With hitters, it’s easy to figure out what will make a hobby star: home runs, clutch hitting, team leadership or all of the above. A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson all are beloved among card collectors for various combinations of those skills and character traits.
When it comes to pitchers, collectors are finicky. What makes a pitcher successful in the hobby? First and foremost, reputation. Loved by fans and respected by opponents, Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford were legends on the field, as were guys like Warren Spahn and Bob Feller. And they never had off-field issues like, say, Denny McClain or Roger Clemens.
After that criteria come the record holders and Hall of Famers. And after that, guys with memorable postseason performances such as Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game in 1956. Then, single-season greatness in the form of Cy Young Awards.
But who will achieve greatness? It’s hard to figure out whether either recent Cy Young winner, Tim Lincecum or Brandon Webb, will become hobby legends or endure a Barry Zito-like tumble back to earth. But after sifting through recent eBay auction results, we can learn what collectors want in a pitcher:
Wins: Cy Young played 100 years ago, and his record of 511 wins will undoubtedly remain unchallenged for another century. The tobacco cards from his playing days are so desirable, even the poorest-condition specimens command $150, and it goes up from there into the five figures. Ditto on No. 2 all-time winner Walter “Big Train” Johnson (417 wins), whose high-grade vintage pieces come close to $10,000. On the low end, his B18 Blanket – a felt wrapper for a plug of chew – can be snagged for less than $50.
Strikeouts: Nolan Ryan (5,714 Ks) is the all-time strikeout king and is arguably the card hobby’s all-time favorite pitcher. His 1968 Topps rookie still commands $5,000 or more in high grades on eBay. Even in PSA 8 (NM-MT), it’s $1,000.
Cardinals legend Bob Gibson (13th with 3,117 Ks) and his 1959 Topps rookie command about $1,000 in PSA 8 condition on eBay, although the ceiling on higher-graded cards for him is lower than Ryan’s in Mint and higher grades.
Cy Young Awards: The jury’s still out on how much a Cy Young Award helps a pitcher’s hobby status. Clemens won seven Cy Youngs, but his cards have deflated up to 90 percent in value since the Mitchell Report, proving that they don’t count for much in the court of hobby opinion. Randy Johnson has five Cy Young awards to go with his No. 2 slot on the all-time strikeout list. Maddux has four Cys to go with his 355 wins. Koufax, however, won three Cys and his hobby status is indisputable: a 1955 Topps rookie sold on eBay for $3,161 in December, and that was a PSA 8.
Rookie rarity: The 1971 Topps cards are brutally condition-sensitive. Their black borders often got damaged in trimming, transit or handling, and few truly Mint cards exist. In fact, out of 828 1971 Topps Tom Seaver (311 wins, three Cy Youngs, Hall of Fame) rookie cards submitted to PSA, only one has graded PSA 9, and one PSA 10. That means that even though it’s not a short-run set, sellers can name their price when they get high-grade examples, like $6,000 for that PSA 9.
Today’s short-run cards will probably make rookie cards from the few current players who manage to achieve greatness a lot more valuable, overall, than those from the 1980s and 1990s. For Maddux and Randy Johnson, the hobby printed mass quantities of rookie cards, so even posting one of the greatest careers of all time doesn’t necessarily help their value: Maddux’s Gem-Mint 1987 Donruss (like ’71 Topps, black-bordered) rookies still can only attract $200 bids on eBay, while Randy Johnson’s 1989 Upper Deck, graded Gem-Mint, can be won for $30-$60.
Postseason excellence: In 11 World Series, Whitey Ford won 10 games, lost eight, posted a 2.71 postseason ERA and earned six rings. His 1951 Bowman rookie – which tends to be hard to find in good shape because not only is it six decades old, but it’s the used-and-abused card No. 1 of the set – sells for $350 in PSA 5 (EX) slabs and can push five figures the higher you go up the grading ladder. Don Larsen didn’t even win 100 games over his career, but he did have that perfect World Series game. His 1954 Topps rookie isn’t quite as legendary as Ford’s, but it starts around $75 in PSA 7 (NM) condition.
For collectors hunting for current young pitchers who will become hobby superstars, all this means that it’s almost impossible to project because it takes more than just stats to make hobby value. Curt Schilling, for example, is a World Series hero for two different teams, as is Josh Beckett, but that doesn’t translate to baseball card royalty.
Our best bets for undervalued pitchers who will increase in value over time? Cole Hamels (under $100 for most rookie cards), if he stays with Philadelphia and keeps up his dominating ways; recently retired Greg Maddux and future retiree Randy Johnson, after their Hall of Fame inductions; Mariano Rivera (1992 Bowman, $85 Gem-Mint), if Cooperstown voters get over their closer prejudice; and what’s not to love about Brandon Webb and Tim Lincecum? But as the A’s dominant trio of a few years ago, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito proved, early career success is no indicator of hobby longevity.