Category Archives: Collecting

2015 Biggest Pulls

A Case of Redemption

After a dismal 2014, I’d had enough. This just wasn’t fun anymore. My plan was to back off of hobby boxes and go with breaks whenever that made more sense. As plans go, it wasn’t necessarily a bad one. It lasted 8 months. Despite a strong start to 2015, I stuck with my plans to cut back, limiting myself to whatever retail I could find and an occasional hobby box for a select few products. Team and player breaks filled in the gaps, along with the usual purchases on the secondary market. And then this happened.

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2015 Mets Card Spring Preview

Still short a shortstop but plenty of pinstripes

This is it, the year all of our suffering has been leading to. 2015, the year the Mets will finally win! Or at least that was the plan. With some serious questions and a lot of the expected improvement coming in the form of returning or rebounding players, the 2015 Mets aren’t exactly inspiring confidence beyond maybe being in the hunt for a second Wild Card spot, or at least a winning record. 82 wins or bust!

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30 Years of Collecting Surprises and Oddities

The strange and wonderful things that have come out of my packs in three decades

As I’ve mentioned before, this all began exactly 30 years ago with an uncut sheet of 1984 Topps.  From there, things have kind of snowballed into everything you see here and a whole lot more that’s waiting for a turn in the scanner.  Those stacks of cards are filled with rookies, stars, nobodies, and Hall of Famers.  But through all of it, one thing has remained constant – you never know what is going to come out of a pack of cards.  Usually it’s nothing.  Sometimes, it’s the card you were hoping for.  And every once in a while, well, you’re not really sure what it is.  And that’s what we’re looking back on tonight.

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Cards and Fame

Evaluating player popularity with a small sample of card prices

Over at For The Win this afternoon, Ted Berg speculated about the most famous baseball players and players who should be more famous than they are. Here’s the list:

Most Famous Should be More Famous
F1 Derek Jeter M1 Mike Trout
F2 Alex Rodriguez M2 Miguel Cabrera
F3 David Ortiz M3 Yasiel Puig
F4 Albert Pujols M4 Andrew McCutchen
F5 Bryce Harper M5 Clayton Kershaw

Unsurprisingly, no Mets made the list and Derek Jeter topped the list of fame. Jeter, who currently leads AL shortstops in this year’s All-Star voting despite clearly looking like he is ready to retire, is so popular that nobody would be all that surprised if he is elected to start the All-Star game in 2015, when he will no longer be playing baseball. This popularity translates well into card sales, which is fine for me because I can sell off any good Jeters I pull and buy the equivalent Wright, Harvey, etc. for a fraction of the price.

Card prices were not among the fame criteria considered in the FTW piece. Shocking, I know. Translating between prices and popularity isn’t a trivial matter. In addition to player popularity, card prices factor in product popularity and scarcity and are affected by proximity to Rookie year. Comparing even between cards from the same year numbered to the same amount is a virtual impossibility. To extract popularity, we first need to narrow our focus to a single card set (or multiple sets, but that gets a bit more complicated than I am willing to get into for this exercise).

The characteristics we need for the ideal popularity comparison set are rather contradictory. We need something with enough scarcity to get prices well above the noise but not too much scarcity to give us too small a sample size to work with. We also need a set that includes all of the likely candidates, particularly the ten players listed in the FTW article. Release date also needs to be a consideration; too recent or too far back limits the available sample and could put us outside the supply/demand saturation zone that will see the most stable prices. All of this adds up to a parallel insert set numbered between 50 and 99 released about three months ago. One set meets these criteria: 2014 Topps Heritage Black Refractors (numbered to 65).

Historically, Topps Heritage parallels sell significantly higher than equivalent cards from other products. David Wright black refractors like the ones shown above (numbered to 64 and 65) typically sell for about $25, about double what similar cards from other products sell for. This is good for our purposes because it will spread out prices to make the top players clearer. The 2014 set consists of 100 cards covering 9 of the 10 players mentioned by Berg (Alex Rodriguez hasn’t been seen a whole lot lately) and loads of other stars. Rookie Cards feature two players and will be ignored due to the premium typically associated with RCs. Cards from 2013 Rookies may see a bit of a boost to their prices that overstate their popularity. Beyond that, this should give us a fair assessment of hobby popularity, or at least the best we can get from a single 100-card set.

