By CHRIS OLDS | COMMENTARY
Anyone who doubts Stephen Strasburg‘s place in the hobby in 2010 hasn’t been paying attention to the stat sheets.
You know, his numbers on the field — and the sales of his baseball cards.
However, the biggest story in baseball in years got a little bit bigger on Friday morning as a Washington Nationals official said the highly touted hard-throwing right-handed rookie likely needs Tommy John surgery — ligament replacement in his right elbow. That means we may not see him on an MLB mound until 2012.
Cynics saw Strasburg’s high level of success on the field and predicted a downfall eventually — though one has to wonder where that particularly came from as he has been absolutely dominant in college and the minor leagues before becoming the spectacle of all spectacles in the big leagues this season. You can’t argue with his numbers — they were there and had been enough to justify his being the No. 1 pick, which came with a hefty $15-million record-setting contract.
However, one can never predict injuries — and the cynics got what they wanted; a quick downfall this season, an end to the biggest story MLB has had — especially when reflected on cardboard — in years. Some say Strasburg’s arrival challenges the impact of the arrivals of Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols in 2001, but I’d say it might surpass them both and go even further back.
Now what, though? Let’s assess Strasburg’s performance as we look forward …
On the field
In his big-league debut on June 8, Strasburg announced his presence with authority. (Sorry, Ebby.) He struck out 14 in just seven innings, setting a Nationals team record in a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. At one point, he tied a team record with seven consecutive strikeouts in the game and his performance came up one strikeout short of tying the MLB record for most K’s in a debut.
Strikeout pitchers are the pitcher’s equivalent of the star slugger, so collectors who hadn’t taken notice did so after that. He added eight more strikeouts in his second game and 10 more in his third start — by that point he had set a new MLB record for the most strikeouts in a player’s first three games. The mark surpassed the previous high of 29 set by J.R. Richard of the Houston Astros in 1971.
His starts became events, with many hobbyists and fans dubbing the days “Strasmas” as they felt giddy for what was to unfold next.
Even with his season ending the way it has, Strasburg remains significant in context with his 92 strikeouts against 274 batters (68 innings) whether he ever pitches again. That’s a strikeout 33.6 percent of the time a batter came up, and according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, only two pitchers have ever dominated at a higher rate — Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.
This isn’t hype, this is reality. The stats are what they are. And, really, it’s not just about strikeouts, either. Consider that he allowed more than three earned runs in just one of his 12 starts this season. His final line for his season, though? A 5-3 record with a 2.91 ERA, just 17 walks and an opponents’ batting average of .221.
But it wasn’t just success in The Show. In a dozen minor league games this season (between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse), he was dominant, striking out 65 batters in 55 innings, holding his opponents to a .158 average while compiling a 7-2 record.
And that was nothing new, either. In college for the San Diego State Aztecs, Strasburg struck out 195 players in 109 innings in 2009, compiling a 13-2 record with a 1.32 ERA en route to Golden Spikes honors as the nation’s top amateur player. He failed to strike out 10 or more batters just twice all season. And this wasn’t some overnight emergence, either. In 2008, he struck out 133 in 97 innings, including 23 in a single game. He went 10-3 with a 1.57 ERA.
These kinds of numbers — even with his woes in the majors after his first month — clearly show that he is an elite pitcher with his only unknown being durability. And, frankly, his repertoire — a fastball, change-up, curveball and sinker — should show that, too, regardless of the numbers. His pitches have been so speedy — and lively — they’ve made umpires regularly miss calls.
Speaking of numbers, here’s where it really gets good …
But Strasburg’s cardboard heat hasn’t been limited to just that rare gem.
Since Jan. 1, Beckett Media has tracked 15,185 sales of his baseball cards — a number that is likely higher card-wise as some auctions included more than one card.
Consider that Strasburg appears on just 151 cards total, and that’s another way to easily see that that’s a lot of demand.
But that’s not the only number that matters — there were 113,278 bids on those cards, too.
And the cash total?
A cool $1,010,703.99 — a total that does include the Bowman SuperFractor. That’s an average price of $66.56 per sale of Strasburg’s cards.
Even without the big one, we’re talking close to a million bucks spent. That’s a lot of green — and a lot of cardboard.
