Friday, January 28, 2022

Yeah, I Read the Backs

One of my life's simplest pleasures is 'ripping' a single pack of baseball cards. The now sometimes hard to find single 'wax' pack is, for me, the simplest way to absorb some baseball. A prime reason for that is the small quantity of cards contained within, compared to all other packaging formats, particularly lately as Topps has (temporarily?) discontinued rack/hanger/fat packs after production problems with such early last year.

Obtaining just 16 (the current count in such packs) brand new baseball cards at one time leads me to spend more time with each card; that time per card is directly related to how many cards I buy on the same day. And that time is not spent obsessing over the visual cues on the front of the card, but rather is spent reading the backs of the cards. Give me a blaster and I will read a couple-three card backs most likely. Give me a single pack and I will read the whole pack.

So I thought I would again detour from one last new 2021 product I picked up recently and just share a pack of cards with you. First up -

J.B. Bukauskas

I always like a good seating rails card. Perhaps this card has finally clued me to which stadium tends to produce these; I have a few favorites over the years and as I puff on a few cobwebs of memory on those, which are not of Diamondbacks, they do tend to feature players in their road uniforms, hmmmm. It is a bit of a pity that the stadium designer in Arizona couldn't sync their efforts with the 2021 Topps Baseball design though.

Meanwhile I don't care for a card where you can't see the player's eyes, though that is only partially true on this card; it does give this Rookie a somewhat shifty/sinister vibe that leans right into wearing a black uniform with a rattlesnake on it. Should we be gazing upon the next Aroldis Chapman, this will become a classic Rookie Card, perhaps.

But this post is about the back of this still new baseball card:

I know the blogs are mostly read on mobile devices now, and on those you just generally can't read what's happening on the scan of the back of a card - or the player's name on the front of the card, come to think of it. So I will type them in for you. Sorry-not-sorry, there won't be a "just watch the video" option here:

"Landed in the 2019 trade that sent Zack Greinke to Houston, J.B. fired 7 2/3 scoreless innings in 2021 Spring Training to position himself for an early season call-up. When the hard-throwing right-hander debuted on April 20, he retired the lone Reds batter he faced to earn a victory. That was the first of four straight scoreless appearances for Bukauskas."

This workman like effort by Topps Card Back Writer (use the Beatles for a mental soundtrack to this post, would be my advice) pleased me. If I were a Diamondbacks fan, that is how I would like to remember a new addition to the team - oh, yeah, a guy we got for flipping the Greinke contract. The text continues the career arc history quite nicely from there. A bit of luck to get a "W" for facing just one batter, an inclusion that oh-so-subtly helps point out how the "W" stat is near useless for relievers in particular. 2021 then rolls on nicely with J.B. putting four more zeroes up on the board — if you could read this card back in isolation, this gives away that it is a card back written for the Update set; Topps Card Back Writer often discusses specific early, current season accomplishments in Update lately.

How'd it all turn out for ole J.B.? ehh, he went on to pitch 17.1 innings in 2021 but before long the opponents had done their oppo-research / written the book on him and he was tagged for 15 Earned Runs. He remains on the Diamondbacks roster as I type however so perhaps we will see more J.B. Bukauskas baseball cards. I know you will be keeping your eyes peeled for them.

Now don't be afraid that I will be putting you to sleep with nothing but card back texts. The pack quickly woke me up with a more pleasant afternoon game card, a standard advantage for Cubs cards over a Diamondbacks card -

Zach Davies

I do also quite like an empty seats card; this one features a few minor constellations of such. Always more and more of these appearing in packs the last few years. The back:

"Zach landed in Chicago in 2021 by way of the Yu Darvish trade to San Diego. He's a touch-and-feel type whose 41.3% change-up usage - a pitch that limited batters to a .174 AVG in 2020 - led MLB."

Topps again comes through with the deets on how Davies reached the Cubs beyond the absolute bare minimum in the "ACQ: TRADE WITH PADRES 12-29-20" line just above the true card back text. But more interesting is a clear example of how the sabermetrics era is a great aid to the production of baseball cards, and of course particularly their backs, and is a reason I decided to write this post as I think card backs have been improving lately. Here in the blogosphere it is easy to slag on Topps for their occasional boo-boos on the fronts of the cards and any perceived bit of laziness with those, however meanwhile Topps is still putting in the work on the backs of the cards in their premiere product, usually, if you turn them over. 

It is often missed by the folks who complain about compound stats - "WAR is such garbage! I hates it!" - that a much bigger element to stats and the game today has nothing at all to do with complex new formula-stats, but rather is the incredible access to pure basic data that all fans have in the 21st century. Previously, no one outside the offices of a Major League team could possibly know that a given Pitcher threw a change-up 41% of the time. So this is a nice step-up from straight trivia in terms of understanding a player.

