Ronald Acuna Jr (ACJR) $31.00 7.0% Anthony Volpe (VOLP) $17.00 Jalen Hurts (HRTS) $21.00 Jose Altuve (ALTU) $7.00 -42.0% Matt Olson (MATO) $4.00 Trea Turner (TREA) $1.00 1133.0% Julio Urias (URAS) $44.00 327.0%

A Review & 2020 Forecast for Top Bowman Chrome Auto’s

Trout, Acuna, Soto . .

What if we ranked active major leaguers by the Total Market Value of their Bowman Chrome Auto Refractor BGS 9.5s? Here are the top three players, with a review of their cards and a forecast for 2020 and beyond.

(Please read the “Methodology” section at the end of this article to review details behind the rankings.)

#1 MIKE TROUT (2009 Bowman Chrome Refractor Auto)

Gem Mint Total Market Value: $2,306,000

(BGS 9.5 Population: 204 / Last eBay Auction $11,306 Dec. 12)

The Player: Age 28 / ESPN #1 CF (Buster Olney) / HOF 100% ( / Exit Velocity 80th %ile (Statcast) / Hard Hit 81st %ile

A reasonable argument can be made for Mike Trout as the greatest baseball player of all time. No, of course he has not created the most Career Value, though as an example of his achievements he last year (at age 28) passed Derek Jeter in career WAR, 72.5 to 72.4. The all-time greatest argument for Trout is based on Peak Value. In eight major league seasons, Trout has been A.L. MVP or runner-up seven times. In the other season, he played only 114 games and finished 4th in the MVP balloting. That’s an unprecedented reign of sustained accomplishment in the modern era. For comparison, Mickey Mantle’s best 8-year stretch was 1955 to 1962, during which he won 3 MVPs (same as Trout), finished 2nd twice, 5th twice, and 17th in a down year. By the way, Trout was three years younger than Mantle for the comparison period, and he played in a sport that is arguably more competitive (larger international talent pool, fewer tired complete-game pitchers, etc.) than it was in the 50s and 60s.

The Card: Design B- / Image C+ / SigScore C
Trout’s 2009 Bowman Chrome Auto is not a particularly attractive card, and it suffers in comparison with several other early Trout cards. In 2009, Topps/Bowman was explicitly blocking out a rectangle for the signature box, a practice that has since given way to the more attractive “seamless fade” signature area of recent BCAs. More importantly, the image of Trout is a standard and uninspired at-bat shot against a background of empty seats. No wonder, then, that collectors have made the mass-produced 2011 Topps Update Trout a hobby favorite with a level of passion perhaps equal to that shown for this earlier, “1st Bowman Chrome” Autographed card. The Update’s image is more compelling by far, with Trout finishing his swing and Mike’s face filling a larger portion of the frame. We give Trout’s typical autograph a Pit SigScore of C. It’s far from the worst MLB signature, but a non-fan would never guess his name by looking solely at the autograph.

2020 Vision and Beyond: This bluest of all blue-chip BCAs will be a solid investment as long as Trout avoids injury and remains the universally-acclaimed best player in the game. He seems to take good care of his body (unlike Mantle, his closest historical comp), is always trying to improve his game, has a good rapport with fans and has never been connected with a serious scandal to date. Sure, it would be nice if the Angels could be playoffs-competitive by freeing up the $59 million of dead weight from Albert Pujols’ embarrassing contract. Unfortunately, that won’t happen, and it’s sad to say that the greatest player of his generation may not be featured again in the postseason until he’s past his prime, if ever. At any rate, baseball card collectors have never demanded that their most-treasured heroes come with championships attached, unlike football and basketball collectors. Having said all that, Father Time is undefeated, and Trout will start 2020 at 28 years old, the age at which performance traditionally starts to gradually decline from its peak.

If you want to look for areas of concern, you can start with fielding stats like Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Saved, which rates Trout at -1 (just below average) for Center Fielders in 2019. For comparison, Victor Robles of the champion Nationals was top-ranked at 22 Runs Saved. Statcast’s defensive rankings for Trout (20th percentile in Outs Above Average, and 23rd percentile in Outfielder Jump) are even more disappointing, but those figures may not be as reliable as the more established DRS. Defensive performance is often the first area to decline as a player ages. If Trout is eventually moved from center field to a corner outfield position to accommodate a decrease in his range, that would be an acknowledgement that he is mortal. And investors who pay $11K for a cardboard rectangle often expect more than mortal.

