by Eamonn Donlyn
In the early 1900s, baseball was dominated by strategy and controlled by pitchers, with the likes of Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Cy Young on the mound.
It took Babe Ruth’s prowess at the plate in the 1920’s to break the league out of the deadball era. A sign of the times, even Ruth arguably could have been a Hall of Famer strictly as a pitcher based on his 94-46 record and an ERA of 2.28 – the latter still good for 16th all-time.
Following in Ruth’s offensive path, the game was much more balanced moving forward, with hitting stars leading the game to prominence in the country.
But while most kids may have been collecting offensive superstars for the rest of the century, there were always dominant pitchers in each era like Lefty Grove, Satchel Paige, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan just to name a few (not a bad list if they are all in your collection either!).
Pitching finally took a turn for the worse in the 80’s and 90’s, as the ‘juiced ball era’ ushered in a new wave of power hitting, and controversy in retrospect. Gone were the days of pitchers consistently throwing complete games, passing us as swiftly as a Steve Carlton slider (who managed to throw 30 complete games in 1971).
Pitching is no longer about endurance, the game has changed. For perspective, the active leader in CAREER complete games games is current Phillie, Roy Halladay, with 66 (yes, career).
Of course, a few standouts existed on the mound during the ‘juiced’ era, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Greg Maddux come to mind as they were able to conjure up remnants of the glory days of pitching past. Their rookie cards can’t rival those of their distant predecessors, for various other factors all too well known to cardboard collectors.
But lo and behold, here we sit approaching the 2013 season, and we are talking about pitching and defense, and have been for the last few years. Even the most hallowed young offensive player, Mike Trout, is equally as celebrated for his defense in support of his pitchers.
And for collectors, it is a beautiful thing. It makes the hobby feel more balanced and genuine again, rather than just chasing the latest home run hero.
In 2012, there were three perfect games thrown and a total of six in the last three years starting with Mark Buehrle’s in 2009. Dallas Braden and Halladay tossed one each in 2010, and Philip Humber, Matt Cain and Felix Hernandez all threw one in 2012.
The mere fact that six of the 23 perfect games in history have been thrown so recently (26%), is one example that the shift back to mound magnificence might be here to stay. Throw in the numerous no-hitters thrown during this time, and a frenzy has been created for pitchers on the card market in great spurts over the last couple years. But as a collector and fan, you’re never quite sure who is going to throw the next gem, and if they’ll remain consistent. Players like Humber and Braden have struggled, causing their card values to fluctuate heavily.
But the trends are consistent across the leagues, as teams only averaged 4.28 runs per game in 2011, the lowest since the clip of 4.12 in 1992, and in 2012 the league average was 4.33. These pale in comparison with the peak of the steroid era, at 5.14 per game.
At the top of the market, Justin Verlander, David Price, Jered Weaver, Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw all appear to the be in the running for the Cy Young awards consistently Investments are at a premium in that level, and for good reason, they are fairly safe bets. Those who went after Stephen Strasburg rookie cards haven’t seen a payoff but that could change soon.
Young players like Gio Gonzalez, Johnny Cueto and Chris Sale are starting to make noise. Max Scherzer may just have the strength to pass all of them this season into the upper echelon above. And of course veterans CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain are rock solid veterans.
But it’s that next level of starting pitchers where it is really tough to gauge, as even tantalizing talent doesn’t always stand the test of the rigors of the league, as Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum have shown at times.
Overall, the balance is back in the game between pitchers and hitters, and you see tons of writers prognosticating about the next great arms. But it’s not quite the same as those dreamy days of yesteryear. It takes a strong buzz, such as that afforded the arrival of Strasburg a couple of years ago, to get collectors truly excited about a pitcher. It also helps to be a big-time strikeout guy.
At the beginning of 2013, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci examined which young pitchers were at risk after a major increase in innings workload in 2012, including Strasburg and Sale.
And that is where we stand at the moment. Since young pitchers are now coddled in so many ways, we can only dream about another Bob Gibson-type enduring 20-plus complete games year after year. This new age of golden arms in upon us, but it’s tougher than ever to project who will develop the consistency needed to stay at the top and become Hall of Fame material. So, rather than list the 20-plus hot pitching prospects that might be the next best thing, this can merely serve as a warning that the real challenge for collectors is to to find the ones that they think can stand the test of time.