Modern Baseball Card Ramblings of a Pre-War Collector: Shohei Ohtani Injury

Rookie Shohei Ohtani seems headed for Tommy John surgery

Grand Opening, Grand Closing.

So things may not be that extreme. But the recent news of rookie Shohei Ohtani’s injury is certain to send shockwaves through the hobby of all things new and shiny.

Ohtani’s career isn’t done, of course. But the young star suffered a considerable setback when it was announced that an elbow injury is likely to require Tommy John surgery, probably forcing him out of action until 2020.

That ‘ouch’ you hear is both figurative and literal.

So far this season, Ohtani had been a legitimate star living up to the hype. A power-hitting pitcher, Ohtani was 4-1 through nine starts with a 3.10 ERA and was hitting .289 with six home runs as a designated hitter. This was about as much as anyone could reasonably expect and to see him performing so well both on the mound and at the plate was refreshing. I watch less and less baseball each year and he’s a guy that could get me out of the house and down to the ballpark if he was in my area. From purely a baseball standpoint, he’s maybe the guy a casual fan would most want to see this year.

All of that is temporarily halted now, though, and the market for his baseball cards is about to change, so buckle up.

Expected shift in Shohei Ohtani card market

Shohei Ohtani 2018 Bowman SuperfractorRelevant to the card market, prices on his rookie issues were soaring. Big news broke last week as something called a Superfractor was pulled. If you’re a vintage guy like me and had no idea what this is, a point of clarification here. This is a 1/1 autographed insert card found in the 2018 Bowman set and talk of its value, when it was eventually pulled, was in the low six figures.

Now, if that sounds nuts, that’s because, well, it is. Yes, the card is a 1/1. And yes, Ohtani is the hottest name in modern cards today. But with so many 1/1s for players, they just are simply not as rare as they sound. Players can conceivably have dozens of different 1/1s and spread out over the years, it’s just not as significant as it seems.

The bigger problem with valuing a rookie card of a new player that high, of course, is we have no idea what Ohtani’s career will be in the grand landscape of all-time greats.

The question isn’t even if he will necessarily be another Babe Ruth. That would be the unlikeliest of unlikely scenarios. Rather, we don’t even know if he will be another Joe Carter, Don Mattingly, or Harold Baines. He has barely scratched the surface as a major league player and expecting him to become even a more modest long-term star like those guys is a reach. Anything, injuries included, can derail what seems to be a sure thing in the blink of an eye and to call a guy a borderline Hall of Famer simply can’t be done after only one year. Ask Jerome Walton. Or Joe Charboneau. Or Kevin Maas. Or Mark Prior. Or … you get the idea.

Future Projections?

So what does this mean for Ohtani’s cards? It’s too early to tell over the long-term but, immediately, we know they will take a hit. Tommy John surgery is going to knock him out of action and, just as importantly, the spotlight for quite a while. Just being out of the limelight itself is certain to cause a level of disinterest among collectors even if Ohtani hasn’t lost a single shred of talent.

And while Ohtani can easily return to form and become even better, even the long-term prospects are not real good. That might sound like hyperbole but think about it. Ohtani cards were likely at their height before the injury. Even if Ohtani comes back as good as ever, it is hard to imagine them being any better than where they were a few weeks ago. The best hope, then, is for investors to see them reach that level again. And that won’t be happening until at least some time in 2020.

In short, his injury doesn’t mean certain long-term doom for his cards. But at the very least, it means there will be a lot of uncertainty about them and, getting back to the levels of craziness they were at just last week probably isn’t happening, either.

A Parallel Tale: Why the Stephen Strasburg comparisons should concern Ohtani collectors

Strasburg 2010 Bowman RCThe instant parallel, of course, is that of Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg was hyped as a guy that could become one of the greatest pitchers of all time and, in his rookie season, was doing nothing to change those projections. And if you’re a big time Ohtani collector, listen up.

Strasburg, if you recall, went 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA in a partial 2010 season with the Nationals and had struck out an incredible 92 batters in only 68 innings pitched. But disaster struck later in the year with an injury and Tommy John surgery (sound familiar?) forced him to miss almost all of 2011.

At the time, Strasburg’s cards were arguably on par with those of Ohtani, at least in terms of interest, and he was among the hottest things in baseball. His cards that were skyrocketing in value came back to earth and these days, his basic 2010 rookie cards can sometimes be found in PSA 10 for under $10 – barely worth the cost of the grading itself. Something like that would have been unheard of at the time. As a point of comparison, Ohtani’s basic 2018 Bowman rookies in PSA 10 had been selling mostly in the $40-$70 range on eBay last month.

But here’s the thing that should concern Ohtani collectors: Strasburg recovered to be an all-star player and his cards still never recovered.

The Strasburg example is not one of those of a player that struggled after the surgery. Since coming back, he has been named to three all-star teams, won 15 games three times (and 14 in a fourth season), and led the league in strikeouts in 2014. Strasburg has not been lights out dominant like some thought he could be but he remains an above-average major league starting pitcher having a nice career. Despite all of that, however, his cards have cooled considerably and have never gotten close to what they once were.

The point here is that, even if Ohtani returns better than ever, his cards may already have been irretrievably harmed. That is partially due to the injury and also partially because a new favorite son will have already captured the hearts and wallets of collectors by 2020. It’s the nature of the hobby, friends, and if Ohtani’s cards are to again skyrocket in value to reach 2018 levels, he’s going to have to be some kind of performer.

Ohtani, like so many others, proves to be yet another cautionary tale when it comes to splurging on new stars. The best strategy, as it has been for virtually anything, is to buy low and sell high. And if major Ohtani investors haven’t sold by now, there’s a good chance they’ll take a hit or have to wait longer to see a return – if one comes at all.

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