Monthly Archives: February 2013

Player Spotlight: Jon Matlack

Why does nobody remember this guy?

I’ll have to admit, until a few years ago, I didn’t know much of anything about Jon Matlack.  I knew he was a Mets pitcher on the ’73 team and that’s about it.  It wasn’t until I started digging more into the team’s history that I discovered just how good he was.  His greatness has by and large been lost to history, and that’s a shame.  Because Jon Matlack was awesome.

Missing: One Jon Matlack patch card. If found, contact me.

Matlack’s game-used resume is a short one.  His only material is from 2001, with Mets pinstripe jerseys in  UD Decade: The 1970s and UD Legends of New York.  UD Decade also featured a patch card (though that is nearly impossible to find) and the Legends of New York jersey has a parallel version numbered to 400.  He has no certified autograph cards and only a smattering of uncertified autographs.  In the last decade, when every nobody who ever put together a mediocre career has been celebrated in cards, Jon Matlack has not had a single baseball card made.  Not one.  In fact, since his retirement, there have been only seven officially licensed Jon Matlack cards produced.  In addition to the four mentioned above, he had two more in the base UD Decade set and one base card in UD Legends of New York.  Seven cards to remember one of the best pitchers in Mets history?  How is this possible?

Not shown: 2001 UD Legends of New York

Matlack was taken 4th overall in the 1967 draft, ahead of Ted Simmons, Bobby Grich, Vida Blue, Jerry Reuss, Don Baylor, Davey Lopes, and other stars you’ve forgotten about.  I guess he just had the bad fortune to come up at a time that baseball would come to forget.  While we remember a disappointing Nolan Ryan getting traded and becoming a star with the Angels in 1972, we forget that Matlack was named Rookie of the Year in that very same year with a performance that was a match for Ryan’s season (according to bWAR at least).  He would go on to be named an All-Star three years in a row before getting traded in a complicated deal that gave the Mets Willie Montanez, Tom Grieve, and Ken Henderson.  The Mets got nothing out of that deal and the Rangers got a couple of good seasons out of Matlack mixed in with a few mediocre ones.  He was through at age 33.

Just a few days ago, Brandon Webb announced his retirement at the age of 33.  Webb’s career was shorter and had a longer peak, and while he lost out on Rookie of the Year to a clearly inferior Dontrelle Willis, he did win one Cy Young award and finish second twice.  Matlack only managed to get Cy Young votes once, good for a 6th place finish in 1976.  Clearly he’s no Webb.

Well, except for that 8.8 bWAR season in 1974 that blows away anything Webb ever did.  Wait, what?  34 games started, 14 complete games, 7 shutouts, 265 1/3 innings pitched…  Let’s just stop right there.  He pitched 14 complete games and averaged 7 innings on the other 20.  That right there would get you an MVP award today.  Throwing some other numbers out there: 195 strikeouts, 76 walks, 8 home runs allowed, ERA of 2.41…  Any way you slice it, that’s an elite season.  0 Cy Young votes.  Oh, and his record was 13-15.

How did this compare to his contemporaries in 1974?  Well, his 8.8 bWAR led all NL pitchers.  So did his 7.4 fWAR and 5.2 WARP.  His 2.41 ERA was third behind former Met you’ve never heard of Buzz Capra and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (and just barely ahead of 1974 NL Cy Young winner and future former Met Mike Marshall).  His 195 strikeouts were good enough to tie him with Niekro for 4th behind Steve Carlton, Andy Messersmith, and teammate Tom Seaver.  14 complete games put him tied for 5th with Reuss, 4 back of Niekro’s 18, but his 7 shutouts put him one up on Niekro for the league lead.  Basically, Jon Matlack was all over the leaderboards in 1974 and certainly one of the top starters in the league.  And not a single damn Cy Young voter noticed.

The first place votes that year were split between Marshall, who led the league with 21 saves, 20-game winners Messersmith and Niekro, and 19-game winner Don Sutton, who led the league with 40 starts.  Buzz Capra got one token vote to finish at the bottom tied for 9th.  Jon Matlack would have to wait two years for any Cy Young votes, coming after a 1976 that wasn’t half as good as his 1974.  That’s not to say that he should have won the award in 1974.  A case could certainly be made for Niekro, who put up a roughly equivalent performance.  Marshall has a good case as well as the top reliever.  Buzz Capra and Andy Messersmith had great seasons.  But nobody remembered Jon Matlack when it was time to cast votes.  Story of his life.

This year, Justin Verlander will pass Matlack’s career total bWAR.  Justin Verlander at 29, after 7 seasons, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, MVP, and (supposedly) dating Kate Upton, has yet to surpass an age 30 Jon Matlack.  While I’ll be the first to admit that one-size-fits-all metrics are to be taken with a truckload of rock salt, there has to be something to that.  Jon Matlack was too good to be forgotten.

The Curious Case of Branden Kaupe

Making a mockery of the hobby

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been working on getting many of the various Mets prospect autographs in 2012 Panini Elite Extra Edition in preparation for an upcoming review.  Unlike Topps, which rarely features signatures from players outside the first round, Panini goes deeper into the draft with half a dozen or so players from each team.  This year’s product featured Mets top picks Gavin Cecchini and Kevin Plawecki plus four lower picks: Matt Reynolds (2nd round), Matt Koch (3rd round), Branden Kaupe (4th round), and Logan Taylor (11th round).  Most of the autographs from this bunch were fairly easy to obtain on eBay for under $10, but there was one problem.  Branden Kaupe autographs were impossible to buy at any reasonable price.

