Jul 19, 2017

The Great 2017 Baseball Card Price-out: A Commentary

I am distraught.  I am distraught and dismayed.  I am distraught, dismayed, and distressed.

 I feel like a majority of collectors are being priced out of the market for new releases.  Today, would normally be a day for celebration and reveling since it is the release of the Allen & Ginter brand.  This is a set of which I have bought at least one box every year since 2007 when I found my way back to the hobby (including of the X brands from 2015 and 2016).  This year, for the first time, I am considering not buying a box.  There is one simple reason and that is cost.

A hobby box of Allen & Ginter is hovering between $115-$135/box from what I've seen while searching over the last couple days.    This is $20 more than I've ever paid for a hobby box of this brand over the past 10 years.  This price spike happened just before release day.  Initial pre-sales did start in the $88-$98 range when the brand release date was first made known, so the initial cost from factory was definitely not that high.

This is a phenomenon which has become endemic across the entire 2017 baseball card product lineup.   (Note: the following comparisons are estimated based on my memory and current listings at major online retailers) Bowman-$100/box over initial offering, Bowman Platinum-$45/box over initial offering, Topps Archives-$60/box over initial offering, Finest-$75/box over initial offering, Gypsy Queen-$80/box over initial offering, Topps Heritage-$100/box over initial offering, Topps Series 1-$30/box over initial offering, Stadium Club-$30/box over initial offering.

Rookie crazes have generally driven price increases in the past, but not this extent, with such drastic increases so soon after lunch.  It seems like every year there is a rookie that the hobby is clamoring for, but it usually takes time for the box prices to climb after supply has dried up.  As far as I can tell, supply is still being replenished for many of the 2017 brands (especially those that were launched this month).  Demand can still outstrip supply even in these cases, but as collectors, must we all rise for the Judge?

I am just thinking back to the can't miss prospects of the past few years when the present rookie craze really took hold.   In 2010, Stephen Strasburg sent 2010 Bowman boxes to approximately $200/box.  In 2011, Bryce Harper impacted Bowman branded products (Mike Trout was not recognized until the end of 2012).  In 2012, Bryce Harper came back with a Yu Darvish buddy, but even Topps Chrome was affordable for a time.   In 2013, Yasiel Puig became the face of that year's sets; there were some steep rises until Puig cards were available in all sets.  In 2014, Jose Abreu set the world on fire for half a season, and George Springer and Kyle Schwarber also became prominent.  In 2015, Kris Bryant was the rookie to chase and Carlos Correa joined the fray, but even then prices didn't rise to the stratosphere until a year later.  In 2016, Corey Seager hit the forefront of the hobby consciousness, and Gary Sanchez and Andrew Benintendi soon followed.

As you can see from this brief survey, there's always the next shiny thing to chase in this hobby, and it hasn't impacted the overall market like this until 2017.  Before as supply dried up and people realized that prices were rising, certain sets really caught the imagination at much later dates compared to release such as 2011 Topps Update (Trout, Altuve), 2008 Topps Update (Kershaw), 2008 Bowman Draft (Posey), 2009 Bowman Draft (Trout), 2011 Bowman Draft  (many), 2015 Topps Heritage High (Bryant, Correa), 2015 Topps Chrome (Bryant), etc.

There were just a few sets that I remember that rose in price almost immediately over the years.  The most prominent were 2011 Gypsy Queen (supply issue) and 2014 Topps Archives (Major League, the movie, autos).  These seemed to be isolated cases and did not cause all sets around them to rise in price in their wake.

This year, however, has no wake, instead, nearly every set has been caught in the rising tide.  Every set is seen as a boom or mega boom proposition when this is clearly not the case.  At these present price points, if you don't hit a mega star or Aaron Judge auto, the value of the box will likely not come close to matching what you paid.

As a collector, value is not my primary concern when ripping open a hobby box, but I also don't want to feel like I was getting shorted because of market forces.  Buying a box of a set like National Treasures or Museum Collection or Dynasty is a completely different bundle of circumstances because those brands are meant to be high risk, high reward.  The problem with the current state of the market is that everything becomes high risk, instead of only collectible, and it is hard to justify a box purchase from a brand from 2017.  I am a so-called "first world" collector, and I am unwilling to take on that risk.

It was once well understood that there existed such a thing as low-end, mid-end, high-end, and higher than high-end.  Box price ranges for each level were generally gauged to be $35-50, $65-95, $120-$250,  and $250+, respectively.  Each level offered a certain expectation for what you would get for that price point.  Now that expectation is muddled as the mid-end (where I would assume most "first-world" card collectors including myself feel comfortable for the majority of their purchases) has moved into the high-end and as a consequence, the stable of products in the high-end has increased, leaving many collectors behind to not be able to buy their favorite products to which they've developed loyalty and affinity over the years.

I have found alternate routes to satisfy my new card buying wants and needs.  I have bought the complete set of 2017 Allen & Ginter because the set cost more than 50% less than a box.  I will buy a few retail packs to round out the collection; I do like to get a sampling of the minis and for the first time in a while, I am forced to forgo collecting all the full-size inserts from this year's offering.  Stadium Club is another clear example where retail packs are the only affordable option.

