Saturday, August 20, 2016

Big City Topps

I complain/whine a lot about Topps and its distribution of cards among teams within its products. There are times I back off and just accept the fact that Topps does not consider the Brewers as worthy of having more than one or two players in a particular set. There are other times I look at the numbers and just shake my head.

For instance, as of today, August 20, Beckett's numbers show some interesting facts. These numbers include all parallels and inserts, of course, and they also include the All-Star teams, the team sets, and Topps Now. Before we get too far into a number-crunching, mind-numbing post, I'd best show you the card that led to this discussion -- one of those Topps Now cards.

For all of its flaws, Topps Now did allow me to sort of draw a line under Jonathan Lucroy's career with the Milwaukee Brewers -- unless, of course, through some unlikely scenario, the team decides to sign him back as a free agent after the 2017 season. I say that is unlikely in large part because I have a feeling that Lucroy may work out an extension with the Rangers between now and the end of next year. He went to college in Louisiana, his wife is from Louisiana, and they make their offseason home there, and the only place closer for him other than Dallas would be Houston. 

Okay, back to the numbers. Counting everything that Beckett has categorized to date with a team attached, Topps has issued a staggering total of 82,326 different cards this year. There are still a ton on the way, though. For comparison's sake, in 2015 and including all the cards that Beckett categorized (which adds in all those online-only 5x7 money grabs), Topps issued an incredible 125,736 unique cards (not including the uniqueness of each card with a serial number, since, after all, a card numbered 97 of 99 is really a 1 of 1 in at least one way).

So, first question: is Topps issuing too many different cards?

I personally believe the answer to that question is an emphatic "ABSOLUTELY." Why? Whether you are a player collector, a team collector, or a set collector, you are forced to choose constantly as to what cards you will chase and what cards you will not chase. There are too many 1 of 1 cards, too many parallels, too many products, and too many cards generally. 

To prove this point, one need only look at the "Set Types" characterization. In terms of cards that are a part of the "Main" set for Topps, a relatively small number of cards are issued -- even including the tremendously frustrating short-printed cards. In 2016, 8,912 of the 82,326 cards -- about 10.8% -- issued to date qualify as being in the "main" set. Last year, that number was 10,673 out of 125,736, or about 8.4%. In other words, in 2015, over 91% of all cards are parallels, inserts, or parallels of inserts. 

Question two: Are there too many parallels? You can see my answer already.

Even for set collectors, today's Topps is incredibly frustrating. Short prints and photo variations dot nearly every set. Whether its Heritage and the 75 -- increasing next year to 100 -- short prints in the initial release of 500, Allen & Ginter's guaranteed 50 short prints (and the crazy "next" 50 of minis from rip cards), Archives (though it had only 10 short prints this year, those were SUPER-short prints), or the Flagship's increasingly obnoxious and overdone photo variations, the difficult-to-find cards make it less and less fun to be a set builder.

This leads to question number three: do short prints and photo variations take away from the main set that is issued?

For people who grew up as set collectors -- especially in the 1970s and 1980s -- the answer to that question is emphatically "Yes" as well. I want to like Topps' sets again. I want to collect a set again. With my main reason for collecting a set being nostalgia, I'd love to try to collect an Archives or Heritage set. But, I don't even try because the short prints are too difficult to find and too hard to justify buying. As a team collector first, I'm forced to budget my money to try to find and buy Brewers cards that only show up once every six months on eBay. Based on how difficult those are, why would I spend $5 on some short-printed card of Rob Refsnyder?

Finally, one of my main axes that I grind against Topps is its focus on the "big city" teams. It isn't that Topps is a frontrunner when it comes to issuing cards. Topps issues many more cards for the teams it perceives to be more popular while ignoring the more "mundane" teams. As a Brewers fan, I've documented on many occasions my displeasure with this situation.

Equality is not in the Topps lexicon. Based entirely on math and since there are 30 teams, each team should get 3.3% of all cards issued. Sure, there are some teams with longer, more storied histories than others, so there should be some variation there -- especially when Topps apparently must issue thousands of cards of retired players.  But, the numbers never work out to be anywhere near "equal."

In 2015, Topps issued 1,321 cards for teams that no longer exist in the major leagues or never did. That includes a few Negro League teams (Homestead Grays, Birmingham Black Barons, Kansas City Monarchs) and all the teams that have moved or changed names (Florida Marlins, Milwaukee Braves, etc.).  Rather than try to apportion those to their follow-on teams -- I mean, do Orioles fans really collect the St. Louis Browns? -- I'll take them out.

With those removed, the total cards Topps issued in 2015 is 124,415. If those cards were meted out equally, Topps would have issued about 4,106 cards per team. Unsurprisingly, though, there is no such thing as "equal" distribution.

