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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What WAR Tells us about Prediction: The Greatest from 1951 Topps Baseball

The 1951 Topps Baseball set is one of the first releases for Topps Baseball, and it's where this series will begin. Unlike Topps Baseball sets from 1952 and on, the 1951 set is a sort of hybrid set, featuring two separate 52-card sets: Red Backs and Blue Backs. Though Blue Backs are a bit more rare, the Red Backs contain some of the most memorable and best players of the 1950/51 seasons. In fact, not a single player from the Blue Back set appears on this list.

Of course, the 1951 set is famous for its game-based design, with cards featuring different baseball outcomes (foul ball, strike, double, bunt, etc.). This didn't seem to strike a chord with collectors, however, as Topps altered its designs and started producing the modern-looking sets we are familiar with today. While the 1951 set is not one of my personal favorites, it's hard not to appreciate the only set in Topps Baseball with black-and-white floating heads.



1951 Topps #1 Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra (5.3 WAR)

Previous Season: 1950 - 6.0 WAR (1st for catchers)

Yogi led the league in WAR in 1950, and while he put together a great season in 1951, he actually ranked second in WAR to eventual MVP Roy Campanella (Dodgers) who does not appear in this set. Yogi's 1951 season was not his best by any measure, but he did manage a triple slash of .294/.350/.492 with a very low 3.4% strikeout rate. For comparison, batters in 2018 average a strikeout rate of 22.1%.

Top 3 Catchers in 1951: 
Roy Campanella (7.1 WAR) - No card in this set.
Yogi Berra (5.3 WAR)
Wes Westrum (4.1 WAR)

First Base

1951 Topps #31 Gil Hodges
Gil Hodges (5.0 WAR)

Previous Season: 1950 - 3.1 WAR (5th for first basemen)

With the 1951 set only containing 52 cards, it's rather common for the best player at each position to not be represented on Topps flagship product. Take this Gil Hodges for example. While Hodges put up a fine season for the Dodgers in 1951, three other first basemen surpassed him in WAR. Of course, Kiner and Irvin played primarily in the outfield in 1951, but Stan Musial was by far the better first baseman. In fact, Stan Musial was the best player in the Majors in 1951. But as Brett Alan mentioned in a comment a few weeks ago, Musial "refused to sign with either company, finally relenting after Topps made a substantial charitable donation to convince him to sign" in 1958. And considering Musial was the best player of the decade, his absence in early-fifties Flagship is certainly a bummer.

Top 3 First Basemen in 1951
Stan Musial (8.6 WAR) - No card in this set.
Ralph Kiner (7.3 WAR) - See outfield. Played only 58 games at 1B. 
Monte Irvin (6.4 WAR) - See outfield. Played only 39 games at 1B. 

Second Base

1951 Topps #48 Eddie Stanky

Eddie Stanky (5.0 WAR)

Previous Season: 1950 - 7.7 WAR (1st for first basemen)

Coming off of the best season of career in 1950 that saw him hit .300/.460/.412 and lead second basemen with 7.7 WAR for the Giants, Stanky wasn't able to match Jackie Robinson's production in 1951. Stanky put up 5.0 WAR in 1951 and knocked out a career-high 14 homers--impressive for a 5'8" dude--making New York an especially impressive place for second basemen that season. 

Top 3 Second Basemen in 1951
Jackie Robinson (9.0 WAR) - No card in this set.
Eddie Stanky (5.0 WAR)
Gil McDougald (4.6 WAR) - No card in this set.


1951 Topps #5 Phil Rizzuto
Phil Rizzuto (3.8 WAR)

Previous Season: 1950 - 6.9 WAR (1st for shortstops)

Rizutto takes home the award for the most valuable shortstop in the 1951 set but was only sixth in the majors for WAR for shortstops, behind the likes of Eddie Joost, Alvin Dark, Pee Wee Reese, Johnny Pesky, and Solly Hemus. That said, Rizzuto lead the league in WAR a year prior, producing 6.9 WAR with his typical stellar defense and strong bat. Standing at just 5'6'', Rizzuto took home the AL MVP in 1950 after a campaign that saw him hit .324/.418/.439. He failed to replicate that 1950 season (his best), batting only .274/.350./.346 with a pair of homers. 

Top 3 Shortstops in 1951
Eddie Joost (6.3 WAR) - No card in this set.
Alvin Dark (5.2 WAR) - No card in this set.
Pee Wee Reese (4.3 WAR) - No card in this set.