Retail is good for casual collectors, those without access to a hobby retailer, and for sampling a brand, but it does not replace being able to rip open a hobby box of your favorite brand.  The expectation and the results vary greatly from hobby to retail with respect to guaranteed "hits", insert odds, and cards per pack or cards per box.

And so here I sit lamenting the state of the current hobby because I am invested in it.  It is an infinite quest to find and discover.  It is a journey to connect to the present, past, and future.  It is an accumulation of knowledge of baseball and its players.

I am not leaving the hobby, but because of the Great Baseball Card Price-out, my parameters for what I may want to collect in a given year have changed.  I am no longer a  frequent customer of current product.  Instead, there is a sense that I am adrift and I would like to be tethered back to this hobby in the same way, which has been a part of most of my life, again.

Jul 2, 2017

2008 Topps Heritage High Numbers (and Updates and Highlights) Two Pack Break

I like to call this pack break "The Unsuccessful Search for Kershaw" (spoiler alert).  Remember back in the days of multiple card companies with licenses (after 2005) that there was a limit on how many sets a company could produce each year?

Because of this, this strange hybrid packing system was created where there was a Topps Heritage High Number series (the first of its kind) packaged with two cards from the Update and Highlights series, even though there was already a separate Update and Highlights series.  This was ostensibly done so that the Heritage High Numbers series wasn't counted as a separate release, but rather a "supplementary" release to keep those license limits numbers down.  Of course, that whole story might be wrong.....

Because of this weird hybrid system, there was a double opportunity for a rookie pull of the top pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw.  I dove in eagerly and awaited the ultimate disappointment.

Pack 1
The Pack 1 highlights for me both had Phillies connections.  The Brad Lidge is a nice memory of the halcyon days of the team.  Matt Harrison was traded to the Phillies in the Cole Hamels deal for salary purposes and has retired due to ongoing injuries.  He did have a great 2012, though.   The Harrison is an SP and the Thames is a chrome parallel /1959 (Remember when the chrome parallels were numbered to the year of the Heritage homage rather than /999?).

Pack 2
When I opened pack 2 and saw the "star rookie" design, my hopes did rise a little.  Alas, it was not meant to be.  Carlos Gonzalez was briefly an Athletic and then traded to the Rockies in the deal for Matt Holliday (anyone remember that?).  Justin Masterson is best remembered for being the Indians Opening Day starter for three straight years.

The Mike Jacobs is another chrome parallel card /1959, and I got the "hit" of the box with a Curtis Granderson Clubhouse Collection jersey card.  This was back when Granderson was known for joining the 20-20-20-20 club rather than being a power hitter on the New York teams.  Did you know that he is now a member of the 300 HR club?

This also shows the perils of chasing hits for a brand not known for it.  I was satisfied to chase a base card (or two), and instead was pleasantly surprised by the results even with ultimate prize not attained.

Jun 18, 2017

Five Players of Their Time: A Random Card Perspective

Baseball players and their actions and accomplishments on the field are products of their own time. That is to say, that everything they have done and do have a context and fit within the interwoven narrative of that particular timeframe of baseball history.  With the study out there that the the ball may be juiced, player performances and their relative value can really only be compared within the present day.  How players are viewed through the lens of baseball history has to do with how they either rise above or are overshadowed by their peers.  Historical comparisons across eras and decades are difficult because the playing field of baseball is constantly shifting.

Let's examine some random players.
For some reason, I tend to get the careers of Don Hoak (depicted here on his 1963 Topps card) and Dick Groat mixed up.  I think the confusion stems from the fact that they both spent some of their final years with the Phillies in the '60s and also played together on the champion 1960 Pirates in the infield.  During that 1960 season, they finished 1-2 in MVP voting.  A breakdown of their stats shows:

Hoak-3rd baseman-.282/.366/.445 (120 OPS+) with 16 HR, 79 RBI, 97 Runs, 5.4 WAR, 2nd place
Groat-shortstop-.325 (league-leading)/.371/.394 (110 OPS+) with 2 HR, 50 RBI, 85 Runs, 6.2 WAR, 1st place.

It's interesting that even though the WAR stat didn't exist, the one with higher WAR still won. I wonder if it was an argument of intangibles during that time?  Shortstops have won a lot of MVP awards.
Tony Conigliaro (pictured here on his 1969 Topps card) is probably most remembered for getting hit in the eye with a pitch during the Red Sox "Impossible Dream" season of 1967 at the age of 22.  He was on his way to  a spectacular career until that injury.  He has the most home runs recorded before the age of 20 and the 4th most before the age of 23 (behind Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, and Alex Rodriguez).  He did hit 36 home runs  3 years after the injury, but his eyesight became permanently impaired and had to retire by the age of 30.
I feel that Sal Bando (pictured here in his 1973 Topps card) is a historically under-appreciated player.  He was three time World Series champion and was an integral part of those teams, finishing top 5 in MVP voting 3 times.  He had 7 seasons in the top ten in WAR, 5 seasons in the top 10 in RBI, and 8 seasons in the top 10 in BB.  If one was to name members of those Athletic teams, most people wouldn't name Bando as the top 3 names off the top of their head (my guess is Jackson, Campaneris, Hunter, Blue, Fingers in some order would be first).  That's what I mean by under-appreciated.

