In cooperation with MLBPA, Topps began using a special rookie card logo in 2006.
One of the purposes of the logo was to wait until a player was actually in the majors to bestow upon him a rookie card. Any cards produced before then would be restricted, ideally, to prospect sets or insert sets. (Because everyone knows the first time a player appears in an MLB base set, that’s a rookie card.) For the most part, the Bowman sets recognize prospects and the Topps sets recognize major league rookies. And that recognition of rookieness is proclaimed by the logo. When done correctly, it’s a good system. Are Topps and the MLBPA (henceforth referred to collectively as just “Topps”) doing it correctly?
First, a definition of “correctly” is needed. According to the rules and trends established by Topps at the beginning of the logo era, and also (I believe) according to the wishes of the average baseball card collector, a player should have rookie cards during his rookie season. And the most sensible definition of a player’s rookie season is the season during which he loses his rookie status. That would be the ideal time for a player to get baseball cards with the RC logo on them, but what are the other options? Ranked in order of preference:
- RC logo during rookie season
- RC logo before rookie season
- RC logo after rookie season
- No cards produced with RC logo
Why is it better to see the RC logo before a player’s rookie season than after? For a couple reasons. First, it’s common for a player to get major league playing time during a season that precedes his rookie season, the September call-up being the most common form of that. From 2010-2019, 57% of the players that exceeded the rookie limit had their MLB debut before their rookie season (and of course, 0% made their debut after their rookie season). Second, during that same time span, 18% of those players got rookie cards before their rookie season and only 9% got them after. Topps’ own production model, at least historically, seems to suggest that before is better than after.
With those criteria in place, let’s see how Topps has done. The methodology was fairly simple. I compared the list of players who had rookie seasons (thanks Baseball-Reference.com) to the list of players who had pack-pulled (on-demand cards not included) Topps rookie cards (thanks Beckett.com). The chart shows all rookies from 2010 to 2021 and the year they got a card with the RC logo. The columns show the year the player got the RC logo. The rows show the year of his rookie season. (For example, two rookies [highlighted below] from the 2010 season got their rookie cards in 2011.)
There are some interesting tidbits here. First, that 2018 outlier is Miles Mikolas. He got the logo in 2018 with the Cardinals despite losing his rookie status in 2012 with the Padres. There are surprisingly few instances where the RC logo was used on a player more than one season past his rookie season. I found only four such players in my research, including Mikolas. Most players who get their first Topps card years after their rookie season do so without the logo, a rookie card with no fanfare. Also look at the total number of rookies in 2020 (161), the lowest total during this 12-year span. That makes sense given the pandemic-shortened season, but then we see an explosion of rookies in 2021 (265) to make up for it.
Now for a bar graph! Comparing those players who got the RC logo before or during their rookie season (good) to those who got it after (bad) and those who never got it (not great).
The trend is unmistakable. Topps is increasingly issuing players’ rookie cards during the season after their rookie season.
The trend line for the Never category is flat. A quarter of the players who exceeded the rookie limit during this era never got a card with the RC logo. This is not too surprising, since not every debuting player is sufficiently relevant (either to baseball or the hobby) to warrant a major league baseball card. But 25% is too high. A rookie card should be made for almost every player that has a rookie season.
Above and below the Never trend line are the Before/During and After trend lines. Both the Before and During categories dropped during this time, but During dropped the most, from an average of 51% from 2010-2017 to an average of 40% from 2018-2021. The After category averaged 5% from 2010-2017. From 2018-2021, it’s been 18%. It’s quite clear that, starting with the 2018 season, Topps adopted a new paradigm for issuing rookie cards. Why?
One of the first players to gain some notoriety over the way Topps handled his rookie card was Yordan Álvarez. Álvarez debuted for the Houston Astros on June 9, 2019. By the end of the season he accumulated 369 plate appearances and 27 home runs on his way to winning the American League Rookie of the Year award. A memorable season that was accompanied by zero rookie cards. In years past, Topps would have responded to a debut like that with a frenzy of late season card issues. Topps Update, Topps Heritage High Number, Bowman’s Best, maybe some autographs in Dynasty and Five Star. Isn’t this why Topps Update was invented? But they punted Yordan to 2020. If Topps was telling the story of the 2019 season with their product, the story was missing a big chapter.
Compare that to the 2018 season of Juan Soto. Soto debuted for the Washington Nationals on May 20, 2018, only twenty days earlier than Álvarez. But Topps managed to include Soto in 9 pack-issued sets that year resulting in 9 true rookie cards (eleven if you count all three versions of his Dynasty card). On top of that, they created a short-printed variation of his Topps Update rookie that has become one of the most iconic cards of this century.
One might argue that it was the scarcity of Soto rookie card products that made collecting him in 2018 so much fun. So why did Topps handle the two cases so differently? Looking at the number of 2020 products that included Yordan Álvarez might give us an idea. He was included in at least 37 pack-issued products resulting in at least 45 rookie cards, with countless parallels and variations. Topps made a lot more money selling Álvarez rookie cards than they did selling Soto rookie cards. A lot more.
Topps Now is a popular new product that emerged during the RC logo era. An on-demand, as-it-happens product that can produce a card for a new player the day after his debut. It launched in 2016 and immediately resulted in a card with the RC logo: Trevor Story, card #4. (Whether such a card is a “true” rookie card is a separate debate.) Story debuted on opening day, April 4, and crushed two home runs. That’s the sort of thing Topps Now was made for. Other players debuted early in 2016 and got the RC logo as well, but then on July 7, Tyler Glasnow, a top-10 MLB prospect, made his debut. Instead of the RC logo, his card got a new designation: “Call-Up.”