Did Kaupe impress enough at Kingsport to warrant a run on his first autograph cards?  No.  Not at all.  Mets Minors Review ranked Kaupe the Mets’ 38th top prospect after a disappointing season.  Few others are even discussing Kaupe’s prospect potential.  As much as Mets fans have a soft spot for Hawaiian players, it’s hard to call Kaupe a top prospect.  So why the surge in prices?

Looking at the auctions, the common thread is the user 808kaupe.  Since January 26, 808kaupe (shown below as 0***8) has purchased nothing but Branden Kaupe cards.  The selling prices started at a dollar or two, but they soon escalated.  $10.  $20.  No matter how much you bid, you could be guaranteed that 808kaupe would bid more.  Here’s an example from a basic Kaupe autograph numbered to 347 that ended on February 1:

Things only got crazier from there.  Apparent shill bidders revealed 808kaupe’s top bid on an autograph numbered to 25 on February 5 to be $50, well above what even an equivalent Gavin Cecchini would sell for.

Four days later, another apparent shill revealed 808kaupe’s maximum bid on an autograph numbered to 347 to be a whopping $100.  With bids like that on a card realistically valued at a few dollars, the cards might as well not exist.  Someone clearly wanted these cards at any cost.  All of them.
So who is 808kaupe?  The username offers some obvious clues.  808 is the area code for Hawaii and kaupe, well, you get the picture.  This all seems to tie back to Branden Kaupe somehow.  A search for the username brings up plenty of web site accounts, but none with listed names.  One is for a 16 year old female.  Another is for a 24 year old male.  Kaupe’s siblings perhaps?  The 808kaupe on eBay could be one of these, another relative, an unrelated Kaupe in Hawaii, or even Branden Kaupe himself.

If any of this sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Rick Asadoorian.  Asadoorian, the Red Sox 1st round draft pick in 1999, had his first rookie cards released in 2000.  For a while, they were some of the hottest rookie cards on the market, right up there with the likes of Ben Sheets and Barry Zito.  The problem was that Asadoorian wasn’t the prospect that his rookie card peers were.  Not even close.  Eventually it was revealed that his family had been buying up large quantities of his rookie cards, causing prices to spike.  When they stopped, his cards became worthless.  While Zito and Sheets never quite lived up to their high expectations, Asadoorian never played so much as a single game in the majors.

Thirteen years later, it looks like we’re seeing the same thing with Branden Kaupe.  Unlike the Asadoorian case though, it is unlikely that the bidding of the last two weeks will have any noticeable impact on Kaupe’s hobby status.  Asadoorian had the first round pedigree to trick buyers into overvaluing his cards back in the days of the dot com bubble.  Kaupe doesn’t and buyers simply have too much information at their fingertips to think that a guy who hit .173 in A ball is a solid buy.  Most, like me, just want the card to finish out a set of some kind and will likely never see Branden Kaupe in their collections again.  When 808kaupe stops placing outrageous bids, Kaupe’s autograph cards will go quickly back to being $1 commons and many of us will be left with a bad impression of a guy trying to live out his dream.

Player Spotlight: Abraham Nunez

Same name, same difference

This is the story of two guys named Abraham Nunez who, after a chance encounter on a train, got an apartment together and shared experiences in love, loss, and punk rock music.  Wait, no, that was the plot to the anime Nana.  This story is about the Abraham Nunez who didn’t play for the Mets and the Abraham Nunez who, well, didn’t really play for the Mets.  Should have stuck with the punk rock romantic drama…

Abraham Nunez the non-Met was the player to be named later in the 1999 Brad Penny +2 for Matt Mantei trade that looks mind-boggling in hindsight.  Penny had three seasons with the Marlins that were worth about as much as Mantei’s entire run with the Diamondbacks.  The throw-ins in the trade, Abraham Nunez and Vladimir Nunez, were utterly worthless.  After a disappointing cup of coffee in 2002, Abraham had a disappointing half season with the Marlins in 2004, after which he was traded to the Royals, where he had another disappointing half season to finish his career.  To his credit, he never played for the Mets.  That’s more than I can say for the other Abraham Nunez.

Abraham Nunez the not-really-Met was a player to be named later in a 9-player trade between the Blue Jays and Pirates in 1996.  Despite getting six of the nine players in the deal, the Pirates got almost nothing of value, having only a few seasons of adequacy from Craig Wilson to show for it; three of the others never even made the majors.  The Blue Jays didn’t fare much better with one decent season from Orlando Merced, a terrible season from Carlos Garcia, and a mix of mediocrity from Dan Plesac.  Nunez lasted 8 seasons with the Pirates and was completely unremarkable.  After his release from Pittsburgh, Nunez had a career year in St. Louis, which he turned into a two year, $3 million deal in Philadelphia, where he was a disaster.  At least he has that going for him.

This Abraham Nunez came to the Mets in 2008 after 11 seasons in the majors and a total of 0.0 bWAR.  Picked up in the bargain bin after his release from the Brewers, Nunez must not have been expected to do much, because he sure didn’t.  He made his Mets debut in San Diego on June 5 as a pinch hitter.  He grounded out to short.  The results were completely different when he came in to pinch hit three days later.  That time he popped out to short to end the inning.  And so ended the major league career of all Abrahams Nunez.

So why does any of this matter?  Both Abraham Nunezes have game-used bat cards and I, um, bought the wrong one first.  The wrong Abraham Nunez, like every other prospect in 2001, had a bat card in a 2001 Donruss product (plus at least one autograph, but I didn’t fall for that…).  This can be excused because he had not yet begun to suck.  The right Abraham Nunez, like every other player in the late ’90s, had an autograph card in a Donruss Signature product.  His rise to competence was commemorated in 2005 with a bat card in 2005 Donruss Champions.  And that’s the place that Abraham Nunez has in my collection.