Frank Robinson (pictured in a 2010 Topps variation card), on the other hand, was a star.  His triple crown in 1966 looms large in the baseball history consciousness.  He is also overlooked because he had the misfortune of being peers with other stars such as Mays, Mantle, Aaron, and Clemente.  Twelve all-star seasons seems small for a player of his caliber and longevity.  His 586 HRs are also overlooked since they came at the same time as Aaron and Mays record-setting paces for the time.  Sometimes it's not enough to be historically great if there are even greater ones playing as your peers.
And finally, Frank "Home Run" Baker (pictured here in a 1961 Fleer card), managed to have that nickname while leading the league in home runs four times (with a high of 12 in a season in 1913.  It was really given because of his postseason home run prowess in 1911 and 1913.   An impressive postseason player, he averaged over 1.050 OPS over three consecutive World Series appearances. He is rightly viewed as a superstar of the 1910s.  He also sat out a season due to a contract dispute, something that only happened during that time ( due to the rise of the Federal League).


May 23, 2017

Inkquest: Dave Hollins, 1993 Phillies

Baseball Biography:  
Dave Hollins was a third baseman who played from 1990-2002 with the Phillies, Red Sox, Twins, Mariners, Angels, Blue Jays, and Indians.  The majority of his career was spent with the Phillies (1990-1995, 2002).   In my memory, he was one of the first successful Rule 5 selections by the Phillies in 1990.  His skills didn't really develop until 1992 when he received his first opportunity to start full-time after the departure of Charlies Hayes. 

He then embarked on a 2 year stretch, in which he had >.800 OPS, while hitting a combined 45 HR from 1992-1993.  He led the league in getting hit by pitch in 1992.   He did not match those two years over the rest of his career, though he did have good seasons in 1996 and 1997 with 16 HR each season with OPS+ ~100.  After that, he moved from team to team and eventually retired in 2002 after getting bitten by a spider, which exacerbated conditions of his diabetes.

Unfortunately, he is probably best known outside of Philadelphia fans for being the other side of the trade that sent David Ortiz from the Twins to the Red Sox in 1996.  


Role on the 1993 Phillies: He was the primary third baseman and a staple in the middle of the lineup, batting cleanup for his starts.  He batted .273/.372/.442, good for a 119 OPS+ , with 18 HR (4th on the team), 93 RBI (2nd on the team), and 104 Runs (2nd on the team(.  He also made his lone all-star appearance.  Hollins was the quiet intensity representative of that roster, standing in the batter's box with his bat straight up in the air before unleashing his swing.  He had a .910 OPS in the 1993 NLCS with 2 HR, but only managed one extra base hit in the World Series, though he maintained a .414 OBP.

Card Facts: This is a 1996 Leaf Signature  autograph series card. This set was distributed in four card packs with 1 auto per pack, the first brand with an autograph in every pack (SRP $9.99).  I remember scouring the internet for these in 1996; packs averaged between $20-25 and most common bronze autographs were easily sold for $3-5.    

Apr 23, 2017

Stat Anomaly: 20 Losses, Roger Craig in 1963

This decade is passing quickly, as we are in 2017, without an appearance from the always elusive 20 game loser.  In 2016, for the first time since 2004, there was at least one 19 game loser, both respected pitchers, "Big Game" James Shields and Chris Archer.  Chris Archer was even drafted in the top 65 of my last fantasy draft, so the expectations for repeating his record are not really being considered.

There is one pitcher in the annals of modern (modern= since Topps existed) baseball, that turned convention on its head and excelled at accomplishing this most elusive accomplishment....of sorts.

Roger Craig was a league average pitcher for his career, yet ended up with two of the most spectacularly horrible W-L records back-to-back.  Such is the fate of one who toiled for the Amazins' in those formative years.

The awfulness of the 1963 Mets is never noted because it was only the 3rd worst team of those early Mets years with 111 losses.  The team had one eventual HOFer (Duke Snider), and ended up being outscored by ~250 runs.  Roger Craig pitched a team-leading 236 innings that year with a 92 ERA+ and somehow finished 5-22.  Was there any conceivable way that he could have avoided this fate?

In a word....yes.

How's this for run support?  He had 5 starts, in which he allowed 1 run over 8 innings or more and that resulted in a loss.  He had 4 more  quality starts, allowing 2 runs or less, with greater than 6 innings pitched that also resulted in a loss.  There were five 1-0 losses and two 2-1 losses in total.

On a league average team (that would have scored 117 runs than the 1963 Mets), a 5-22 record definitely would not have happened.    This even didn't happen on the 1963 Colt 45s, who scored even less than the Mets (Ken Johnson had 17 losses with a 119 ERA+).

Based on the evidence, the most likely reason for his record with the Mets is that Roger Craig was cursed by a fortune teller in Queens after losing his luggage and going into the wrong storefront.  Another mystery solved.