Third Base

1951 Topps #35 Al Rosen

Al Rosen (4.0 WAR)

Previous Season: 1950 - 6.9 WAR (1st for third basemen)

Al Rosen debuted in 1947 but only managed 65 plate appearances over the next three seasons. It was Rosen's tremendous 1950 rookie season that put him on the map, as he amassed 6.9 WAR while knocking out 39 homers. His 1951 campaign was not quite as strong, taking a step back in the power department, on his way to a 4.0 WAR season. 

Top 3 Third Basemen in 1951
Minnie Minoso (5.5 WAR) - No card in this set.
Bobby Thomson (5.1 WAR) - No card in this set.
Gil McDougald (4.6 WAR) - No card in this set.


1951 Topps #15 Ralph Kiner
Ralph Kiner (7.6 WAR)

Previous Season: 1950 - 5.0 WAR (7th for outfielders)

I went back and forth on whether or not to split up the outfield into three separate positions, but after realizing how long this research and writeup takes, I decided to lump the positions together. Ta-da! One outfield spot to evaluate!

That said, after taking a look at the WAR leaderboard in 1951, I really should have all three positions covered--Stan Musial, Ralph Kiner, and Ted Williams all put of tremendous years. Alas, only the powerful Kiner was featured in the 1951 set. After swatting 47 homers in 1950, Kiner knocked out 37 in 1951, putting up a triple slash of .309/.452/.627. Kiner only played 10 seasons in the majors, as a back injury forced him to retire in 1955, but what a career it was. 

Top 3 Outfielders in 1951
Stan Musial (8.6 WAR) - No card in this set.
Ralph Kiner (7.6 WAR)
Ted Williams (7.1 WAR) - No card in this set.


1951 Topps #21 Larry Jansen
Larry Jansen (5.7 WAR)

Previous Season: 1950 - 5.6 WAR (3rd for pitchers)

If I am being honest, I'd never heard of Larry Jansen before I started to research for the article. I mean, Larry Jansen isn't necessarily a name that jumps out at you. He's not Oil Can Boyd. He's not Quenton McCracken. He's...Larry Jansen. And our boy, LJ put up his best year in 1951, pitching to a 3.04 ERA and tossing 18 complete games. Boy, was the game different then.

Top 3 Pitchers in 1951
Robin Roberts (6.7 WAR) - No card in this set.
Don Newcombe (5.8 WAR) - No card in this set.
Warren Spahn (5.5 WAR)


Despite featuring some iconic cards from some of the game's greatest players, the 1951 set failed to produce a single card of a positional leader in WAR for the 1951 season--that said, four of the players in the following list led their position in WAR for the 1950 season and the other three ranked in the top five players for their respective positions.

It seems, then, that the early iterations of Topps Baseball produced cards to catalog the best players of the previous season--the 1951 set features the best players of 1950, and so on. In short, the production of these cards wasn't necessarily predictive of the best players the following year. That said, predicting performance is notoriously difficult, especially considering the baseline statistics used to evaluate players back in the early 50s. While statistics used today (at least in stathead circles) like xFIP and xWOBA are predictive of future performance, these numbers were not used at that point, and certainly not by a company like Topps.

I was unable to locate a release date for the 1951 set. A release date for the product might provide some insight into how players were chosen for the set and further my hunch that the early Topps Baseball sets were ways to chronicle past performances rather than predict the top performers for the following year in an effort to maximize profitability. (Current-day Topps obviously takes a different approach to boost sales.)

Though I am still crunching the numbers, I predict that the sets produced for the remainder of the decade and into the 1960s will not always reflect the WAR leaders. For one, the baseball card industry was still forming and did not have contracts with all players (see Stan Musial). Of course, the set size and production of cards also play a role in this, as fewer players were represented on cardboard compared to today. And finally, the statistics used by baseball folks and the general public did not fully capture the performance of players in the most effective ways.

The 1951 set was a beauty that saw some of the most iconic cards of all-time. And though the set failed to produce cards of the top players of the 1951 season, it sure featured some tremendous players at the peak of their careers.

1 comment:

  1. I've often wondered how Topps decided who got into their debut '51 set. Seems like a lot of huge names were missing (it's hard to believe all the omissions were contract-related) and this post definitely confirmed that inkling.