Monday, November 18, 2019

The Prolonged Death of the Rookie Card: A Somber Essay

Here is an old custom card, because people tend to like posts with pictures in them

To quote a disgraced comedian in a comedy sketch about sectional couches, "this is going to be long."

By now, enough of a big deal has been made of the Astros' Yordan Alvarez not having a Topps card in 2019, his Rookie-of-the-Year-winning season. To briefly sum up the argument, the fact that someone who debuted in June being held off for a set that caps a checklist in mid-July, solely because they want to overproduce his rookies the following year, is the kind of capitalist thinking that gave us Disney+ giving us the Mighty Ducks sequels before coughing up the original.

It'd be too much to just say 'why overexpose Pete Alonso in every set and not do the same thing to Alvarez because he came up later', but ranting doesn't work on its own. So I did some research. I went back and looked at every year's Rookie of the Years, and their Topps cards, or lack thereof. It was illuminating.

This voyage eventually turned into a fascinating look back at the emasculation of the 'rookie card'. Starting in 2006, Topps defined the term a bit more closely, and tried to gauge players that would make their debuts during the season as rookies in flagship, while filling Update with players they missed that had made debuts. Around 2015, the flagship rookies just became 'guys that debuted really late last year that'll probably be in the mix this year', and Update rookies just became 'guys that debuted during the year'. And that's devolved even further to what we have now, where a lot of Update rookies are people that were forecast to make big splashes in April or May (Jon Duplantier! Elvis Luciano!), and occasional bullseyes (PETE ALONSO), while completely negating rookies that debuted later who actually had substantial rookie years, like...Yordan Alvarez.

The last ROY to not have their own rookie card in a flagship/update set is Bobby Crosby, who was on a combo rookie card in 2004 with Rich Harden. This was also the case for both 2002 Rookies of the Year. This also illuminates Topps' strategy from 1999 until 2005, which was to predict, as much as they can, the rookies that would succeed during the year, and give them combination rookie cards in flagship and, if they were lucky, solo base cards in Update.

So, really, the last player to not have a Topps flagship/Update card of their own in the year they won the Rookie of the Year is Jason Jennings, the Rockies strikeout artist who won the award in 2002. However, it's interesting to note that Jennings had cards in Topps Total that year, as well as Topps 206, and plenty of Fleer and Upper Deck products.

A few signs of the times here:

  • Topps produces a card of a rookie in supplemental sets, but not in Flagship. Nowadays, this doesn't exactly happen this specific way. True, players like Max Muncy will be featured in subsets, but not with their own base card, in sets like Update. And yes, players will be featured in different uniforms in inserts than they will be on base cards (Josh Donaldson or Andrew McCutchen in this year's flagship is a good example). But Topps not including a player in flagship but including them in an extraneous set like Gallery? Rare, but unheard of. Even the rookies in a set like Gallery, like Lewis Brinson in 2017, manage to wind up in Update anyway. The checklists are congruent. But in 2002, they weren't.
  • Other companies produce rookie cards of a player when you don't. This sort of thing happens to Topps all the time- they have a wider view of the rookie class than other card makers, especially 2000s Upper Deck and 2010s Panini. But for Upper Deck and Fleer flagship to have a player when Topps flagship doesn't? Very curious. And it's not a licensing thing, where someone's signed an exclusive contract with a company that isn't Topps, like Matt Wieters until 2015 or Ichiro from 2013 to 2014. Topps could have made a 2002 Topps card of Jason Jennings. They just...didn't. Which is alarming. 
  • Jason Jennings didn't exactly leap onto the scene in 2002. He'd been sitting in the Rockies' farm system for a few years, and was touted to make a gradual splash in 2002. It's not like Jennings' come-up caught Topps off-guard. It certainly didn't catch Fleer or UD off guard. You can say the same thing about Yordan Alvarez this year- Alvarez was a winning DH prospect, the Astros had no options at DH, Alvarez started the season in AAA. Topps has done math like this before, but to completely miscalculate like this, perhaps deliberately, is appalling. 
From then back, you get more mixtures, like players showing up on multi-person cards, or in prospect subsets, or in Major League Debut sets, to showing up in the low-seeded Traded set (hello Cal!), to eventually...the practice of not beating printing schedules and releasing the rookie's card the following year, like Eddie Murray not getting his rookie card until 1978. 

So Topps has lapped themselves, deliberately. Instead of not having the time and feasible means to produce a Yordan Alvarez card, they've completely put off releasing a card of him in 2019 so that they can overproduce his cards in 2020, and pepper every single set with rookie-logo emblazoned Yordan Alvarez cards, even if the point is very moot and he is no longer a rookie. 

Topps flagship rookie cards have ceased to mean anything other than an obligation. You can find a Yordan Alvarez rookie that Topps has produced, but in a set like Pro Debut, Heritage Minor Leagues, or Bowman. Those are the rookies that mean something, and...most of the time, most of them aren't even worth anything because they don't all count as actual rookie cards because Topps produces so many of them, both in quantity and in variety. 

Last week, I pulled a card of Casey Mize, the Tigers' premier prospect, out of a pack of Heritage Minor Leagues. It's not my first Mize card, as he had a card in Pro Debut. It's not the first-ever Mize card, as he had cards in last year's Bowman Draft, as well as Bowman Best and Panini products. It will not be the last Mize issue as a minor leaguer, as Mize will be in Pro Debut and HML, and Bowman, until he makes his Tigers debut. 

In 20 years, someone is going to find a Mize rookie card, one of the DOZENS I just delineated, and think it's worth something, and because it's not the complete, city-upon-a-hill rookie card that Topps produced before all the other ones, it won't be worth anything at all. Even if Mize does make it. Topps has now made its own rules as to which cards are 'real' rookie cards, and yet have continued to produce subsequent rookie cards that follow those rules, but are not the supreme, actual 'rookie card'.

This does not make sense to me because I'm not wealthy.

In summation, rookie cards don't mean anything anymore. Game used cards don't mean anything either. Collect the way you want to, not because of added value or stuff that might make money, but because if a million dollar company can control the exact way you collect cards, they've won.

I promise my next post will be a lot happier and have a lot more pictures.


  1. Makes sense to me. Topps takes popular concepts and runs them into the ground all the time. Rookies cards were sought-after, so they now produce them in vast numbers, and are counting on that perception of value to drive sales of all of them. And now they've finally made them meaningless. Same thing happened to jersey swatch cards...

  2. These days "rc' logos are slapped on just about everything.Some guys probably have more rookie cards than the total amount of cards a veteran of 5 years has.

  3. A couple of years ago Topps had some time in August as the cut off date for who would get a rookie card in update or next season but the last 2 or 3 years they have become more manipulating. Yordan came up in June. Tommie Edman comes up on June 8th gets a rookie card this year. Yordan comes up on June 9th, no rookie this year.

  4. It is NOT Topps' decision--if it were, you can bet that Panini/Donruss would be filling the void with a ton of Alvarez rookies.

    The MLBPA sets a cutoff date. Anyone who hasn't played a major league game by that date can't have a rookie card that year. Period. MLBPA has confirmed that Alvarez missed the cutoff:

    "To help establish a level playing field for baseball card licensees that are eager to produce the first rookie cards for emerging stars, we coordinate annually with manufacturers to establish a cutoff date for when players can be included in a licensed product. Yordan’s big-league debut came after the 2019 cutoff date."

    It's out of Topps' hands. I don't think the date should be so early--apparently in previous years it was not--but the decision was made by the MLBPA, not Topps. See for a good explainer.