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Rookie overload

2020 Topps is scheduled to debut in two days and unless you're a Texas Rangers fan, you're probably at least a little bit excited for the new card season.

I know I am. No matter how far Topps inches away from what I think baseball cards should be, no matter how much MLB inches away from what I think baseball should be, I'm still interested in what comes out of the first packs each year.

I hope that never goes away. If it does, it means I will have morphed 100 percent into grumpy old man status, rather than the approximate 58 percent I am at right now, crabbing about Super Bowl halftime shows and the price of hot dogs. (Every person on Facebook sounded about 128 years old last night).

However ...

I'm not expecting much.

I've already said I don't like the design for 2020 Topps. I'm already horrified as a team collector about the Rangers situation. And, I've already noted how many rookies are in Series 1.

There are 47.

That's 13 percent of the 350 cards in Series 1.

That seems like a  lot.

It seemed like so many that I instinctively responded critically to a Topps tweet the other day.

I don't know why I did that. I don't usually respond to major companies' self-promotion online. I am not one of those grumps who writes letters to companies about every complaint, nor will I ever do that.

In fact someone else wondered why I did that for me. They left a single word response to my response. It said "why?"


Well, I suppose if all you care about is collecting are rookie cards, then there is nothing to object to when Topps puts 47 rookie cards in a 350-card set. It's your perfect world.

But as someone who still likes to think of Topps flagship as a somewhat realistic representation of Major League Baseball on the field, instead of a Rookie Land Fantasy World, then there is something rather wrong about this -- and a reason to do some digging.

So I did.

The 2020 set happens to be the 15th anniversary of the rookie card logo. It debuted with the 2006 flagship set.

That logo gave me the perfect opportunity to count up how many rookie cards were in Series 1 of each Topps set since the rookie card logo debuted in 2006.

Let's take a walk through time, shall we?

2006 began with 29 rookie cards in Series 1, with such stalwarts as Paul McAnulty, who batted .201 in 133 games over five years in his career.

Yes, 2006 Series 1 also brought us rookie cards of Francisco Liriano and Rich Hill. But it also brought us rookie cards of Marshall McDougall, Rick Short and Robert Andino. Fortunately, 2006 Topps relegated the rookies to the back of Series 1 where we sort of could ignore them if we wanted.

2007 Topps Series 1 also had 29 rookie cards and also pushed most of them toward the back of the set, so we could look at Oswaldo Navarro, Drew Anderson and Mike Rabelo dismissively as if they had a chance. Actually, you could do that to all the rookies in Series 1 that year. Adam Lind was about the best it got in that group.

2008, Topps bumped the rookie card number to 30 in Series 1. It's also the first year that rookie cards were distributed throughout Series 1, mixed in with all the veterans, as if they didn't go through initiation rituals or fetch the stars their equipment. Some did OK, like Pearce here, and then there was Chin-lung Hu.

I'll go quickly through most of the other years as they're all basically the same as 2008.

2009: 30 rookie cards in Series 1
2010: 29 rookie cards in Series 1

2011: 29 rookie cards in Series 1.

Anyone remember Lucas May?

Ozzie Martinez?

2012: Just 21 rookie cards in Series 1. Perhaps the only good thing 2012 Topps had going for it.

2013: 27 rookie cards. Henry Rodriguez? Any memories? No, not the Expos outfielder.

2014: 32 rookie cards in Series 1.
2015: 28 rookie cards in Series 1.

People like Gary Brown in Series 1. Gary Brown played seven games in his career, for the Giants in 2014.


That was it.


He has a card,

In Series 1.

His card number sits between Tim Lincecum and Alex Avila. You know, guys who actually have baseball cards based on stringing a few seasons together rather than hype.

Since I've completed the 2015 set, it allows me to show the good and bad of flooding a set with rookies. 2015 Series 1 did have rookie cards of these guys:

But also of these:

2016 had 32 rookie cards in Series 1.

Including the ubiquitous Henry Owens.

In 2017, there were 27 rookies in Series 1, including notables, like Dansby Swanson and Andrew Benintendi and non-notables, like Matt Carasiti.

But up until this point, Topps was consistently hovering around the high 20s/low 30s, a total that seemed in sync with how the baseball world works, or at least the total was at a level where I didn't notice.

