There’s a belief in baseball that no position is more valuable than starting pitching. In the world of trading cards, it’s not that simple.
It’s a peculiar thing in the hobby: a large majority of the most valuable baseball cards on the market, especially among modern-day collectibles, aren’t the ones who throw the ball. It’s the guys who hit it.
From Topps rookie cards to Bowman Prospect cards, the difference in the going rate between star position players and star pitchers is vast —sometimes double or more for certain especially big names. That’s not to say that collecting pitchers isn’t worth it, however. Jacob deGrom’s 2014 Topps Update rookie card, for example, is a great investment. His PSA 10 rookie has gone from selling at around $400 in mid-April to $1,000 or more as recently as June 3:
In the big picture, collectors shouldn’t be afraid to invest in pitchers — they just need to understand a few basic facts first.
Let’s dive in.
Card Values Can Vary Widely by Career
Longevity and consistency are difficult to achieve in baseball no matter what position you play. But with roughly 25% of pitchers in baseball having undergone Tommy John surgery at some point in their careers, it is fair to say that a hurler’s career trajectory can get much more complicated than a position player’s in a hurry.
A hitter can move to another position as they age, with the DH for an American League club serving as an especially forgiving option. And as long as they continue produce at the plate — card values are dominated by offensive production, not defense —the card values tend not to waiver.
Pitchers obviously do not have this luxury (with all due respect to Rick Ankiel).
Additionally, it’s unavoidable that starting pitchers only take the mound once every five days or so. Popularity comes from visibility; the fact that fans cannot tune in to watch an ace perform upwards of 150 times per year is far from irrelevant in explaining the divergence in card values.
The Dark Knight Rises, Then Falls
An unfortunate example of how dramatically a pitcher’s cards can plummet is the story of Matt Harvey.
Once the talk of New York, the man who came to be called “The Dark Knight” was expected to lead an elite Mets rotation for years to come. Despite the “pitcher discount” across the baseball card market, Harvey’s cards commanded huge price tags — right up until his health failed him.
In 2015, Harvey’s Bowman Chrome Auto /25 sold for $6,200. Four years later, after shoulder injuries derailed his career, that same card sold for just $76.
That’s a collector’s worst nightmare.
For Harvey, it wasn’t Tommy John surgery that did him in, as he missed the 2014 season only to come back the next year and succeed. But his shoulder wasn’t able to handle the long haul.
As a result, neither was his card market.
So, does this mean card collectors should avoid investing in pitchers?
No, you can and you should. But setting the right expectations first will save a lot of potential disappointment down the line.
How to Get the Most Out of Collecting Pitcher Cards
All told, collecting pitchers all comes down to a specific kind of risk management.
When looking for starting pitcher cards to collect, it is important to compare their prices to other pitchers, not position players.
For example, Jose Ramirez is one of baseball’s best shortstops , and at 28 years old, he’s still considered to be in his prime. The same could be said for his Cleveland teammate, Shane Bieber, who won last year’s AL Cy Young Award and is arguably the second-best pitcher in all of baseball behind deGrom.
Despite the fact that both Ramirez and Bieber are among the league’s best overall talents, the pitcher’s 2018 Topps Chrome Update rookie card currently sells for around $80 as a PSA 10, while Ramirez’s equivalent card commands nearly double that.
A much better benchmark for Bieber would be Walker Buehler of the LA Dodgers; despite being the same age as the Cleveland ace, playing in a bigger market, and boasting All-Star credentials and a World Series ring, Buehler’s equivalent card is going for upwards of 30% less.
Through that lens, Bieber investors are sitting pretty.
If these examples tell us anything, it’s that it is probably safer to collect position players — even prospects — if the ultimate goal is to strike it rich. But it’s notable that the market prices are affordable for even baseball’s best pitchers. Investing in arms you really believe in comes with a low barrier for entry and potentially much less risk.
In the big picture, the difference between Jacob deGrom and Shane Bieber on the mound is pretty significant. But because they’re pitchers, the difference in their card prices is far less so. Particularly for more casual collectors who aren’t looking to swing for the fences and build out a full-fledged investment portfolio, that presents a nice opportunity.
Those around the hobby would do well to take note and act accordingly.