also includes advanced defensive metrics.
"Old School" baseball fans will be disappointed to know that advanced statistics have already had a major impact on how this award is viewed. In a recent blog, Joe Posnanski pointed out that since 2008, every MVP winner has finished in the top-5 in WAR. That is about the time that this new-age statistic became somewhat mainstream. As recently as 2006, Justin Morneau won the MVP with a WAR number of 4.3. Not only were there 20 players better than that, but he finished third on his own team behind Johan Santana and Joe Mauer. Juan Gonzalez won two MVP awards in the 90's without being in the top-15 while Don Baylor (1979), Willie Stargell (1979) and Jeff Burroughs (1974) weren't in the top-20. Those days of writers voting without doing thorough research are gone.
Stats are as of Sunday, August 30th and the WAR numbers are from Baseball-Reference.com.
> Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays ties for the lead in the AL with a WAR of 7.3 and his team is driving toward the division title. This should come as no surprise, as he posted 7+ WAR numbers in 2013 and 2014 for the A's. He's the current league leader in both Runs and RBI while playing great defense at third base.
> Mike Trout of the Angels had the best WAR in baseball in both 2012 and 2013 but didn't win the MVP in either season. In 2015, his 7.9 WAR helped him finally win the award and he's following it up with a 7.3 figure so far this season. 33 homers and a .963 OPS goes along with Gold Glove caliber play in center field. Do we really understand how great this player has become? He just turned 24!
> Dallas Keuchel of the Astros is the best pitcher at 6.5 and most fans can't spell his name. He's 15-6 with a 2.28 ERA...in the American League!
> Lorenzo Cain became a hero during the Royals great run last year and now he's becoming known as an elite player. His WAR of 6.4 includes amazing skills in the outfield and solid production at the plate (.312 BA and .855 OPS). His 5.1 WAR rating from 2014 was no fluke.
> Another pitcher fills out the top-5 and it's Sonny Gray of the A's at 6.2. In his age-25 season, his record is 12-6 on a team that is 18 games below .500 and his ERA of 2.13 is the AL's best.
> The best WAR so far belongs to Zack Greinke of the Dodgers at 8.2. This rarified air is nothing new to him, as his 10.4 WAR for the Royals in 2009 won him the Cy Young Award. He's at 14-3 with a 1.61 ERA and this type of dominance may well transcend to MVP consideration.
> The top position player is Bryce Harper of the Nationals at 8.0. Finally (even though he's only 22), the potential everyone talked about for the last five years has been exhibited. Harper has 31 home runs and leads the NL in OBP (.458) and Slugging Percentage (.632).
> Right on Harper's heels is Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt at 7.6. How about a league-leading 96 RBI to go with 26 homers, 20 steals and a OPS over 1.000? By the way, he also plays solid defense.
> While the Reds are floundering, Joey Votto has put up an outstanding season and his 6.1 WAR number verifies the performance. Healthy after a lost season in 2014, he has 25 homers, leads the NL in Walks and has an OPS over 1.000.
> Clayton Kershaw won the MVP and Cy Young Awards last year and despite being slightly overshadowed by Greinke this season, he's still a top-5 WAR performer at 6.1. At 11-6, he leads the NL in Innings Pitched and Strikeouts while posting a league leading 2.10 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
If you had a vote, would it be Trout and Harper? Donaldson and Goldschmidt?
Just for the record, in 1942, Ted Williams led all of baseball with a WAR figure of 10.6. MVP winner Gordon had an impressive number of 8.2. In '47, Teddy Ballgame once again led the Majors at 9.9 while DiMaggio wasn't even close to the top-10 at 4.8.
If you ever drop by the Duck Pond, you're welcome to view the extensive collection of Williams memorabilia...but you probably already figured that out.