#2 RONALD ACUNA (2017 Bowman Chrome Refractor Auto)

Gem Mint Total Market Value: $456,000

(BGS 9.5 Population: 243 / Last eBay Auction $1,878 Oct. 30)

The Player: Age 22 / ESPN #5 RF / HOF 29% / Exit Velocity 78th / Hard Hit % 89th
Acuna is widely regarded as the heir apparent to Trout as the best all-around player in the game. Last year, he narrowly missed becoming the youngest 40/40 (Homers/Steals) player in MLB history (he *did* become the youngest to achieve 40/30), finished fifth in MVP voting, and raked in a brief postseason appearance, all at the tender age of 21.

The Card: Design B / Image B+ / SigScore C
Acuna’s 2017 Bowman Chrome Auto features him running the bases, which is a fitting image considering he led the NL in runs scored last year. I’m not a fan of the sharp, gear-shaped motif most evident in the lower-right part of the card, but Ronald’s blue signature over his white pants matches nicely with the blue Braves jersey he wears. The signature itself shows moderate effort but includes few legible characters, thereby earning a Pit SigScore of C.

2020 Vision and Beyond: Acuna is undeniably exciting and accomplished. But he is not without issues. The big change for Acuna in 2020 is the Braves’ plan to move him from center field to right field, as elite AAA defender Cristian Pache is expected to graduate to the majors and take over center. This is a negative for Acuna, as center field is the outfield glamor position (think DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays) and many fans and speculators will be surprised to learn that he is stepping aside to accomodate a more talented fielder on his own team. Would Derek Jeter memorabilia be quite as prized today if he had shifted from shortstop to third base (as some thought he should) when Alex Rodriguez joined the Yankees in 2004? I think not; collectors like consistency, and playing for the same team at the same position earns you a premium in the collectibles arena. Fangraphs’ DRS rates Acuna as well above-average when he played a corner in 2019 (+3 DRS in LF, +5 in RF), but only average (+1 DRS) in Center. For what it’s worth, Statcast (27th percentile Outs Above Average, 56th percentile Outfield Jump) supports the notion that Acuna is *not* an elite defensive CF, and that therefore Pache may be better in center.

The other concern regarding Acuna is his high strikeout count. His K% increased modestly in his 2019 sophomore year, from 25.3% (2018 rookie season) to 26.3%. With two years of major league hitting experience under his belt as he starts 2020, look for his whiff rate to improve. If it continues to trend upwards, that would be a red flag that he is not learning and adjusting in the ways that a future Hall of Fame slugger must. Acuna struck out 188 times last year. Modern baseball card speculators know that Ks cannot be avoided in today’s homer-happy game, but they generally draw the line at 200+ strikeouts per year (exception: Aaron Judge). Finally, will Acuna connect with fans as they get to know him better? Becoming more fluent in English would help; at the end of last season, Acuna was still using an interpreter during interviews, although he was making efforts to answer some questions in English.

#3 JUAN SOTO (2016 Bowman Chrome Refractor Auto)

Gem Mint Total Market Value: $311,000

(BGS 9.5 Population: 204 / Last eBay Auction $1,525 Jan. 19)

The Player: Age 21 / ESPN #1 LF / HOF 18% / Exit Velocity 89th / Hard Hit % 92nd
How many major leaguers have hit as successfully as Soto through their age-20 season? Well, seven (as measured by OPS+) and they’re all Hall of Famers: Ted Williams, Mike Trout, Mel Ott, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Jimmie Foxx. Soto last year reached triple figures in Runs, RBIs and Walks, improved his OPS to .949 (6th in the NL), posted a golden 108-132 Walks-Strikeouts ratio, stole 12 bases in 13 tries and improved in the field as well, according to bWAR (-0.6, vs. -1.1 in his 2018 rookie season).

He’s likely to be forever paired with Ronald Acuna as the two great outfielders who debuted in 2018. Before the postseason, the narrative was that Soto was clearly the less well-rounded player, a hitting prodigy with work to do on his defense. Most fans and baseball experts expected the Braves’ impressive young core of Acuna, Albies, Swanson, Pache, Soroka, Fried & Freeman to lead Atlanta to a WS title ahead of any Nationals’ triumph, but Washington flipped the script and Soto ended up with a ring just days after his 21st birthday. Soto didn’t just go along for the ride, either; he led his team in Runs Scored and Total Bases during the playoffs. He also interviewed extremely well for the postgame shows, and basically positioned himself as possibly the best bet for sustained stardom and fame in the sport during the 2020s. So the question of whether Acuna or Soto would become the Face of the Sport in the new decade got a lot more interesting in October.

