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Monday, November 17, 2003
New Topps twist: OPS

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

This weekend I was fortunate enough to receive a box of the 2004 Topps baseball cards. So, carrying on a "tradition" that I started a year ago, I'm going to write about the cards I found in one randomly selected pack.

The numbers of Jason Giambi (card No. 150) are heading in the wrong direction. I only wish I could insert a graph here, because you're never going to see anything quite so dramatic. Giambi's been in the major leagues for nine seasons. Beginning with his second season (1996), here's how his OPS has changed, season by season:

Jason Giambi
Jason Giambi has four years left on his contract.

What's been the difference the last two seasons? Contact. In 2000 and 2001 with the A's, Giambi batted .333 and .342, striking out 96 and 83 times. In 2002 and 2003 with the Yankees, Giambi batted .314 and .250, striking out 112 and 140 times. His power's still there -- 81 homers in '00 and '01, 82 homers in '02 and '03 -- and so are the walks, which means he's still a solid force in the lineup.

But when Giambi's not hitting .300, he's not the $15 million player the Yankees presumably thought they were getting. Well, it's really more than that. Giambi makes $14 million next season (including an annual installment of his signing bonus), $15.5 million in 2005, $18 million in 2006, and $21 million in both 2007 and 2008.

It's quite possible that 2003 was just a blip, and that Giambi will still be playing brilliantly in the fall of 2008, when Jeb Bush is running against Hillary Clinton. But if you're the Yankees, you have to be at least a little concerned.

Another guy who's signed through 2008 -- beyond, actually -- is Alex Rodriguez (100), but he doesn't present the same problem Giambi does. Yes, in today's market Rodriguez probably makes more money than he should, but at least you don't have to worry about his performance. Since signing with the Rangers, Rodriguez's numbers have been stunningly consistent and he's missed exactly one game in three years.

You know what might be a fun project? Make a list of all the pitchers who have pitched for Leo Mazzone in Atlanta, and then compare their Atlanta stats to their non-Atlanta stats. Here, I'll do it for Mike Remlinger (169) ...

I'm not saying that necessarily means anything. Before joining the Braves in 1999, Remlinger had never gotten a real shot as a full-time reliever, the role in which he thrived with Atlanta. But you know, this season with the Cubs, Remlinger gave up 11 home runs after giving up only 27 in the previous four seasons with the Braves (I had to consult the Bill James Handbook for that one, as home runs allowed aren't listed on the back of the Topps cards). And Remlinger probably does miss Leo Mazzone, at least a little.

You know who turns 28 in a few days? J.D. Drew (207), who was born on Nov. 20, 1975. So 2003 was his Age 27 season, the magical time when players commonly enjoy their best season. Drew, however, totaled only 287 at-bats while recovering from knee surgery. He also slugged .512 and hit a 500-foot home run, and you have to think that one of these years he's going to do something impressive. But he has to stay in the lineup, and to this point he's never done that over the course of a season.

Most consistent player in the majors? How about Eric Chavez (180)? He's played four full seasons, and in each his batting average has fallen within the range of .275-.288, and his OPS within the range of .850-.878. Oh, and he hasn't played more than 156 games or fewer than 151. Now, if he could just learn to hit left-handed pitching ...

Card No. 354 is one of the "Postseason Highlights," and it's a good one: Game 3 of the American League Championship Series (354). Topps' apparent interest in the past has waxed and waned over the years, but the 2004 set contains a wealth of historical content. This particular card features three memorable images: Pedro Martinez shouting at a Yankee hitter (who's not in focus, but I think it's Karim Garcia), Jorge Posada pointing at somebody, and Manny Ramirez gesturing with his bat toward Roger Clemens. The only thing missing is Zimmer taking a header (with Pedro's help), but maybe Topps is saving that one for their "Diamond Humor" subset. (Speaking of history, there are some wonderful cards in this set depicting old World Series programs.)

There are a number of "First Year" cards in the set, but that's not what it sounds like. In this case, "First Year" doesn't mean first year in the major leagues, nor does it mean first year as a professional baseball player. It might mean this is the first year this player's got his picture on a baseball card, but with the proliferation of sets, I'm not sure if that's it, either. All I know is that all the "First Year" cards depict players with little professional experience; in this case, it's Atlanta's Anthony Lerew (298), a right-handed pitcher who posted a 2.38 ERA for Rome last season. Lerew's actually a prospect, but a lot of the "First Year" guys are not. Just flipping through the packs I already opened ... Here's Tydus Meadows, a 26-year-old outfielder who spent last season in the Texas League ... Here's Tim Frend, a 23-year-old outfielder who spent last season in the Midwest League, and didn't fare particularly well (.403 slugging percentage) ... There are some good prospects among these cards, but there are too many depicting players who will never wear a major-league uniform unless they go into coaching.

Did anybody notice how good Orlando Cabrera (266) was in 2003? Cabrera's defense probably wasn't Gold Glove quality (as it's been in the past), but he compensated by playing every game, scoring 95 runs, and knocking 66 extra-base hits. Cabrera's not really that good, of course. He'd never hit like this before, and in '03 he also benefited from not one, but two excellent hitter's parks, in Olympic Stadium and San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

What happened to Toby Hall (159), anyway? The back of his card says, "Toby is a unique hitter in that he is a catcher with power who hits down in the order -- not traits normally associated with his degree of bat control. Each of the past two years, he was one of the toughest hitters in baseball to strike out. Being able to put the ball in play well over 80% of the time helps Hall prevent long slumps." Huh? Toby Hall's last two seasons have been a long slump. This is a guy who's shown real ability in the high minors, but really hasn't done much in the majors. No, he doesn't strike out. He doesn't walk, either -- in 2003, only 23 walks in 130 games. Which means he fits right in with his teammates, of course. Among all the major-league teams, only the Dodgers drew fewer walks than the Devil Rays last season.

And speaking of catchers who aren't all that, has anybody noticed that Paul Lo Duca (58) has turned into ... well, Paul Lo Duca? His 2001 campaign -- .320 batting average, .543 slugging average -- is now looking like one of the all-time great fluke seasons. Lo Duca's .917 OPS that season was completely out of character with what he'd done before, and in the two seasons since his OPS' are .732 and .712 ... and that's who he is. Not that the Dodgers seemed to notice. In 2003, they were so desperate to keep his bat in the lineup that he racked up 568 at-bats and spent some time at first base. Lo Duca's not a bad player if he's catching because he'll hit .280 with an occasional bomb. But that guy who hit 25 home runs in 2001? He's gone, and he's not coming back.

You might have wondered about the OPS references in a few of the comments above. Yes, OPS really is on the backs of Topps baseball cards, and I'm as surprised as you are. I don't know exactly what it means, but I do know you can't get much more mainstream than Topps. I also know that some of the purists, at both ends of the analytical spectrum, will recoil in horror at the thought of OPS appearing so institutionally. The Luddites hate OPS because Mel Allen didn't talk about it in the 1950s, and the Young Turks think OPS is just horribly simplistic.

I say pshaw. The back of a baseball card isn't a place for serious analysis. It's a place for a quick glance, a shorthand description of a player's skills. So if I had to pick just one statistic for the back of a card, it would be this one.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," was published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.