Then, 2018 Topps arrived.

With a whopping 44 rookies in Series 1.


Gee ...

Why such a large jump?

What happened to create such a drastic flood of rookies?


Anything jogging your memory?



Ah, yes.

Judge and Bellinger mania the preceding year caused such a sensation that stores were devoid of product for months and months. Topps must've made a killing this year and it was all because of a couple of rookies (although only Judge was in Series 1, and, no, that's not his Series 1 card -- I told you the stores were devoid of product for months and months).

Maybe that's me being a little cynical, that Topps would suddenly up the number of rookies so drastically in its first set of the new year, but it kind of jumped right out at me and, yeah, it sure makes sense.

But once again, not every 2018 rookie was another Aaron Judge.

In 2019 we were back to a bit more reasonable 34 rookie cards in Series 1.

And that brings me to 2020.

47 cards.

More than ever.

Here is the year-by-year breakdown in list form:

2006: 29
2007: 29
2008: 30
2009: 30
2010: 29
2011: 29
2012: 21
2013: 27
2014: 32
2015: 28
2016: 32
2017: 27
2018: 44
2019: 34
2020: 47

Here it is in graph form:

And here it is as a percentage of the set. (Series 1 was 330 cards before expanding to 350 in 2015):

2006: 8.8%
2007: 8.8%
2008: 9.0%
2009: 9.0%
2010: 8.8%
2011: 8.8%
2012: 6.4%
2013: 8.2%
2014: 9.7%
2015: 8.0%
2016: 9.1%
2017: 7.7%
2018: 12.6%
2019: 9.7%
2020: 13.4%

The total number of rookies who played in the major leagues each year between 2006 and 2018 fluctuates between 166 players and 228 players according to baseball-reference. Unfortunately, I can't figure out an average number of total players for each season.

So I can't say that Topps is grossly overstating rookies' impact on a major league season in its set.

The thing that's most alarming to me is the jump -- the jump from hovering around 8, 9 percent for years and then we're suddenly at 12 or 13 percent.

I'm not buying cards for rookies. I'm buying cards to see guys who play in the big leagues, see guys who played last year on my TV. And I know these rookies -- many of them like Henry Owens and Gary Brown -- are bumping out some poor relief pitcher who showed up in 50 games in a season but doesn't get a card.

That is "why".

So, yeah, I'll be looking for 2020 Topps on store shelves. And, yeah, I'll be excited when I see it. And, yeah, I'll post about it here. And, yeah, I'll get annoyed at someone who says, "why should we care about 2020 Topps?" (BECAUSE IT'S THE FIRST NEW CARDS OF THE SEASON, THAT'S WHY.).

But I won't tell you that these are the best cards Topps has ever made or that they represent what I want represented on cards.

Much like life -- whether it's a Super Bowl or overpriced concession stand food -- I will try to enjoy the parts that I can enjoy. And I will try not to grumble about it too much. There WILL be stuff I like. Because I wouldn't be watching or buying AT ALL if I didn't.

But it doesn't mean I'm happy about the way things are.


Zippy Zappy said…
"And I know these rookies ... are bumping out some poor relief pitcher who showed up in 50 games in a season but doesn't get a card."

Well it sounds like chances are good that these nobodies are at least getting a rookie card in flagship now then disappear forever in favor of more rookie cards of nobodies.
Jason T. Carter said…
Reds fan here, and I was following pretty closely in 2013, and I don't remember Henry Rodriguez.

Section 36 said…
I guess my only counter would be that these players all have to have made their MLB debut, so they're actually on their teams. Right? So, if flagship is supposed to chronicle the players on each team...shouldn't they be included? Especially if they might not hang around very long? I know I want a Henry Owens card to remember his time on the Sox. If Topps waited for him to be a three year vet, I wouldn't get a card. I could understand if companies were still stuffing sets with draft picks and AA guys. But, these are all major leaguers. Not sure why you don't think they deserve to be shown with their team.
night owl said…
It's the perception that rookies are getting favorable treatment over other more established players who don't end up getting a card. I would have to find examples of players who didn't get a card to counter your counter, which would require another boatload of research.