In the last 90 days, 20 different 2014 Topps Heritage black refractors (not counting RCs) sold on eBay for more than $40 at least once (total sample sizes varied from 6 to 16 copies sold). Several were sold via Best Offer, which does not display the actual sale price but does sort appropriately, allowing for an approximation of the sale price. One clear outlier (a $7 Clayton Kershaw purchased via Buy it Now) was omitted. Shipping prices were not considered and are assumed to be low enough to not significantly alter the results. Average sale prices shook out like this:

TB CP Player RCY 2014TH-RK
M1 1 Mike Trout 2011 $227.83
F1 2 Derek Jeter 1992 $225.90
M3 3 Yasiel Puig 2013 $102.29
F5 4 Bryce Harper 2012 $75.15
5 Michael Wacha 2013 $48.14
M2 6 Miguel Cabrera 2000 $46.76
M4 7 Andrew McCutchen 2005 $44.75
8 Manny Machado 2013 $39.00
M5 9 Clayton Kershaw 2008 $38.92
10 Wil Myers 2013 $38.55
11 Stephen Strasburg 2010 $38.42
12 Matt Harvey 2012 $35.98
F4 13 Albert Pujols 2001 $35.62
14 Justin Verlander 2005 $35.50
15 Buster Posey 2010 $34.48
16 Jose Fernandez 2013 $34.32
17 Troy Tulowitzki 2005 $28.89
18 Carlos Beltran 1995 $24.81
19 Matt Kemp 2005 $23.95
F3 20 David Ortiz 2007 $23.52

There are a few clear tiers here, with Mike Trout and Derek Jeter occupying the $200+ level. Yasiel Puig (2013 Rookie) and Bryce Harper fall to the $50+ level, and Michael Wacha (2013 Rookie), Miguel Cabrera, and Andrew McCutchen make up the $40-50 level. Nine more players fall in the $30-40 level, including most of the rest of the players from the FTW lists. The final four, Tulowitzki, Beltran, Kemp, and Ortiz, only made the list because of one outlier above $40 each and would probably be joined by five or six more players in the $20-30 range.

What can we conclude from this? When it comes to premium cards at least, Mike Trout is in the same neighborhood as Derek Jeter. It’s a steep drop-off from there, with most big stars settling in at about one fifth to one sixth of the top tier price once they are far enough removed from Rookie status (3+ years). Taking out Ted Berg’s picks and last year’s Rookies gives us a shortlist of oversights from this small checklist: Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey, Justin Verlander, and Buster Posey. And then there’s David Ortiz, who is clearly the biggest reach on Berg’s list (outside of New England at least).

The Topps Spring Fever Promotion Leaves Collectors Cold

An April Fools’ joke two months early

I’m not trying to turn this blog completely negative. Really, I’m not. But when these stories present themselves, they get little attention from the big names in collecting news. That leaves it up to the little guys to capture these moments for posterity and make sure that they become part of the historical record. In this case, Topps has set a precedent that could completely undermine the entire hobby. It almost certainly won’t go that far, but the lack of any notable backlash seems to have demonstrated that there is no obligation to deliver what is promised in a pack of cards.

Last year, Topps introduced the Spring Fever promotion with 2013 Topps Series 1. This was the first of many promotions designed to get people to spend more time at their local hobby shops. Spring Fever redemption cards were inserted into packs at a rate of one per hobby box (regular or jumbo). If you had a participating hobby shop near you, you could redeem the card for a special 5-card pack of Spring Fever cards, which contained an assortment of cards from the 50-card set plus 32 different autograph cards randomly inserted. For those without local hobby shops, they could sell the redemption cards for about $2 each, a nice little bonus out of each box (something usually referred to as “added value”).

