Beware of the Hype, Card Collectors
Highly touted rookie prospects come and go every season. In the world of Major League Baseball, this is called hype and living up to it. For many, their moment in the hobby spotlight burns out quickly. Can you say, “Super Joe” Charboneau? In hobby circles right now, no player’s cardboard is hotter than rookie sensation Shohei Ohtani, the superstar pitcher/hitter for the Los Angeles Angels. But heed these words of advice collectors: proceed with caution.
Don’t Be Like Joe
In 1976, at the age of 21, Joe Charboneau was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the sixth round of the draft. After bouncing around the minor leagues for a few years, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians and eventually made his MLB debut for the Tribe on April 11, 1980, at age 25. He went 1-for-4 that day with a solo home run belted in the fifth inning of Cleveland’s 10-2 loss to the California Angels.
A left fielder and DH, the gregarious Charboneau went on to launch 22 more home runs that season, hitting .289 in 131 games with 87 runs batted in. Perhaps due to a limited talent pool in the A.L. Rookie of the Year race, Charboneau took top honors by claiming 73% of the first-place votes, easily outdistancing runner-up Dave Stapleton, an up-and-coming second sacker for the Boston Red Sox.
The legend of Joe Charboneau, however, went no further than the 1980 season. Despite the hype, and perhaps due to a back injury sustained while sliding headfirst in spring training the following year, he would play only parts of two more seasons and hit just six more round-trippers. As quickly as he arrived, Charboneau was a thing of the past. A flash in the proverbial pan. He was out of baseball for good by 1984. Despite his short-lived career, Charboneau did have a song written about him: “Go Joe Charboneau.” That could be his biggest claim to fame as his 1981 Topps rookie card (#13) – in PSA Mint 9 condition – can now be had for less than $5.
Enter Shohei Ohtani
Let’s fast forward to the 2018 MLB season. In just the opening month of the campaign, a certain player from the “Land of the Rising Sun” has turned baseball on its ear. His name is Shohei Ohtani and he’s a 23-year-old double threat for the Angels who are sitting atop the A.L. West division standings with a surprising 13-4 record right now. Much like New York Yankees star Aaron Judge did a year ago, Ohtani has folks talking about him early on but not just because of his hitting prowess. He’s got a mean fastball too!
A standout pitcher who can hit, Ohtani made the move to the major leagues this year after playing five seasons for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of Nippon Professional Baseball’s (NPB) Pacific League. In Japan, the 6’ 4” right-hander racked up a record of 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 K’s on the mound, while batting .286 with 48 home runs and 166 runs batted in at the plate.
An early favorite for A.L. Rookie of the Year honors, Ohtani recorded a 2-0 record and struck out 18 batters in his first two starts. As a hitter, he’s been nothing short of spectacular. Through eight games and 30 at-bats, he’s collected 11 hits (.367 average) including three home runs and 11 RBI. In fact, he’s the first major leaguer in 99 years to win two games and hit three home runs in the first 10 games of a season. (Then-Washington Senators right-hander Jim Shaw also turned the trick back in 1919.) What’s more, Ohtani threw six-and-a-third perfect innings in just his second MLB start ever, a 6-1 victory over the Oakland A’s on April 8.
Proceed with Caution
But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and right now nobody’s sweeter on collectors than Mr. Ohtani. Inside of the first two weeks of the regular season, sales for his rookie cards – signed and unsigned – have been creating headlines throughout the industry.
Take, for instance, the eBay sale that ended on Monday, April 9, that saw his signed 2018 Topps Heritage rookie card sell for an astounding $6,725. Just three weeks ago, that same red-ink autographed card could have been had in the $1,500 range. And just the day before the record sale was established on Monday, Philadelphia Phillies reliever Pat Neshek sold another Ohtani red-ink autographed card (# 1/69) from the ’18 Topps Heritage set on eBay for $6,101. His impressive 2.08 ERA is certainly helping to boost his card prices, but some of the sales have been out of this world.
Another eye-popping example occurred on Tuesday, April 10, when an eBay lot showcasing four of Ohtani’s 2017 Bowman Mega Box Chrome Prospects Refractor rookie cards – all graded Gem MT 10 by PSA – sold for $19,999! That’s $5,000 per card. That’s cool but that’s crazy. Maybe it’s even crazy cool.
But the underlying question remains: How high can Ohtani’s card prices go? And are they sustainable? Granted, the season is still young and so is the player. But these prices are screaming “bubble” so collectors everywhere should proceed with caution when plunking down their hard-earned cash on Japan’s latest major league export. Bottom line: collect cards by being a fan, not necessarily an investor. That way your collection will always have meaning even if it doesn’t appreciate hand-over-fist on the secondary market.
Remember Ichiro Suzuki? As a 28-year-old rookie phenom from Japan, he batted a league-leading .350 in leading the Seattle Mariners to 116 wins in 2001 while winning both the A.L. MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. What about his autographed cards, you ask? Well, his 2001 Upper Deck Ultimate Collection autographed rookie card (#120), numbered to 250, does command hundreds if not thousands of dollars, but here’s a guy who posted 10 straight MLB seasons of 200-plus hits. That’s doing something spectacular. On the other hand, his 2001 Topps rookie card (#726) can be had for a song today.
Speaking of songs, still no word on whether Ohtani will have a song recorded in his name anytime soon. Stay tuned.