This past Christmas, I purchased the Topps 2016 Baseball Sticker Album as a present for my son. Although he is only 3, he loves watching and playing baseball. Buster Posey is his favorite player and since he was on the cover and a sticker for him existed, I figured buying the album was a no lose proposition. I remember how much fun I had completing the Topps and Fleer sticker albums in the early 80s as an elementary school aged kid and hoped that the combination of baseball and stickers would capture his attention. He and his 4 year old sister have been opening up packs each day and completing the album. It’s been a great experience. Each team has 8 or 9 stickers (for certain teams, the mascot is given a sticker. These teams are left with 8 player stickers). Unlike baseball cards that include a variety of players (stars, washed up veterans, journeymen, minor league prospects, etc…), these stickers focus on the ‘best’ players for each club. As we have completed the album, I have been struck by how many of these “core” players moved on prior to or during the 2016 season.
Of the 250 players represented with a sticker, 56 of these players were no longer with their team at the season’s conclusion. That’s 22 percent of the players that Topps and Major League Baseball deemed the most visible, popular, marketable, and (insert your favorite descriptor here) that failed to remain with their team. There were a few players that inflated this number to 22%. High profile free agents were included with their 2015 team. David Price is depicted as a Blue Jay, Jason Heyward as a Cardinal, and Justin Upton as a Padre. However, the vast majority of the player movement was accounted for by other transitions such as trades or being released so the 22 percent of players moving is not far off from the true percentage of seasonal shuffling that occurred.
There were significant differences between teams regarding the number of players that were moved during 2016. For instance, 6 of 8 San Diego Padres and 6 of 9 Oakland As players were no longer with their teams when the 2016 ended. Compare this with all 9 Minnesota Twins and all 8 Detroit Tigers players remaining employed by their respective team at season’s end. Interestingly, teams that kept the players depicted on the stickers did not necessarily win more (ex. Arizona had all 8 players remain on the team for the entire 2016 as did Cleveland and that is about as divergent as two seasons can be).
But let’s get back to the 22% of ‘upper talent’ moving in a single season. Many questions run though my head when I see that 22% number. How does the roster churning of today’s bigger names impact the casual or diehard fan? How about the way the league and its advertising partners market players, teams, and the game? What about team chemistry and player and/or team production? To what extent do analytic team projections or Vegas futures become impacted by multiple “top 9” players moving locations?
The stars of today’s game have a recognition problem. Gone are the days of Top 10 Q Ratings for even the game’s best players. Recently retired players like Derek Jeter and David Ortiz and past stars like Pete Rose are more identifiable to the general public than baseball’s biggest current cornerstones like Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, and Bryce Harper. Although these talents have stayed with their original team, their surrounding cast of supporting stars and role players appear to regularly turn over. This player movement may have distanced the casual fan from their local teams and may be one of the reasons that have led to an overall loss of recognition for even the best players.
The Topps 2016 Baseball Sticker Album illustrates that higher quality player movement is part of today’s game. Although this movement has helped competitive teams consolidate power and underperforming teams enter the rebuilding process earlier and at times more efficiently, there are a number of consequences that may negatively impact the game, its fans, and its marketing partners. While I had recognized the significant player movement each season, the activity of building the 2016 sticker collection allowed me to better gauge the true frequency of top tier performers moving. The extent of that movement creates significant ripples throughout various aspects of the game both on and off the field.