These days, Update (and all Topps products, I guess) is all about those Rookies -

Justin Wiliams

Yes, we are happy to see you too, Justin. That yellow armband though, what's up with that? Let's see if Topps explains:

"Justin has been traded twice in his career, with the latest bringing him to St. Louis from Tampa Bay in 2018. A tough out who produces high exit velocities and unforced power, he got his first extensive Major League playing time in early 2021. Williams hit his initial Cardinals home run on April 16, then drilled his second just three days later."

Question: does any prospect traded _away_ from Tampa Bay ever go on to be a star? I have my doubts on that. I doubt Topps Card Back Writer will ever answer that one for me, because as we all know, It's Always Sunny in Brooklyn or, err, on the back of a Topps Baseball card.

This does quite well explain how Justin made it to The Show early this year, and I'm sure Composition 102 TAs everywhere would delight in seeing a student lead their reader right into the facts that prove their exposition a mere one sentence later. There's probably a term for such writing trickery, but it eludes me. At least if I were a student of the St. Louis Cardinals or even just the NL Central in general, I would understand what the Redbirds front office was hoping with their line-ups the first 1/3 of the season. Too bad Update comes out after the season is over, and this particular 4th OF experiment had already ended.

Some players, well, their names are just too common sounding -

Martin Perez

I really thought this guy had somehow been playing for the Indians lately. Which is why I flip the cards over:

"Satisfied with his 2020 performance - which included an MLB-leading 45.7% of his strikeouts looking, and an AL-high rate of 1.45 GIDPs induced per nine innings - the Red Sox re-signed Martin for 2021."

Sometimes I wonder if Topps Card Back Writer moonlights for Scott Boras in their spare-time, secretly shilling players in text messages to 5th-Assistant-GMs still stuck in a cubicle in the Back Office deep in the bowels of Major League stadiums. Because despite their perpetually (and required) Sunny nature, Topps Card Back Writer has here once again perfectly explained a Major League Baseball transaction. If I were assembling a pitching staff for hitter friendly Fenway Park, yeah, I sure would want a guy who gets lots of swinging 3rd strikes and balls hit straight in to Double Plays. Some facts that explain a whole lot more than a rather plain 4.50 ERA does.

Quite often, a pack of baseball cards will explain a Where-He'd-Go question in my mind, multiple times per pack -

Michael Wacha

Ahh, Tampa now. Thanks, Topps. I can't say this display of Pitcher Face bodes well for what I am going to find on the back:

"Michael showed signs in 2021 of recovering earlier form, when he was an NLCS MVP at 22, and a 17-game winner at 24. His first victory for the Rays was a scoreless, six-inning, one-hit gem against the Yankees."

Well if anyone can fix a former young star now mid-career and slipping some, it would be the Rays.  That Always Sunny history comes out quickly here before a quick segue to a positive factoid from April. Alas, not even the promo power of Topps Card Back Writer could get Wacha on to the post-season roster this year, if memory serves. His next card back will be more of a challenge, I suspect.

Next in the pack was a card front I found particularly pleasing, and one that will become a part of the Permanent Collection (how do you un-abbreviate the card collecting term "PC" ?) -

Brad Miller

That's because Brad Miller is well known for not using batting gloves, something I learned on the back of his Rookie Card some 8 years ago in a previous Update set - which then managed to crop his hands right out of the picture on the front of his card. So when Topps occasionally manages to get this player depicted while batting, I just like to see this. How well does he bat?

"When Brad went deep for the Phillies on May 4, 2021, he became just the second active player (joining Kiké Hernandez of the Red Sox) to have hit a home run while playing seven different positions."

Now this somewhat explains how Miller has joined an MLB team seven different times (this being his second time in the Phillies clubhouse) - he's a versatile Utility player who can hit enough to claim a roster spot, basically. Seems like a classic baseball card back trivia nugget, but does have a deeper implication with a little thought.

Sometimes I really get up-to-speed on a team when their cards appear sequentially in a pack, though I thought this guy was a Diamondback:

Archie Bradley

Here Topps skips a forgettable stop in a forgettable year, when Bradley threw 7 innings for the Reds in 2020, and gets straight into roster 'splainin'

"Burned by a battered bullpen in 2020, the Phillies added Archie to the mix for the new season. He brings a robust resumé as both a set-up man (NL-high 34 holds in '18) and closer (14 straight saves in '19)."