The Spring Fever cards themselves were quite nice. Even though the photographs were mostly just the same photographs used in the base Topps set, the metallic foil and new background design made them really stand out in a sea of colored border parallels. The cards look even better scanned, just like the 2012 Topps Archives gold parallels. For a Mets collector, having David Wright and Jeurys Familia in the base set wasn’t all that bad. The set itself was a mix of rookies, stars, and retired greats, making it a fun set to put together. On top of that, the autographs, while on stickers, were a nice bonus for the price. I bought 10 extra redemption cards and pulled the Markakis auto shown above, which sold for almost as much as I paid for the redemption cards (I probably could have gotten more if I had sold the unopened packs though…). It was hard not to like this new promotion.

2013 Topps Series 1 delivered considerable value beyond the cards in the packs. In addition to the Spring Fever redemptions, Topps also continued its tradition of wrapper redemptions in 2013 Series 1. Wrappers from a box of cards would get you a 5-card Silver Slate pack, which contained a mix of blue sparkle parallels, framed silver parallels numbered to 10, and autographs. Luck was on my side in these, delivering three of the cards above in the four packs I sent in for (I had to buy the Familia). The Machado and Kipnis each sold for about $30, not bad for a few bonus packs.

And that brings us to 2014 Topps Series 1. Like last year, Spring Fever redemption cards were back at the same insertion rate. No announcements were made about wrapper redemptions, which Topps seemed to be phasing out anyway. Then something strange happened when people started opening packs – they couldn’t find the Spring Fever redemption cards. Box after box, case after case, thousands of packs were opened on launch day without a single Spring Fever redemption card being pulled. Usually, this would be a sign of something being a retail exclusive, but that wouldn’t make sense for a hobby store promotion. Something was wrong. Then Topps confirmed it: Spring Fever redemption cards weren’t in packs of 2014 Topps Series 1.

With no wrapper redemption planned, switching the Spring Fever to a wrapper redemption would at least ensure that the people who were shorted the redemption cards could still get the packs (or get some money for the wrappers). Topps however also confirmed that there would be no wrapper redemption for 2014 Topps Series 1. No redemption cards, no wrapper redemption, how was Topps going to make things right? As it turned out, all would be made right for a price.

Spring Fever promotional flyer sent to hobby shops in early March of 2014

Topps would later reduce the cost of a Spring Fever promo pack from 18 packs to 16 packs. What a bargain! For only the cost of 16 hobby packs, or about $32, collectors could get something that was supposed to be in a box they already spent $70-100 on two months ago. I suppose you also get the cards in the packs for that price, but the value of a two month old product just isn’t what it used to be. And of course there’s the little bit about how collectors already bought a ton of this stuff two months ago with the promise of Spring Fever packs. But was it really a promise? Let’s take a look at the wrapper.

Odds from the wrapper of a 2014 Topps Series 1 hobby jumbo pack

If you read the fine print, near the end of the fourth line you’ll see the odds of a Spring Fever Redemption card in a hobby jumbo pack at 1:10, or one per hobby jumbo box on average (odds for regular hobby packs are 1:36 with 36 packs per box). That’s not a guarantee that one will be in any particular pack or even a sealed box. It could be argued that it isn’t any sort of guarantee at all. But if that is the case, what about all of the other cards with listed odds? Can Topps get away with leaving all of those out too and charging more later for the chance to get them? Either Topps is obligated to meet the insertion rates printed on their product or they are free to ignore them, there’s no middle ground. Since nothing has happened to Topps for their failure to deliver Spring Fever redemption cards, we are left to assume that pack odds are not in any way binding and can freely be ignored by manufacturers. That is a disturbing concept.

Luckily, while it seems that Topps is under no obligation to deliver what their product promises, hobby shops are under no obligation to follow the specific rules regarding the distribution of promo packs (well, they may technically have an obligation, but Topps has no way to enforce it unless the shops do something stupid like listing promotional items on eBay). Many shops are doing the right thing and are giving the packs to customers who they know deserve them or are at least making them available for more than just purchases of the now outdated 2014 Topps Series 1.

