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The Strike Zone

Topps baseball cards go to WAR. Here's how they could be even better

For fans of a certain age, baseball cards served as a key gateway to an appreciation of the game's statistical lexicon. "A chart of numbers that would put an actuary to sleep can be made to dance if you put it on one side of a card and Bombo Rivera's picture on the other," wrote Bill James in 1982. For more than half a century, the numbers on the back of those cards have generally been the traditional ones centered around batting average, home runs and RBIs for hitters, and wins, losses, strikeouts and ERA for pitchers, but as with broadcasts and media coverage on even the most mainstream outlets, things are changing. This year, industry leader Topps introduced Wins Above Replacement on the back of its 330-card Series 1 set, and it has gone full-on sabermetric with some short-printed variants* within its 330-card Series 2 set.

Via the Beckett.com website, you can see the back of — who else? — Mike Trout's 2014 Series 2 card:

By comparison, here's the back of his Series 1 card (apologies for the lower-quality image):

Where the latter adds WAR (the Baseball-Reference.com version) to the familiar categories (games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, homers, runs batted in, stolen bases, bases on balls and batting average) as well as the somewhat less familiar OPS, which was added to Topps back in 2004, the former goes much further. Indeed, it stirs up a whole alphabet soup of acronyms in addition to WAR, many of which might be unfamiliar to all but hardcore sabermetric acolytes.

Beyond plate appearances and OPS+, the card includes walk and strikeout rates (BB% and K%), batting average on balls in play (BABIP), isolated power (ISO), the FanGraphs offensive stats Weighted On-Base Average (WOBA) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (WRC+), Win Probability Added (WPA), total bases (TB), stolen base percentage (SB%), the B-Ref defensive stat Total Zone Runs (TZR) as well as WAR. You may note that Trout's yearly totals in the latter category have shifted slightly from Series 1, given that the site's formula has recently been tweaked — long a criticism of the stat — and that where his league-leading totals are highlighted in red on the first go-round, they're not on the second.

While I applaud the introduction of sabermetrics onto the cards — and assume something similar has been done on the pitching side as well, though I haven't tracked down a comparable set of images — as somebody who has spent the past 13 years on my own mission to integrate such terms into baseball coverage, to these eyes, the execution leaves plenty to be desired. For one thing, there's no key as to what the acronyms stand for, not even a web address in the fine print where somebody scratching their head about the unfamiliar figures might go for guidance.

For another, the numbers on the card present no context, nothing that tells you what a league-average strikeout rate is or what a good BABIP looks like (again, the red highlighting would help for a league-leading figure). There's no information about whether Trout's stolen base rate is based on a few opportunities or a lot, or what the batting average and slugging percentages underlying that ISO are. The two traditional counting stats that are shown, plate appearances and total bases, are separated by several columns amid a haphazard distribution. Beyond that, there's little need to include both B-Ref's OPS+ and FanGraphs' WRC+, which track very closely as a pair of independently derived means of indexing a batter's production relative to his league. If you're going to go with the latter, I'm not sure you need WOBA, which puts a batter's productivity on the on-base scale, where .400 is excellent, but then I've always preferred the Baseball Prospectus True Average stat, which maps such production to a batting-average scale where the more familiar .300 is the benchmark.

From here, a better approach for Series 2 would have been about halfway between what's on the two actual series. Given room for 14 statistical categories (as on Series 1) and the assumption that the traditionalist version — which carries minor league stats that don't have sabermetric counterparts — isn't going away, I'd lay them out in this order: PA, H, HR, TB, BB%, K%, AVG, OBP, SLG, OPS+, SBA (stolen base attempts), SB%, DRS (Defensive Runs Saved, my fielding metric of choice if I have to pick one) and WAR. I'd fit the last three years (where possible) plus career totals and rates, and I'd have a URL at the bottom along the lines of "Need help deciphering these numbers? See WWW.TOPPS.COM/SERIES2 to learn about the sabermetric stats included here."

The baseball card industry ain't what it used to be, as speculation and oversaturation have turned what used to be a kids' hobby into an adult one; it's no wonder that some of the best-looking cards today are throwbacks to more austere 1960s and 1970s designs using current players. To bring in new audiences and keep pace with existing ones, it makes sense to integrate sabermetrics onto the backs of the cards, but as with on broadcasts and in print/electronic media, restraint — ideally with explanation and context — is far preferable to overkill. I certainly don't think Topps should abandon the endeavor of expanding statistical horizons on its product, but hard-won experience tells me that a measured approach would be more fruitful.

*Update: Cliff Corcoran called my attention to the fact that the sabermetric backs are not featured on the entirety of the 330-card Series 2 set, but rather to a subset of 50 cards of star players. Other variations in the set include Future Stars, Peanuts cards (featuring the iconic Snoopy, commemorating this year's All-Star Game in Minneapolis, home of Peanuts comic strip creator and legendary baseball fan Charles M. Schultz), Sparkle (an embellished spot on the card) — all printed in shorter runs than the typical cards in the set.
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