Hmm, maybe it's not Always Sunny in Philadelphia. That's a rarely seen minor slip by Topps Card Back Writer - criticizing an MLB team result! I guess that's OK, it wasn't the Front Office's fault, as they get the "battered" adjective for cover, implying Injury could be blamed, maybe. Though I suspect many Phillies fans would secretly grin/frown/sigh at that word for a bullpen that, yes, gets battered a lot — by the batters. Topps Card Back Writer can be more devious than it first appears. Remembering to add the ´ to the é in resumé is the perfect touch of professional class that reveals Topps Card Back Writer always stays above the fray, too.

Lately Topps has gone a bit historical on many Topps Baseball checklists, with a return and steady use of a quite old baseball card trope, the "Dual" -

Duo Dials Up The "D"

Though on this one my distaste for Faceless Men on my cards quickly forms my impression of the card, even before I turn it over:

"Balls struck up the middle by Mariners opponents often find their way into the glove of one of these two defensive wizards. In his second start for Seattle on April 2, 2021, Taylor made a sensational diving catch in center field to rob the Giants of a run. J.P. secured his first fielding award at shortstop last season, after amassing 0.9 Defensive WAR."

Hmmm, this one just makes me suspicious because above all that text under the name Taylor Trammel, his position just says "OF" which is a sensible enough approach vs. defining a usually dynamic outfield roster spot. But still it made me head off to, which is not something I want my baseball cards to do. Why did I not hear the name Taylor Trammel during the season? Don't I have his Rookie Card laying around somewhere? Does he really play Center Field?

Sort of, mostly; he started in Center 37 times and over in Left 14 more times, but then he became completely faceless - off the 25-man roster. So this is a nice effort for Seattle fans on the part of Topps Checklist Creator, but it is a bit of a stretch to merge a CF and a SS on a card, methinks, and overall this just makes me look forward to uncovering my next J.P. Crawford card in a pack. Duals are always a hit-or-miss for me, with more misses than hits.

Now it's time for the exciting part of the pack - the center of the pack - which holds the special cards -

Charlie Morton

Ahh the man of the Fall, or one of them, with his memorable headlines in the World Series and shown here on a foil parallel. Topps lucked out a bit with this card appearing in Update and the Braves in the Fall Classic. Let's go to the tape, err, the back:


I actually like these cards, the ones with no contribution at all from Topps Card Back Writer. If this had been a set with a condensed career record showing just the previous 5 years of statistics + some text, I would not have discovered that Morton actually began his career with the Braves back in 2008. And that bit of pure trivia is actually more pleasing, and a welcomed break from reading sentences full of trivia.

Special cards continue; these new 16 card packs are kind of built that way, which is good -

Mookie Betts

This represents a new thing this year - the All-Star Game cards are neither from the ASG itself, in terms of imagery, nor are a regular entry on the set checklist. But rather, are an insert. One thing that stayed the same, from some previous years (but not others as some years it has been possible to include the player's actual game activity in the ASG) is an attempt at explaining the accomplishments that landed the player on the All-Star Team:

"2021 MLB® ALL-STAR GAME® CREDS: Selected for fifth MLB All-Star Game... Opened schedule with seven-game hitting streak over which he batted .323 with 1.028 OPS, six walks, and a couple of clouts... Reached base in first 21 contests...Belted four home runs in 10-game span, June 10-21... Had four RBI despite no XBHs on May 8...Notched 250th double of career on May 14."

Here you kind of have to have some sympathy for Topps Card Back Writer. Of course any All-Star should have something to positive to remark on from early in a season, but sometimes All-Stars are just All-Stars because they are All-Stars in spite of a lackluster first half of a season. That's not a problem here, but still this seems a bit of a tougher assignment than trying to be Always Sunny about journeymen baseball players, perhaps. Maybe that's what drew out the somewhat rare term "clouts" and makes one think if you read a few more of these you might find some "taters." I expect so. There is a lot of white space on the back of an ASG card and someone has to write something.

I thought it was odd that MLB® can appear in a sentence as just MLB, but not a header text, but whatevs. Somewhat telling is that a stat reaching into June 21st can be included in Topps Card Back Writer's arsenal; deadline for these must have been some time between 6-21 and the ASG itself, which was on 7-13, this year.

I guess the single packs this year are actually 13 card + 3 special cards. I'm surprised Topps doesn't trumpet it that way on the front of the pack. But I was happy to pull this one:

That's particularly true because early on in collecting 2021 Update, I really wanted these nice pleasing 1992 cardboard flashbacks, so I purchased a blaster, obtaining 7 of them, and then a couple "hanger box" efforts, which include 4 of them. And was rewarded for that by receiving the same sequence of 4 of the 1992 cards three times each! Another key reason I switched back to single packs when they became available a few weeks after the first two package formats. You don't 'hit' cards in packages of baseball cards, you hit sequences of cards as the cutting machines have to work that way. Buy 3 blasters to get 300 cards and I think you will end up with more duplicates than via purchasing 19 single packs to get 304 cards - which would also be $8.50 cheaper, where I buy Topps Baseball cards.

