A blog about baseball cards... and the Padres

Friday, July 18, 2014


As I was recently reviewing some of my "set" binders (ones that I've organized by set, but I only have a few pages worth of cards for, not a complete set binder), I realized that in sets like Archives or Allen & Ginter, that I really favored the retired players that were featured.  Other than the Padres, there are very few current players that interest me on the same level as a Killebrew, Ripken, or McCovey might.

However, there was one insert set that Topps released in Series 2 this year that really caught my eye, and it featured only current players.  And stars (for the most part) at that!

The Saberstars inserts might not wow a lot of people, but I thought they looked pretty cool, and kind of reminded me of something you might see out of a 90's insert, which is right up my alley.  The gimmick is that all of the featured players are shown with an advanced metric, something besides the archaic "batting average" or "ERA" that cavemen used to rate players thousands of years ago.*

*disclaimer - I really like those stats.

While I'm not much of a sabermatrician, I thought it'd be cool to put the set together and look at them as a whole.

The metric we'll start of with is one that made a splash by appearing on the backs of cards this year:  WAR.  What is it good for?  Well, as noted at the bottom of the Mike Trout card above, it stands for WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT.  If you were to replace Mike Trout with an average MLB center fielder, you would lose 10.4 games, whereas with Mike Trout, his contributions would add up to 10.4 more wins.

WAR is a tricky stat, since there are different formulas for determining it, although regular WAR values each players' offensive and defensive contributions.  Sound like a hokey stat yet?  Let's look at who lead the league in WAR, starting with the losers of the All-Star Game, the National League (fittingly, the first card is a Cardinal).

Alright, so while it's hard to trust a stat for a formula I don't know how to compute, seeing that Andrew McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt are amoung the leaders means that it can't be that horrible.

I've read that Josh Donaldson is the poster boy for WAR, as he is among the league leaders in WAR again, despite hitting for a low batting average (.238 - I can figure that one out).  WAR is a cumulative stat, not an average, so the longer you play, the more WAR you can amass.  I guess what's weird about WAR (well, one of the things) is that you can look at a guy like Robinon Cano, who just signed for a TON of money with Seattle, and say, well, we could go with an average second baseman, or we could pay and arm and a leg for an extra six wins a season.  It may not sound like much, but when you're in the same division as the A's, the Angels, and the Rangers, that can mean a lot.

Alright, here's one that's a little bit easier to explain, BABIP: Batting average on balls in play.  For this, you use the same formula for batting average (hits divided by at-bats), and simply subtract the at bats that ended with strikeouts, foul outs, and home runs (also, walks, which aren't included in regular batting averages either).  Looking at BABIP usually goes hand in hand with looking at "types of contact" stats (balls hit hard/line drives/grounders, etc.).  In a SSS (small sample size), BABIP can get fluky, e.g. the ground ball either finds a hole or it gets gloved, the line drive can find a gap or be snared by the short stop.  Over an extended period of time, however, it usually indicates the type of contact that is being made - line drives and hard hit balls.

How does a guy like Michael Cuddyer lead the NL in average?  Well, when he hit the ball and it stayed in the park, he was batting .382, which was over 50 points higher than his regular batting average.  The closer the BABIP and the regular batting average is, the more likely they are good and not just lucky (not to take anything away from the great hitters mentioned above.  For example, I'll use my personal golden standard of hitting: Tony Gwynn.

Tony had a lifetime career batting average of .338.  His career BABIP was only three points higher at .341

All right, to be honest, I feel like I'm hanging by a thread here with explaining these stats.  I'm not really confident that I'm explaining them well, or if I'm even explaining them correctly.  Feel free to correct me, I will not be offended.  That being said, I have no freaking clue what "Fielding Independent Pitching" means.  And I don't feel like finding out, so for this group, we'll take a look at the cards themselves.

The first thing that I noticed about these is that I think that not very many (if any) of these photos have been recycled from somewhere else.  This is a great sign, as it has become very common practice for Topps.  Secondly, I like how the background colors (graphs, I suppose) compliment the team/uniform colors for the players.  While the gray background may seem a little drab, these look pretty good in a binder altogether.  Good fonts and graphics here, these get the ATWTTB seal of approval.

Alright, last one - UZR: Ultimate Zone Rating.  This is a fielding metric that takes a lot of factors into account, including errors, assists, double plays made, and the number of balls they get to/area they cover.  Really surprised to see Juan Uribe make the cut here, as I didn't think he was particularly known for his defense, and I thought Andrelton Simmons would've been higher - the dude is a human highlight reel at short stop.

Clear as mud?  Well, all I can say is that I took Algebra 4 three times in high school, and I actually didn't pass my last math class in college - I had to beg the dean to let me graduate (he didn't let me "pass" the class, but allowed me to get my degree, it just dinged my GPA, which wasn't stellar to begin with - no advanced metrics needed there).

Let's take a look at the backs.

To be honest, I really thought the card backs would break down how to formulate each different sabermetric (man, am I tired of using that word).  I was wrong.  Not a whole lot of interesting stuff going on here.  There are articles written on how to determine these advanced stats, I suppose fitting it onto a 2" x 3" card would've been difficult.

Well, there you have it, the complete set of this year's Saberstars.  Am I the only one who liked this set?  Are there any surprises?  Do you hate all those math nerds trying to ruin baseball for you?

Hopefully this was at least a semi-beneficial post, or at the very least you liked looking at pictures of cards.

If not, well, can't say I didn't try.  Points for trying?


  1. While I'm not in love with them on the same level, I think this insert set is well done and, like you suggested, at least features a few non-recycled photos. The cards probably look nice in a binder.

    Also, I always crack up at that Billy Madison clip. A perfect punctuation mark to your post!

  2. Overall, I like the cards and I'm glad Topps is finally embracing some of the "newer" stats. My one beef is the little "dial" in the lower left-hand corner of the cards. Anibal Sanchez and Clayton Kershaw each had FIPs of 2.39... so why are their dials different? I think the dials were a nice concept, but it was poorly executed.

    Here's FanGraphs definition of FIPs: http://www.fangraphs.com/library/pitching/fip/

    FIP is my new favorite stat. It's like a better ERA in my estimation as it takes into account the luck the pitcher has and the defense behind him.

    The best way I can explain it is a scenario... say John Smith has a tremendous defense behind him and he pitches in pitcher's park like Petco. If his ERA is 3.50, then his FIP will probably be 4.00+ because he is getting some help from his defense and surroundings. In other words, trade John Smith to a team with average defense and a neutral park, then he'll pitch more like the guy with the 4.00+ ERA.

    1. Thanks for the explanation! I figured that it was something like that - pitching ability, with fielding factored out, good to know about park factors. What really confuses me are the different variations of these advanced metrics. On twitter today, I found out that the Padres pitching staff (despite pitching in spacious Petco Park) had a FIP+ of 97 for the last 30 days, which was 5th in the league in that time span. What the heck is FIP+, and why is it such a larger number than regular FIP? I know that there are answers to these questions, and that it wouldn't be THAT difficult to look up, but MAN! Where does it end? Well, as long as I can get some cool looking cards out of it, I guess it can't be that bad.

  3. I kind of like this insert. It attempts to do something a little different. I have a hard time with all of the advanced metrics. I really like them, but I can't calculate them very well. I failed College Algebra twice, and on the third try I earned a D, but the professor curved it up to a B.

  4. This is a good-looking insert, although it smells like Topps is throwing a bone to the ever-growing sabermetric crowd.

    I did pretty well in algebra/calculus in high school/college with a few hiccups here and there, but the new stats make me sleepy. I guess I'd rather not think very much when I'm watching baseball.