When the Baseball Writers Association of America voted Bert Blyleven into the Hall of Fame in 2011, it arguably marked the first selection of a candidate primarily on the basis of sabermetrics. While Blyleven’s enshrinmement didn’t exactly open the floodgates, there are similar candidates whose day for Cooperstown might be coming as newer age analysis becomes more mainstream.
Here are rookie cards for 10 Hall of Fame candidates with cases rooted in analytics:
1. Tim Raines: Technically, Raines broke in late in the 1979 season, though he hardly played until 1981. That year, in 88 games in the majors, he stole 71 bases with the kind of efficiency statisticians would tout, getting caught stealing just 11 times. Raines has a good case regardless of what statistics are used but modern analysis is really at the forefront of what’s driving his support.
Raines appeared on Topps, Donruss, Fleer and Topps Update/Traded sets in ’81, with all but the highest grade examples still affordable.
2. Bobby Grich: The longtime mustachioed California Angels second baseman, who might be the most underrated Hall of Fame candidate in baseball history, almost looks like a different player here. He appears like a clean-cut product of the late 1960s, an establishment reaction to the counterculture era. It’s a decidedly ironic card for a player who always did his things his own way and offered unique, under-appreciated value: low batting average, good power and on-base percentage, and superb defense.
Despite some solid credentials, Grich’s 1971 Topps rookie card is available for not much more than a common.
3. Mike Mussina: Never mind the boyish demeanor here. Mussina was old beyond his years by the time he debuted with the Baltimore Orioles in 1991, an accomplished college hurler a few months shy of turning 23. After breaking in with Baltimore late in the season, Mussina hit his stride the following year going 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA. He averaged 16 wins a season the remainder of his career while posting an ERA that was 21 percent better than average when adjusting for his ballpark and league. He also wound up with 82.7 Wins Above Replacement lifetime, 24th best in baseball history.
Moose’s rookie cards came at the peak of the “overproduction era”. They’re plentiful and cheap.
4. Dwight Evans: A hallmark of older rookie cards? Notable players juxtaposed with has-beens and players who never made it. Evans, the unusual player Bill James wrote of as getting better as he aged, shares his card with the obscure Charlie Spikes– who actually played for nine years and topped 20 home runs twice– though the third man on the card, Al Bumbry went on to a nice career after serving in Vietnam.
His rookie card is in the 1973 high number series and does carry a bit of a premium but is not expensive.
5. Rick Reuschel: What Bobby Grich is to position players, Rick Reuschel might be to pitchers. Perhaps the most underrated pitcher in baseball history, Reuschel debuted in 1972 with the Chicago Cubs and did good work for a lot of lackluster clubs. His 214-191 record doesn’t look like much for a Hall of Famer, but consider that his teams provided two or fewer runs of support in roughly a third of his starts. Playing his career on a team like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Reuschel might have won 250 games.
His 1973 Topps rookie card is just barely over the price of a common.
6. Ted Simmons: Like Grich, Simmons lasted just one year on the Hall of Fame ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America. Like Grich, he doesn’t really get his due. Knocked as a poor defensive catcher, Simmons threw out an above-average number of base runners according to baseball researcher Bill Deane. Simmons might also rank as one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball history. His 118 OPS+ ranks 17th among all catchers with at least 3,000 plate appearances since 1901.
Simmons’ 1971 Topps rookie card does garner some respect but costs far less than Hall of Famers from the era.
7. Kevin Brown: Brown wouldn’t become one of baseball’s best pitchers for many years after this card, averaging 5 Wins Above Average from 1996 through 2000. His relatively short, underrated peak, a surly reputation, and an appearance in the 2007 Mitchell Report might have made Brown an easy no for most Hall of Fame voters. Just 2.1 percent of the BBWAA voted for him his only year on the writers’ ballot in 2011. But Brown will be eligible with the Today’s Game Committee in the fall of 2021 and could get another look.
His 1987 rookie cards can be had for pennies.
8. Darrell Evans: It’s weird to see such a young pitcher of Evans, whose agelessness became his defining value. The 21-year MLB veteran swatted 281 of his 414 home runs after his 30th birthday. Like Grich, he made up for his pedestrian .247 career batting average with the whole of his offensive contributions, offering a 119 OPS+, tied for 26th best among all third basemen with at least 3,000 plate appearances.
Not likely to ever make Cooperstown but worthy of a little more respect, Evans’ 1970 Topps semi-high number costs only a few dollars.
9. Bret Saberhagen: People forget how good the Kansas City Royals ace was in the early part of his career, posting 32.6 Wins Above Average and winning two American League Cy Young Awards by his age-30 season in 1994. Unfortunately for his Hall of Fame case, Saberhagen threw just 488 innings thereafter. Like Brown, he’ll need another, longer look at his career, though it could come as soon as this fall, with Saberhagen eligible for the first time with the Today’s Game Committee.
Saberhagen’s most valuable rookie cards appeared in the Update sets produced in the fall of 1984.
10. Kenny Lofton: Like Raines, Lofton had a sublime stretch in the early part of his career obscured by many later seasons as a journeyman player. Unlike Raines, Lofton hasn’t had the chance to slowly build toward induction with the BBWAA. He received just 3.2 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot in 2013. He won’t be eligible with the Today’s Game Committee until at least 2023. The silver lining? By then, Raines will likely long since have his Cooperstown plaque, which sometimes helps similar players get in.
Odds may not be in his favor but thanks to his debut during the hobby’s early 90s craziness, you can own a bunch of his rookie cards for pocket change.