Instead, Topps issued 6,641 cards of the Boston Red Sox (161.7% of the expected total) last year, 5,914 cards of the New York Yankees, 5,300 cards of the New York Mets, and 5,164 cards for the Chicago Cubs. That accounts for 23,019 cards -- 18.5% of all the cards issued last year. So, if you felt like every pack of cards you opened in 2015 was a Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, or Cubs hot pack, well, you were probably right.

On the other end of the spectrum, Topps issued 2,515 cards -- about 61.3% of what one would expect with equivalent distribution) of the Tampa Bay Rays (2,529 cards if you add in the Devil Rays' 14 cards), 2,905 cards of my Milwaukee Brewers (70.8% of the expected number) , 2,930 cards of the Philadelphia Phillies, and 2,990 cards of the Colorado Rockies. 

As you can see, the numbers here have little to do with which teams have a longer history. If that were the case, the Mets should have had many fewer cards and the Phillies should have had many more. It isn't based solely on metropolitan area size either. If it were, then the Phillies again should have been higher and the Twins would have had fewer than their 3,199 cards. 

One final measure: how about percentage of main sets? If you take out the parallels and inserts, will that make things more equivalent?


Last year, 130 cards in "main" sets were of players on teams that no longer exist in the major leagues (as defined above). That's out of 10,673 cards. That leaves 10,543, which means equivalent distribution would lead to about 348 cards per team.

The reality: the Red Sox had 480 (137.9% of the expected total), the Yankees had 477, the Mets had 474, the Cubs had 418, and the Dodgers had 408. On the other end of the spectrum, the Rays had 227 (65.2% of the expected total), the Rockies had 244, the Brewers had 246 (70.7% of the expected total), and the Phillies had 269. 

All this leads to my final question: should Topps try to be more equal with its distribution of cards across teams?

I can see having a somewhat unequal distribution. But the disparity that these numbers display is excessive. As a monopoly in the licensed card world for baseball, Topps should be held to a higher standard -- by collectors to an extent, but especially by the entities granting licenses in MLB and the MLBPA. 

What are your thoughts? Leave your comments below. 

This is also a contest post -- I'll put everyone who answers into a randomizer and send something special for your collecting interests your way to the winner.


  1. I'm shocked that the Rays and Rockies got that many cards. I pull so many of those irrelevant teams nearly every year that I figured they made up 80% of the checklist.

  2. Good post. Busting a 36 pack box this week, I really saw first hand how many cards the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs get. One pack of 7 cards had 4 Red Sox alone.

  3. I use my experience with Henry Owens as an example of all this, but especially the team distribution issue. Owens is a relatively obscure pitching prospect with the Red Sox, yet I've pulled at least five or six different cards of him from different products. I'm fine with a guy like him in a Bowman checklist and/or Flagship, but Topps should be using their spots in other products to give more cards to ignored teams like the Brewers, Rays, etc.

    I'm not as up in arms over the SP/photo variation issue -- likely because I've never been a set collector -- but I certainly sympathize with the frustration it creates for traditional set builders like yourself.

    This is another reason why I'd like to see another Topps Total-like set. Pretty much every player featured, equal distribution for all teams. (I'm hoping that if I say Topps Total enough, the brand will just magically reappear.)

    1. I almost used Owens as an example myself. He has about 60 more cards this year so far than Ryan Braun.

    2. As a Sox collector I don't even chase Owens cards

    3. Man, I've seen him so much it's like he's trying to become part of the family.

  4. I've so much to say on the questions raised that I've written and re-written this comment about five times already. I finally realized that I could sum up my feelings in three words:


  5. This post is a perfect encapsulation of the glut of cards Topps has blessed us with. I knew there were a lot of inserts and parallels but to be 91% of all cards?? I always groan when I see a base set have 10 different parallels. It is completely unnecessary. The dizzying amount of sets is another issue as well.

    I don't necessarily mind the SPs or SSPs as at least with the Topps flagship, those cards are only variations. I'll collect my base set and ignore the SPs because I don't view them as part of a complete set. With Heritage though those cards are considered part of the base set, which can make things more frustrating.

    This post highlights the problem with giving out exclusive licenses and it's unfortunate that the exclusivity deal will be around for several more years.

  6. My take is this- every player in the league (each league) should get a card in the flagship set. Anything/everything beyond that is simply a bonus. Panini is not any better than Topps; my favorite NBA player has not had a card issued since December 2013, despite the fact that he's still in the league. And he's not the only one. There are some players they've never bothered to give cards to at all, some of them will be entering their 5th season in the NBA in 2016-17.

  7. 2,990 cards for the Rockies. Totally doable.

  8. I was reading this convinced I'd see the Jays in the bottom group.
    I feel the Flagship set should be a Topps Total style set, or even similar to UD 40-Man. Get rid of the parallels in Flagship. Have a couple inserts if you must.