This may be the last we see of this problem. Or it could only be the beginning. In any case, it should not be ignored and forgotten. Major League Baseball may have sold out to Topps, but that doesn’t mean that we have to stand by silently and watch Topps disrespect collectors and the hobby. Topps is not and will never be the hobby, no matter what their arrogance leads them to believe.

Unintended Consequences of the Panini Rewards Program

Turning redemptions into digital currency

Last week at the Las Vegas Industry Summit, Panini boldly announced an end to dreaded redemptions and the beginning of the industry’s first rewards program.  The Panini Rewards Program consists of Panini Rewards points cards inserted in place of redemption cards and a catalog of available cards that those points can be exchanged for.  Sounds simple enough, right?  No more redemption cards, choice in the hands of the collector, what could go wrong?  Few details are known right now (and some may not be revealed directly from Panini), but it seems clear that nobody really knows how this new system will work out.

I always like to think of ways to exploit systems, partly to be able to get the most out of opportunities and partly to identify problem areas that may require corrective action.  Any time money is involved, you can be sure that there will be people looking for a way to turn a profit.  Let’s break down the components so we can figure out where things could go wrong.

The Source

Where the rewards cards come from is straightforward.  Whenever a card that is planned for a product isn’t available in time for packout, a rewards card will be inserted in its place.  The number of points on each card will depend on the relative value of the card being replaced.  A key point here is that this system will do nothing to prevent redemption cards, it merely changes their form.  Anyone who pulls one of these still faces the same choice: keep it and redeem it for something or sell it.  This choice is now complicated by the range of possible redemption options and new types of risk.

The Sellers

The easy option, as with current redemptions, is to simply sell a rewards points card after pulling it.  This gets around the choice of what to redeem it for, whether to get more points to get a better card, or whether to wait for different cards to become available.  Unlike current redemption cards, the value of these points shouldn’t change much over time.  This makes it less attractive to hold the card and wait for a better time to sell.

The Buyers

This new points system will drastically change the buying landscape.  It is not uncommon to see redemption cards languishing on the market because of unrealistic asking prices or a complete lack of demand for a particular player.  With no specific players tied to any points card, those should no longer be an issue.  The flexibility in redemption options means that there should be demand for every card but no variation in demand between cards.  Buyers may be looking for one card at the specified point level, a card at a higher point value, or bulk points to load up an account with to be able to grab cards quickly as soon as they become available.  It’s this last class of speculators that could drive the market for points cards and could cause the most problems.

The Redemption

For people who choose to redeem a points card they pulled from a pack, they will have to choose between a card they specifically want, something else that is available and looks interesting, or whatever looks like it will be the most valuable.  That last part will also come into play if someone buys a points card with the intention of redeeming it for a specific card.  If the card you want is worth less than $5 but you can get a card worth $10 or more at the same points tier, what do you do?  If you only spent $5 on the points, you could turn a profit if the right card is available.  Conversely, if the availability of more valuable cards pushes the price of the required points to $10, is it even worth going through the process for the $5 card?  Already, we’re seeing the possibility of problems arising from pricing within a single point tier.

The big factor driving prices will probably be speculators who will seek to buy up points and redeem them for whatever provides the largest profits.  In addition to the likelihood of a range of values within a single point tier, there are differences in value between point tiers to consider.  If a $100 card can be redeemed for points equivalent to 10 $5 cards, the higher point tier becomes a better value and the price of points on the secondary market will likely rise as a result to make obtaining the $5 cards less economically viable.  The reverse is less likely to be a problem but could make high-dollar cards even more expensive on the secondary market (and less likely to sell).

Speculators will also have a competitive advantage when it comes to timing.  For the pack opener or the specific card collector, there is likely to be some amount of disconnect between when cards become available and when they are selected for redemption.  The speculator on the other hand will have points loaded in their account and will be ready to take action as soon as they get an alert about a valuable card becoming available.  In addition to the value differential arising from how Panini chooses to value cards that can be redeemed, we now see a problem with which types of users will be able to get the most value out of the inequities in the system.