Now back in 1992, card backs were quite succinct, and Topps stays 100% authentic to those when they do a re-issue, because card backs like these were super easy to write:

"Stroked his first Major League Home Run with three-run blast: 7-24-11 at Orioles."

A bit of a pity that along the way, near 30 years later, card back Home Runs have become just home runs these days.

Now sometimes I can forgive the appearance of Faceless Player on a card; this is probably one of those times:

Franchy Cordero

Here again I was at a "he plays there now?" moment on the front of this card. Has every young player in MLB been part of the wheeler dealer action going on in San Diego the last few years? It sometimes seems that way, so I quickly flipped this one over:

"Franchy grew up in the Dominican Republic as a Red Sox fan who idolized the likes of David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Pedro Martinez, and he called it a "dream come true" when he was dealt to Boston this past February. Cordero played a key role in the team's first victory of 2021 on April 5, by going 2-for-4 with a double and two RBI in an 11-2 win over the Rays."

This at first hit me with a curve at the mention of the Rays, the other young player merry-go-round recently, but overall I like these endearing memories of the youth of a future baseball player. That's something I will remember the next time I pull a Franchy Cordero baseball card from a pack - if there is a next time. Everyone thinks about Update and all the Rookie Cards in it - it is actually the set with by far the most "sunset" cards for all those RC players just a couple-three seasons later.

But Update does still occasionally Update, believe it or not:

Nolan Arenado

It does always interest me to see what Topps Card Back Writer has to say about the bona-fide stars of the game, and I always turn over their cards even from the middle of a blaster:

"Nolan arrived in St. Louis in 2021 with eight fielding awards and three home run crowns on his resume. His nine-game hitting streak to start his stint there topped Roger Maris' record of eight, set in 1967."

This effort leads in many directions. Baseball cards can only impart fielding information there in the short text on the card backs, so the tip of the keyboard there is a nice touch. Here perhaps we notice that there could be more than one Topps Card Back Writer, maybe, with the lack of ´ on the e in resume, an oopsie though kind of balanced out with getting the apostrophe usage correct on Roger Maris' name, something rarely seen in lazy writing here there and everywhere today. And - Roger Maris eventually played in St. Louis? I'ma gonna need some more baseball cards, is the conclusion from this baseball card back. Well done, Topps Card Back Writer.

Now, quite effectively, baseball cards are a great way for a fan to keep up with just what is happening on those mysterious last place teams in other divisions, as with the ongoing tragic results in Baltimore:

Bruce Zimmerman

Could the O's be sneaking another John Means on to their eventual trade block? There's only one way to find out:

"Bruce earned a berth in the Orioles rotation to open the 2021 campaign. The team's 11th and latest Baltimore-born player, he cracked the Major League win column in his first start, on April 4 in Boston."

Here we have another reminder that many of these cards are possibly composed fairly early on in the season, for one, and this is a nice memorable tidbit to include for Orioles fans in particular. I'd bet Topps Card Back Writer was quite happy to stumble across that one somehow, for this assignment.

Meanwhile even for veterans, Update can be a common spot to see their swan song in baseball -

Josh Reddick

A 13 year, 24.7 career WAR will tend to give Topps Card Back Writer another quick break:


Sometimes it is surprising just how many mystery players play on mystery teams, when opening some Update in particular, and you just never know with packs of Topps Baseball when you may have fallen into a Diamondbacks hot pack -

Josh Rojas

On this card I kept looking for the RC logo but that must have been last year, or the one before. I never know what's happening in the West divisions of MLB, so I have to keep flipping over baseball cards to find out:

"Pop, patience, and positional versatility define Josh's value. He grew up a Diamondbacks fan — a self-described "small, scrappy player" whose favorites were infielders Orlando Hudson and Tony Clark."

There's young Diamondbacks fans out in Arizona? I thought only retired people lived out there. And the Diamondbacks have been around enough for their young fans to again become a player for their favorite local MLB team? (A bit of a theme of this particular pack of baseball cards - well done, Topps).

And there at the beginning of that one we finally read Topps Card Back Writer letting their hair down a little bit and having a bit of alliterative fun. I can never decide if those happen at the beginning of their day, when the coffee is still warm next to the keyboard, or at the end of the day, when the first sips of a bit of a day-drink cold brew are just starting to hit the synapses before Topps Card Back Writer gets to leave the baseball card mines after a long shift.

Sadly, I have exactly zero memory of Orlando Hudson, so, once again, I guess I'ma gonna need more baseball cards. Well played, Topps Card Back Writer.

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