    Combine Heritage and Archives. Make this your place for retired players.
    Figure out a coherent numbering style for Bowman..
    I also think combine Allen & Ginter and Gyosy Queen..
    Make one set that has parallels and autographs for the hit seekers.
    Maybe keep Stadium Club..

    Topps' current strategy of throwing crap at the wall to see what sticks is only going to cause burnout amongst collectors

    1. I looked it up. 3010 cards for the Jays.. I forgot to check for Expos lol

  9. Yeah... just yeah.

    I think the only good reason to have unequal distribution is this:

    *League Leader cards - they should only have league leaders on them.
    *All-Star Cards - will represent every team, but will be unequal based on the roster
    *inserts - they should show the best of the best, or the top prospects, or the pitchers that hit or position players that pitched or whatever gimmick they've trotted out.

    I do think the base cards should be even, maybe they could be more strict about the type of player in each set (No veterans in Bowman? No Rookies in Gypsy Queen / A&G? I dunno)?

    I think there is a fixable problem, though, and it shouldn't be hard for Topps to see it.

    1. As long as people buy whatever Topps puts out, they will continue to put it out without seeing a problem

  10. Man, those numbers are staggering. 125thousand cards in a year? As a casual collector who's kind of come back to the hobby, that's been a culture shock. In my childhood, there were probably under 1000 Topps cards, and probably around 1500 total cards made in a year (maybe more if MSA made a ton of discs that year).

    I must say, though, as a Mets fan, I haven't been doing so well getting Mets in packs. Can't imagine how it is for Brewers fans!

  11. Yes to everything you said. Topps is getting way out of control, and from an economic standpoint, they are flooding the market with too much for consumers to handle. It's not apparent now, but it will be in the next couple years I'm sure.

    Take for example the Topps Now card of Kris Bryant released on 19 August. Yes, he had a very impressive game worthy of a Now card. NO, he did not have a game worthy of creating Now "relics" featuring chunks of a base, but Topps creates them anyways because they know someone is out there willing to spend $100-$999 for a card drawn up overnight with a sub-par design. And many of those cards will inevitably circulate throughout the interwebs second hand for profit until people realize it's not worth spending the money anymore, and it all goes down hill from there....

    I will say the Ichiro 3000th hit card has come the closest to merit parallels or relics. But anything over $100 is outrageous.

    1. They also did a Topps now relic of Mookie. Ridiculous. Refuse to buy

  12. This is a fantastic blog post, Tony. I couldn't agree more with everything you identified as flawed with Topps; great research and arguments here. My favorite line was "In 2015, Topps issued 1,321 cards for teams that no longer exist in the major leagues or never did." Particularly the or never did because that's one of the things I find most obnoxious: the constant release of cards of quasi-fictional teams and retired players. It's all a ploy to make money and it's obviously working! Whole-heartedly agree there are too many inserts and parallels; this is what I have found jarring and frustrating about buying packs and trying to just make a simple base-set of cards. - Peter

  13. Tony, this is a superb post.

  14. I'm sure I've railed about this in the past, numerous times in fact, but probably from the opposite end -- too many cards issued for the Dodgers.

    The fact is, it just doesn't bother me as much as it may have in the past. I GET the unequal distribution -- why distribute Tampa Bay Rays equally with other teams when you're damn sure no one wants them? (I've come across 1 1/2 TB collectors in my 8 years of doing this. That's a piss-poor total). I also understand the avalanche of cards Topps issues. It's trying desperately to be all things to all collectors. We are such a splintered group, brought on by everything that happened in the '80s and '90s, that it's impossible to appease us. But Topps, god bless 'em, they're trying to make money, so they're gonna throw a whole bunch of product at the wall and hope at least one or two stick.

    Yeah, Topps can do a lot of stuff better -- or differently -- but we asked for it -- all us people who only collect Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs or Red Sox, all us people who want as many cards of Pujols, Kershaw and Harper that we can get. The noisiest and spendiest collectors get the most attention because their wallet shouts the loudest.

    And you know who aren't noisy or spendy?

    Rays and Marlins fans. And, apparently, maybe Brewers fans, according to what you're seeing from Topps.

    One thing will get that to change:

    Get your favorite team to make the playoffs (the large franchises are exempt from this, but a lot more Giants cards are being issued now than were being issued 10 years ago).

  15. I do know that I have a big stack of Rays, and an even larger stack of Marlins cards that I have yet to find a home for... So frankly, I don't think I want any more of those two teams in sets until they start to get some collectors!

  16. Wow, you really nailed it. I always complain about the TV networks only showing the same four or five teams' games every week. It is the same with cards. Ideally, they could take a survey and find out what percentage of the whole of collectors likes which teams and make them accordingly.
    I just wonder if there really are Rockies, Marlins and Diamondback team hoarders out there who just haven't found the right media outlet for their wants. We could really fill their collections fast.