The Card: Design B / Image D / SigScore B+
This is just a god-awful ugly photo of young Juan. 
The athlete pictured (Is that really Juan? Is it the batboy?) looks sickly, thin and unhappy. His helmet appears too big for his head. The expression on his face says “That burrito is not sitting well with me, and now I gotta run the bases?” The image has almost a funhouse-mirror type aspect to it as it seems stretched out. Soto was listed at 185 pounds even as a 16-year-old (in the 2016 Baseball America Prospect Handbook), so it’s not like this picture is capturing him before his body began to fill out. Well, at least we get a solid signature. Juan Soto signs exactly the way you would expect, after learning about his work habits and listening to his interviews: carefully, legibly and with little flamboyance.

2020 Vision and Beyond: The upside for Soto is pretty clear. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 1.24 in a sport where the 2019 MLB average was 2.69. So he has supreme mastery of the strike zone, he hits the ball consistently hard, and he hit 39 Home Runs (including the postseason) last year at age 20. That combination is exceedingly rare. As the most advanced 20-year-old hitter in baseball, and one of the ten most advanced in baseball history, he could become the best hitter in baseball within the next few years, as he continues to learn about pitchers at the major league level.

What could Soto’s numbers look like at his peak? Well, maybe .350 / .470 / .660 on the slash line, 50 homers, a batting title and MVP. Those projections are reasonable for someone whose top six comps through age 20 (source: include Mantle, Frank Robinson, Harper, Trout and Griffey. Those guys all had single-season OPS peaks in the 1.047 to 1.177 range. The sixth comp (ironically, the best comp overall) presents a cautionary tale. The late Tony Conigliaro is remembered today as the youngest player in A.L. history to reach 100 career home runs -- in the same 1967 season in which he was struck in the face with a fastball, an injury which never allowed him to recover his initial greatness and promise.

So nothing is guaranteed in baseball, but Juan Soto is about as sure a bet as you will find in the speculative Rookie Card arena. With staggering batting accomplishments at such a young age, an excellent work ethic and no obvious bad habits, Soto looks like a future Hall of Famer and a safer bet than Acuna (career SO/BB ratio of 2.57, near MLB average) in this writer’s opinion. What could go wrong? We’ve already mentioned injury, but that can happen to any player. If Soto were revealed to be older than his stated age, as some have alleged without any hard evidence, that would revise downwards all the projections. Although the old Dominican Republic scheme of prospects assuming a younger person’s identity has become more difficult with greater scrutiny in recent years, it would be irresponsible to say that it doesn’t happen anymore, with so much money at stake.

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Because of their almost universal demand within the Hobby, 1st Bowman Chrome Autographed Cards (“BCAs”) offer an easy way to rank player popularity. Beckett Grading Services maintains its edge over PSA in grading modern cards, so most of the more valuable BCAs will end up in BGS holders, with both card and autograph separately graded. Beckett compiles population reports showing how many cards have been given a particular grade, and we can easily determine current price levels using the most recent eBay auction results. [NB: For “Last eBay Sale”, we exclude cards with high “ALL 9.5” subgrades, as these cards command a premium and would distort the Total Market Values if included.] The standard “investment grade” rookie card in the hobby is 1st Bowman Chrome, BGS 9.5 with 10 Auto grade. So we’ve got a widely preferred brand, a standard and widely accepted grade, and we know with fair accuracy how many exist and what people are paying for them. Calculating Total Market Value for a particular card is just (BGS 9.5 Population) X (Last eBay Auction Price), and this can then be used as a good proxy for the overall demand / popularity of the player. However, there is one problem with comparing players by their standard “base” BCA, which is that production has varied significantly for different players.

For example, let’s compare two popular BCAs, the 2010 Christian Yelich and the 2011 Bryce Harper. Beckett has graded 849 of Harper’s Base at 9.5, but only 88 of Yelich’s. In the context of the overall population report, this disparity can only be explained by much lower Topps production of the Yelich cards, either because fewer were printed or not as many were autographed for whatever reason. Therefore, building a comparative card prices index using these two players’ base Chrome Auto cards will lead to unhelpful distortion. In short, the popularity of Harper, and the demand for his top cards, will seem much greater than that of Yelich. That’s not what we want. If we instead consider only the numbered to 500, parallel “Refractor” versions of the same cards, the BGS 9.5 population numbers are much closer (120 for Harper, 72 for Yelich) and now we have a standard that can be applied equally enough for almost all current MLB stars, since the number of Refractors produced has been 500 (or, occasionally, 499) since 2005.

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