There is the adage that batters are safer buys than pitchers, but Strasburg dwarfs this year’s biggest rookie bat. For context, we compared Strasburg to this season’s hottest rookie slugger — Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward, who appears on twice as many cards than Strasburg with 381.
That number alone should help him easily surpass Strasburg, right? Nope.
Since Jan. 1, Beckett Media has tracked 10,748 Heyward transactions — remember he was scorching hot at the point of his debut — but the sales total just $619,633.59. Those auctions totaled 66,785 bids, which again pales in comparison to Strasburg.
And average sales totals? Strasburg wins heavily once again, despite there being more than 4,000 additional auctions. Strasburg’s $66.56 trumps Heyward’s $57.65.
So, despite sluggers being considered “safer” buys, that logic didn’t play out this season.
Not just singles…
Just think what the sales figures must look like for baseball products — cases, boxes, packs — for the year. With a million bucks spent on Strasburg singles, it’s easy to assume that much more has been spent on wax where he is included.
There’s no doubt that Strasburg helped fuel the fire that was 2010 Bowman, where his first MLB prospect card and first signed Nationals cards made their debut. It’s a product so hot that $5 retail packs and $20 retail blaster boxes still command $12 and $44 respectively from super-dealers like BlowoutCards.com months after release. Of course, those boxes were somewhat attainable — unlike the 2010 Bowman Jumbo boxes that originally retailed for $120 but fetch more than $300 these days.
“Strasburg-mania has been a significant driver for sales on all Topps baseball sales this year,” said Blowout president and co-owner Thomas Fish, who also noted that Bowman lines have always been strong sellers for his company. “The market has been impacted greatly by casual fans wanting to get a piece of the action collecting one one most highly sought after rookies in quite some time.
“Demand has been tremendous we cannot seem to get enough.”
Topps has definitely benefited from Strasburg’s presence as the exclusive licensee of MLB cards signed the pitcher to an exclusive deal last December. Strasburg has appeared on packaging and has a prominent spot on all of the company’s checklists since his debut. As part of the deal, he also has signed memorabilia exclusively for the company to sell via its online store.
It’s easy to see that Strasburg’s career — and his cardboard — has a challenge or two ahead of it. However, many players have come back from Tommy John surgery — Josh Johnson, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter, John Smoltz, David Wells, Billy Wagner, Kerry Wood and countless others have returned to big-league mounds.
With Strasburg as dominating in the hobby as he was, his first trip to the disabled list this season seemed to only slow or plateau his cardboard. News like this will undoubtedly dampen the demand for his cards as he has a pretty big obstacle in his way toward becoming a sure thing in many collectors’ minds once again. However, an injury like this — as seen by the names above — doesn’t assure the end of a career.
In fact, it could be seen as a second-chance for many to pick up cards of a player that they missed the first time around.
You should see demand for some of those earlier Strasburgs soften during the off-season — perhaps demand for red-hot wax, too, though 2010 Bowman is no slouch — but you may not see substantial falls. You might even see a steady continuation of sales — at slightly lower levels — as prospectors stockpile cards in hopes of a strong return.
After all, a player who briefly owned the nation’s spotlight as the biggest star of the national pastime in June, just might get as much attention when it’s time for a return. In fact, he might be more liked if he succeeds and returns.
And, then of course, one must wonder how the market — the buying habits of fans and collectors — will react if that return is a successful one?
Or what if he comes back better? It has happened.
For now, many a heavily invested collector will probably hold their Strasburgs — past examples of expensive players show that to be the case, even when time off is not due to injury. Some of those types include Tom Brady, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant. Even Michael Vick took time to falter and drop on the secondary market as collectors were heavily invested in potential, despite baggage.
While Strasburg hasn’t been an established top-tier star on the field, he certainly has been that and more in the hobby. While this might be the equivalent of a career-threatening season-ending ACL tear for a guy like Adrian Peterson — something that would undoubtedly be a recipe for down arrows — Strasburg remains a high-potential prospect where that promise, that remaining potential based on past performance, just might challenge conventional wisdom.
After all, when a player’s cards are as hot as Strasburg’s were, there are plenty of collectors who couldn’t get their hands on a card before. That might not be the case now.
We’ll find out more in the coming year or so — with the definitive answer coming sometime in 2012.
Let us know what you think in the comments below.
Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an e-mail to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.