Whether collectors knew it or not, this meant that Glasnow would not have any RCs during the 2016 season and would have to wait until 2017. July does not seem like an unreasonable cut-off for rookie cards, so there was probably very little fuss made about the distinction at the time. Topps would remain consistent in 2017 and 2018 with Topps Now debuts, the earliest call-up designations in both years being June 28 and July 2 respectively. But then in 2019, we encounter the aforementioned Yordan Álvarez. He debuted on June 9, a full four weeks earlier than Glasnow in 2016, and was labeled a call-up instead of a rookie. And also unlike Glasnow, the topic of when Álvarez would get RCs became a conversation immediately.
Leave it to the astute collectors on Blowout to quickly figure out Topps was up to something. But sigmachi was wrong; Topps did have a choice, and they did not put Yordan in Heritage High Number or Topps Update or any other 2019 base set. And neither did Panini.
The Topps Now treatment of rookie call-ups became a measuring stick for how Topps was going to handle rookie card cut-offs. Wander Franco got called up on June 22, 2021, and collectors waited to see what his Topps Now card would say, but Luke Williams had already been tagged with Call-Up after his 6/8/21 debut. The writing was on the wall. The further the calendar went into June, the less likely it was that called-up rookies would get a rookie card that year. Here is the progression from 2016 to 2021:
|Latest RC||Earliest Call-Up|
|2016||Chad Kuhl, 6/26/16||Tyler Glasnow, 7/7/16|
|2017||Franklin Barreto, 6/24/17||Jae-gyun Hwang, 6/28/17|
|2018||Jose Trevino, 6/15/18||Nate Orf, 7/2/18|
|2019||Zach Plesac, 5/28/19||Yordan Álvarez, 6/9/19|
|2020||Luis Robert, 7/24/20||William Contreras, 7/24/20|
|2021||Alek Manoah, 5/7/21||Luke Williams, 6/8/21|
2020 was a special case of course, as the season didn’t begin until July 23. It is worth noting that Luis Robert and William Contreras debuted on the same day, and one was called a rookie and the other a call-up. But then, in a somewhat normal 2021, the cut-off seemed to return to the 2019 level.
But then 2022 came along. The Chicago Cubs called up Christopher Morel on May 17, 2022. He didn’t start the game, but he did come in to pinch-hit in the 8th inning, and did this:
A rookie homers in his first career at-bat? That’s perfect for Topps Now. Cubs fans would have ordered thousands of the card that chronicled such a debut, but they were never given the chance. The next day came and went, and Morel was not among the Topps Now subjects for the day. What happened?
When Adley Rutschman debuted 5 days later and was labeled Call-Up, it began to become clear. Topps was moving that cut-off date even earlier. Now rookies called up in the middle of May (May!) would be denied rookie cards until the following year. Topps had to have known that Rutschman’s debut was imminent, and there certainly would have been internal discussions about how his card issues would be handled. He was one of the top prospects in baseball, the kind of player collectors buy product to chase, and putting him in every single 2023 set starting with Series 1 was going to make Topps a lot of money. But then Christopher Morel happened. Morel was not one of the top prospects in baseball. He wasn’t even top ten for the Cubs, and his debut would not have been on anyone’s radar at Topps. So when he arrived with such a splash, it is reasonable to assume it took Topps by surprise, and that he was not on the list of “Rookies to Watch in 2022.” Still, Topps could have made Morel’s Topps Now card with the RC logo, or the Call-Up, or whatever, and still handled Adley’s debut however they wished. Why was Morel denied? We may never know. He got off to an impossibly hot start and Topps eventually issued his debut Topps Now on May 31. Call-Up, of course.
The State of the Rookie Card
It is often speculated that the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame for how Topps is doing things now. The delay to the 2020 season and the disruptions in supply chains that Topps relies on combined to radically alter their production schedule. It is a convenient excuse, but not a compelling one, because this trend began in 2018, grew in 2019, and then went nuclear in 2022. 2022 Topps Update included players and images from the 2022 All-Star Game, which took place on July 19. So they could have included rookies that debuted in May. They just chose not to. This isn’t a response to unavailability of cardstock or externally imposed restrictions. It is a new business model.
What we don’t know is the extent to which Topps is driving these changes, or MLBPA is. The Players Association became heavily involved in these decisions with the 2006 agreement, but there is zero transparency provided regarding just how involved they are. These changes (sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden) came from somewhere, were decided by someone, but collectors are none the wiser. Whether Topps or MLBPA is making these calls is mostly inconsequential. The questions for collectors is this: are the changes good?
They are not. Baseball sets that don’t produce rookie cards for Yordan Álvarez in 2019 or Wander Franco in 2021 or Christopher Morel in 2022 are not good products. Baseball cards at their best should be a record of the MLB season. We should be able to look back at them and learn something about the season they represent. But according to the cards, Christopher Morel was not part of the 2022 season. The cards will say he was a rookie in 2023. But the cards are a lie. How far will Topps push it? Will they soon deny rookie cards to players debuting in April? Will it eventually be required that you make the opening day roster to get a rookie card that year? Or will they completely kill the idea that a player’s rookie card and his rookie season should be linked in some way? These decisions seem to be driven by profit, and it’s understandable that a baseball card company, like any other kind of company, would be driven by profit. But are these short-term gains leading to a bleak future? Business is good now, and the millions continue to poor in, even as collectors loudly complain about the product they are buying. Is there any guarantee that will continue? History proclaims, especially to those who collected in the 90s, maybe not.
Baseball cards and rookie cards are a long, proud tradition. Millions of collectors have enjoyed and continue to enjoy the chase, and the persistence of the rookie card as a pillar of this collecting community is one thing that connects the past to the present. Mickey Mantle debuted in 1951 and had a card in 1951 Bowman. Hank Aaron debuted in 1954 and had a card in 1954 Topps. Somehow, 70 years later, we have gone backwards.