Now that Opening Day has arrived, trading card collectors should consider a few important guidelines in order to get the most out of the hobby this year.
Baseball is not only back, but it’s much closer to being back to normal after an unprecedented 2020 season that had to be cut down to just 60 games at the MLB level, with the minor league slate fully wiped out.
Major League Baseball was the first of the major team sports to begin a new season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and as strange as that year felt, some things didn’t change as far as the hobby is concerned.
One of the biggest fascinations in baseball card collecting has always been “prospecting,” investing in young players in the hope that they will develop into the next superstar. And while a lack of 2020 minor league season had speculators flat-out guessing when it came to investing in prospects still some ways away from their big league debuts, Thursday’s arrival of 2021 Opening Day was only made more exciting.
And as we tackle this full 162-game MLB campaign with real, live minor league seasons to go along with it, baseball card investors would do well to keep these three pieces of wisdom in mind.
With Prospects, Look At the Big Picture
After roughly 16 months passing without seeing so many of the game’s best prospects play actual games, collectors will be eager to see how the big names perform right out of the gate. As the young guns shake the rust off and reacclimate themselves to the daily grind of a season, some are going to get off to better starts than others, to say the very least.
Eagerness among collectors has caused the market to grow more reactionary, with card values becoming uncharacteristically volatile based on spring training results. Kansas City Royals 2019 No. 2 overall pick Bobby Witt Jr. has seen his Bowman Chrome autograph card price more than double after a strong spring training despite a small sample size of just 38 at-bats.
Meanwhile, 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson’s Bowman card has dipped by more than 20% after he struggled in big league spring training. However, it was a major vote of confidence from the Detroit Tigers to even put Torkelson up against other MLB teams before he had a chance to play in the minors. His unimpressive early production shouldn’t be overanalyzed.
If card prices are fluctuating as much as we have seen based on spring training results — players themselves will often tell you those numbers are largely meaningless — why should we expect anything to be different once the regular season starts?
The point is this: Don’t feel as if you missed the boat on Bobby Witt Jr. and pile on after the card doubled in value thanks to a few good at-bats. On the flipside. Don’t abandon your Spencer Torkelson cards after he struggles against MLB-level players. If you feel good about a guy for the long term, trust it and don’t let small sample size results sway you.
Prospects are always developing. A single game, week, or month isn’t going to define a career.
Navigate MLB Debuts With Caution
There are few things that fire up a baseball fanbase more than a highly-regarded prospect finally making his debut. These moments can even transcend individual fan bases, as with generational talents like two-way Angels star Shohei Ohtani.
Of course, the more attention a player draws, card prices rise to reflect jumps in demand. Many will naturally kick themselves for not investing in a particular player’s card earlier and pile on as they ascend to All-Star level. With young stars like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr., investing around the times of their first MLB games would have obviously proven to be quite lucrative.
But how many players, even highly-touted ones, actually become generational phenoms?
Most rookies should be expected to experience roller-coaster seasons as they adjust to playing at the highest level. Just as collectors cash in on a player debut spike, a slow start causes demand to take a hit.
Since MLB Pipeline’s 2019 Top Prospects list was released, 11 of the top 20 have made an appearance at the big league level, eight of whom have either struggled with injuries or objectively under-performed, with the exceptions of Luis Robert, Jesus Luzardo, and (technically) Alex Kirilloff.
Does this mean all of these guys are going to be busts? Of course not.
But plenty of collectors out there are not willing to wait to find out, and will ultimately prefer to unload what they think could be a diminishing asset.
As a result, we have seen prospect cards for Jo Adell, Casey Mize, Joey Bart, Michael Kopech, and Brendan Rogers dip in value since their respective debuts. Frankly, now is likely a good time for a collector to invest in any of the aforementioned names they still have confidence in, as their markets are currently in “wait and see” mode.
After all, even Mike Trout struggled out of the gate, hitting just .220 in his first 40 games at the MLB level.
Last August, one of his prospect cards sold for $3.936 million.
Value Hitters Over Pitchers
This one is meant more for the investors than the collectors, but for those looking to turn a profit, pitchers tend to be a more volatile bet than position players.
On top of the inherent risk of investing in a prospect, a major injury is as consequential as it is impossible to predict. While injuries can plague anyone, pitchers often see the longest recovery times, with the far-too-common Tommy John elbow ligament surgery usually requiring more than a full year of rehab.
While Tommy John is far from a kiss of death for a player’s career, a year-and-a-half layoff (followed by an innings limit upon return) is clearly not the best thing for a player’s card value. According to baseball statistician Bill James, more than 25% of MLB pitchers in 2018 had undergone Tommy John surgery in the past.
A lot of those players returned to the bigs and either recaptured their form or close to it, but if you invest in a pitcher, there is undoubtedly more risk than opting for a hitter — especially if you are looking to turn a profit within the span of a season.
Finally, one last piece of advice.
It’s called the hobby for a reason. Collecting is supposed to be fun, and baseball is a beautiful thing. Market prices will rise and fall, but this season, we’ll all win if we let the joy come first.