It just seems like Topps stresses rookies and then collectors focus entirely on rookies and that makes Topps stress rookies more. It's a vicious cycle, and I wonder who is being left out.
Base Card Hero said…
It's almost as if Topps is terrified of missing a rookie who could become the next big thing.
BaseSetCalling said…
Lucas May, hmmmm, let me see....was he the guy that broke his bat on his Rookie Card? All I got.

I am just about to scan a card of Francisco Liriano for a little blog post though. 15th anniversary RC, neat. I will have totally different Rookie Card card complaints though. But my Card of the Year will be - a Rookie Card, from Texas. Good job, 2019.

Commishbob said…
Darn, you did a lot of legwork on this. Very nice.

Are the Rangers devoid of rookies deemed good enough to rate a card? I heard something about this last week, maybe from your Twitter posts? Seems odd.

Anyway, all this sounds a bit like the rookie-mad days of the 80s. And look where that got us.
night owl said…
The only Rangers card in the base set is a rookie card. And, yeah, I wrote about it last week. That's what a linked in the first sentence of this post.
Laurens said…
A rookie implies potential and promise - a rookie card of an eventual rank-and-file guy [or outright scrub] isn't going to worth much but I'd rather have that rookie card when it comes out rather than some veteran non-star card of a big leaguer who has little or no MLB cards issued.
Nick Vossbrink said…
Love this rant. 100% in agreement with you. Is especially annoying since this is literally what Update is for but instead we get cards of the guys they couldn't fit in S1 or S2 only after they've been traded to new teams. Give me cards of the guys who played most of the games. Then use Update for the rookie cards instead of all that Debut and Home RUn derby crap.

Anyway I'll copy over the comment from twitter and say that I did a quick count on baseball-ref and found ~300 rookies out of ~1400 players last year. A decent number of those rookies were in Update but still there's a possibility that there are just more rookies and young players in the game now than before as teams optimize toward player control.
night owl said…
Laurens ~ That viewpoint is how many collectors feel these days and why Topps sets look the way they do. It makes me sad, that promise and hope are valued over actual performance and time of service. But people collect the way they want, which is why I won't be buying much of this and spending my money on vintage.
night owl said…
Nick ~ Yes. Update is the perfect spot for most rookie cards. Topps has a built-in system where it could test-drive the rookies for most of the season and get the established players in Series 1 and 2 in the meantime while they're waiting for the rookie results to come in. But, no, Topps needs to feed the beast ...
This was a great reason for Topps to relaunch Topps Total. Use the 900-card set to showcase rookies without bumping the guys who played a few dozen games a year. I would buy the set each year since I like the obscure guys mixed in with my stars.

Whoops, I meant I WOULD work on completing that set if it wouldn't cost me well over ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS to do so. For brand new cards.

I agree with you, N.O. Topps keeps inching away -- at a faster and faster rate -- from what I think baseball cards should be.
GCA said…
Yes, like Mike said above, there's a difference between depicting the team as they played during the season (flagship) and depicting every human that wore the uniform for more than a few innings during the whole year (Total).

The rookie obsession is sad because it centers on the resale value of a card when the guy hits it big instead of the intrinsic value of a card that actually represents the players and teams who show up on the field. I'm not in this for the money. I'm in it to build sets (and/or teams or players) and have a good time collecting cards that show me about the sport. When it's all about the money is when the hobby is corrupted.
Matt said…
All I could think of while reading this was that this is some twisted rehash of Donruss's gloriously overdone Rated Rookies subset.
Lee Hero said…
I'm not a rookie card guy at all, but as a team collector, I do really enjoy getting to see cards of some of the lesser knowns that don't get alot of attention from card manufacturers. I'm looking forward to the Tyler White card, because I have nothing of him with the Dodgers. Would be great to see Jedd Gyorko and Kristopher Negron cards as well. I'm sure all team collectors have players that came to their team late in the seaeon that they will never get a card of.
sg488 said…
Maybe do the rookie cards in series 2 and 3(update),just to compare with series 1.
Fuji said…
Dude. The amount of research you put into your posts is second to none. I enjoy collecting my favorite rookies... but 47 out of 350 is a little excessive. Even more annoying is them releasing a rookie card of a guy in Series One, then release two more so called "rookie cards" in their Update Series.

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