The Secondary Market

For some, the best option may be to stay out of the rewards point system entirely and wait for cards to hit the secondary market.  And this is where it gets messy.  As noted above, cards that fall on the low end of the value spectrum may be less attractive for redemption and may only be redeemed by people who want those specific cards.  This means that few, if any, of these cards may ever hit the secondary market.  Those that do may be plagued by unrealistic asking prices that reflect the cost of redemption more than the value of the card.  Panini has added an artificial exchange rate into the middle of the redemption process in their attempt to improve it.


At the heart of this system is the assignment of points to specific cards.  Until we see some examples, there is no way to know how this process will work.  But even without examples, it isn’t hard to envision problems.  We know that each card will have a point value assigned for packout, but will this point value be kept unchanged when the card is made available?  Will it remain the same for as long as the card is available?  The card’s dollar value will fluctuate over time, shouldn’t that be reflected in its rewards point value?  There are a lot of questions to answer and few answers that will satisfy all of them.  The point-to-dollar exchange rate is the key here and it is unrealistic to expect Panini to be able to keep this rate constant across all available redemption cards.

99 cents or 91 dollars? What’s that in points?

The biggest problem area is going to be the extreme low end.  Many of Panini’s autograph cards routinely sell for less than $5 shipped, including many of their low-numbered parallels.  If the cost to redeem is too high, these cards will go unclaimed.  And if parallels automatically get a higher point value because of their numbering, they become even less attractive.  As an example, last year I sold two 2013 Panini Prizm Perennial Draft Picks red prizm autographs numbered to 100.  One sold for $91 and the other sold for 99 cents.  When it comes to parallels, most people assume that the value can be determined from a linear multiplier relative to the base version.  In reality, the relationship is exponential; valuable cards have exceptionally valuable parallels while cards with minimal value see no increase in value for more limited versions.  In many cases, a more common base version may be more valuable than rarer parallels.  This poses a major problem with the valuation process.

#d/744: $10.51 #d/100: $8.50 #d/50: $7.88 How many points should these be worth?


There are no easy answers here.  Ultimately, collectors of specific players at the lower end of the value spectrum are likely to be the losers in this sort of system.  Should Panini discount the points value of cards when they spend too long in the system?  Offer them as free bonuses?  Bundle multiple parallel levels of the same card at a discount?  Should there be a limit on the number of points that can be redeemed in a given time period?  A lottery system that removes the timing advantage of speculators?  The ability to reserve cards before they are available?  We’ll probably have to wait and see exactly how the system breaks before coming up with fixes.

If it had been up to me, this is not the sort of system I would have deployed.  The problem areas with redemptions are the need for redemptions in the first place, which the Panini Rewards system does not address, and the long wait for fulfillment, which the Panini Rewards system addresses with possible complications due to speculators.  If the goal is to fix the fulfillment process, creating a profit-based incentive for more people to enter the redemption system in competition with the existing collector base is counterproductive.  A more reasonable alternative would be to keep specific card redemptions as they are and offer an exchange for rewards points if a card goes unfulfilled for a certain period of time, say two months, after being entered into the system.  This gives long-waiting collectors the option to select an alternate card while discouraging speculators with the risk of getting the listed card instead of points (and having to wait a set amount of time to learn which they will be getting).  Additionally, priority should be given for people who have been waiting the longest instead of the quickest to make a request once a card becomes available.  These minor changes could drastically change how collectors would benefit from the system.

With the Panini Rewards system as it has been described so far (which, admittedly, is incomplete), I’m not seeing a whole lot of practical benefit for collectors.  Having an alternative to waiting for a redemption is nice (and should always be an option), but is it worth the likely complications?  In making it easier to get something for a redemption, Panini may have made getting specific redemptions much more difficult.  The best way to solve this problem would be to reduce the number of redemption cards that are necessary in the first place (Panini’s live autograph rate in their 2013 baseball products was 88%, the worst of any of their sports).  Short of that, any other solution is little more than a distraction that will lead to profit for some and loss for others.