In the late 1980s and early 1990s, rookie cards were in high demand, and the Topps-Donruss baseball card war was taken to new heights. But which company was better at predicting eventual success? Let's look at the stats.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were two established powers in the rookie card game: Topps' "All-Star Rookie" label, and Donruss' "Rated Rookie" label. As a seven-year-old baseball fan, my access to and understanding of baseball statistics was limited to:
- My dad noting that a guy had a .300-plus batting average and remarking, "He's pretty good,"
- My dad noting that a guy had a sub-.260 batting average and remarking, "Boy, that guy's an oaf,"
- My dad noting that a guy had 20 or more home runs and remarking, "He can really hit some long ones,"
- My dad noting that a guy had 40 or more home runs and remarking, "He's probably on steroids" (this was in 1990; in the cynicism game, my father was far ahead of the curve), and
- Baseball cards.
I'm relating this because I want you to understand how much currency the titles "Topps All-Star Rookie" and "Rated Rookie" held in my esteem. If you remember what I'm even talking about, I probably didn't have to tell you. If a baseball card company shoved a stamp into the card of one rookie but not another, it meant something.
That's how I knew Gary Sheffield was going to be great. It's also how I knew Greg Briley was going to be great. Only one of them actually was great, of course, but you can still know untrue things. Shit, I mean, I know about the X-Men.
It's now time, I feel, to hold Topps and Donruss accountable. Which company predicted future stars more accurately, and which was more prone to lying to small children? This is what I aimed to find out.
I limited this study to the five-year period that fell between 1987 and 1991, mostly because these are the years in which Topps ran the supplemental "Future Stars" subset, which I lumped in with All-Star Rookies when calculating these figures.*
The above chart indicates that Topps was a little more effective at determining future talent. The careers of Topps' awarded rookies ultimately lasted longer on average. Their career OPS+ or ERA+ numbers were slightly better, and the calculated Wins Above Replacement (using Baseball-Reference figures) over the courses of their careers were significantly higher.
Within this five-year time period, I found a total of 76 Topps All-Star Rookies/Future Stars, and 89 Donruss Rated Rookies. Some basic observations:
- Of all the players involved in this research, the guy with the highest WAR was Greg Maddux (96.8). He was a Donruss Rated Rookie, but Topps whiffed on him. They gave him a card in 1987, but the pitching ASR trophy went to Mike Dunne (-0.1 WAR over a five-season career), and their Future Stars went to such notables as Tim Pyznarski (whose career lasted 15 games).
- The player with the second-highest WAR was Randy Johnson (91.8). Once again, Donruss gave him Rated Rookie status. Once again, Topps gave him nothing. Jim Abbott won 1989's ASR pitcher's slot, which is fine, but they probably should have found room in a Future Stars roster that included Steve Searcy (-2.4 WAR over a five-year career).
- Ken Griffey, Jr. (78.5 WAR) was the biggest name both could agree upon. Of course, neither were so bold as to give Griffey the coveted No. 1 spot in the set, as newcomer Upper Deck did. Both companies also correctly tabbed Rafael Palmeiro, Gary Sheffield, Mark Grace, Robin Ventura, and Mark McGwire for future greatness.
- Donruss' biggest miss was Jeff Bagwell (79.9 WAR). Important note here: Bagwell's actual All-Star Rookie card was in 1992 Topps, but ASR selections were always made the year prior.
- Some other big Donruss misses include Larry Walker (67.3 WAR), Ivan Rodriguez (67.2), and Kevin Appier (50.4).
- Apart from Maddux and Johnson (seriously, guys), Topps also missed out on Roberto Alomar. This is rather surprising considering all the hype that surrounded the Alomar name. So here we have a Hall of Famer and two Hall of Fame locks. Donruss got them all, and Topps missed them all.
- Speaking of Alomar: everyone was so nuts about Sandy Alomar, Jr., that Donruss actually produced two Rated Rookies for him -- one in 1989, and one in 1990. In addition, Topps made him a Future Star in 1989, and an ASR in 1990.
- Donruss also double-dipped in 1989 and 1990 to award two Rated Rookies to ... Alex Sanchez. In his career dozen innings pitched, Sanchez gave up 13 earned runs.
- As it turns out, Donruss had a knack for assigning Rated Rookies to guys who weren't very good, but who found some way to stay in the majors for a really long time. Dave West, Derrick May, Rich DeLucia, Nelson Liriano, Eric Gunderson, Eddie Williams, and Mark Lewis stayed in the bigs for 10 or more years despite career WAR of 2.2 or less. (Williams and Lewis' career WAR were negative.)
I researched this data in chronological order. At first, it looked as though Donruss was going to win by a considerable margin ... and then 1991 came.
The 1991 Donruss set was issued in two different series: one with a blue border, and one with a green border. Rather than issue the usual 15 or so Rated Rookies, Donruss awarded 35 of these suckers. Sure, Donruss managed to include rookies Tino Martinez, Mo Vaughn, Moises Alou, Ray Lankford, and Chuck Knoblauch.
But they dramatically diluted their product by assigning RR status to an ocean of nobodies, such as Paul Marak, Scott Chiamparino, Steve Chitren, Terry Bross, Kevin Morton ... half the list looked to me like a roster of made-up names.
Worst of all, and by "worst of all" I mean the worst thing about this entire body of research: despite going crazy with issuing Rated Rookies, Frank Thomas didn't get one. Topps also failed to ever issue Thomas ASR or Future Star status.
That's pretty weak, but hindsight, etc. Predicting future success is a tough business, and prior to baseball's statistical revolution, it must have been tougher.
Meanwhile, my seven-year-old self is still somewhere inside me, waiting for my team to acquire Delino DeShields.
* Between 1987 and 1991, Future Stars arrived at the rate of five or six per year. Unlike All-Star Rookies, which were position-specific a la Gold Gloves, Future Stars could be awarded to players at any position, which minimized the possibility of snubbing deserving players. Also, including Future Stars helped Topps catch up with the number of rookie awards Donruss was doling out.