The Top 10 Reliever Rookie Cards
A Group of Reliever Rookies Worth "Saving"
By Kevin Glew
How do you spell relief?
Well, in their respective eras, these 10 lights-out closers have spelled late-inning relief for their managers.
And with two of them - Lee Smith and Mariano Rivera - set to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this July, the importance of elite relievers is being increasingly recognized.
Traditionally rookie cards of top relievers have remained relatively affordable, but that, too, is changing. For example, a PSA GEM-MT 10 1976 Topps Dennis Eckersley rookie sold for a whopping $9,000 in May 2018.
Veteran collector Kevin McHolland, who has assembled the No. 1, 300 Career Saves Club set on the PSA Set Registry, noticed that interest in rookies of top-tier closers has picked up in recent years.
"I think it has been buoyed by the Hall of Fame announcements," he said.
And this recognition has helped fans and collectors develop a greater regard for these ninth-inning saviors.
"I appreciate the role of a relief pitcher," explained Bob Robinson, who owns the No. 5 Current Finest Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year set on the PSA Set Registry. "Usually they're brought in during tough spots with little margin for error, so it takes a certain amount of mental toughness to be able to do that."
With Rivera and Smith set to be honored in Cooperstown this summer, it seems like a good time to compile a list of the 10 best reliever rookies. And after consulting with three Set Registry collectors pursuing sets that focus on relievers, here's our list in chronological order (as well as some Honorable Mentions).
Hoyt Wilhelm #392
In 1985, this eight-time All-Star became the first relief pitcher elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The wily knuckleballer didn't make his major league debut until he was 28, but in his rookie 1952 season, he quickly proved he could get major league hitters out, posting a 15-3 record and a league-best 2.43 ERA with 11 saves in 159-1/3 innings. Two years later, Wilhelm registered a 12-4 record and a 2.10 ERA in 57 games and helped the New York Giants defeat the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series. Over the course of his 21-year big league career, his knuckleball continued to beguile batters. From ages 42 to 46, he recorded five consecutive seasons with a sub 2.00 ERA. When he finally retired at age 49, he had accumulated 143 wins - including a record 124 as a reliever - and 228 saves.
Wilhelm made his cardboard debut in the high number 1952 Topps set. This card is not only a rare high number, but it's also difficult to find properly centered. A partial sheet that was sold in a Goldin Auctions sale in the fall of 2015 seems to indicate that this card was on the right edge of a row, a position that generally makes cards more susceptible to flaws such as miscuts. Of the 635 submitted, there has been one PSA 10, six PSA MINT 9s and 53 PSA NM-MT 8s. One PSA 8 fetched $3,774 on eBay in June 2018.
Rollie Fingers #597
Known for his handlebar mustache, this 6-foot-4 right-hander was one of baseball's best relievers during his 17-year major league career. After working primarily as a starting pitcher in the Oakland A's minor league organization, he was converted into a closer at the big league level and helped lead the club to three consecutive World Series titles from 1972 to 1974. Of the A's 12 wins in those World Series, Fingers registered a win or a save in eight of them and was named the 1974 World Series MVP. The seven-time All-Star also topped his league in saves and appearances three times.
After four seasons with the San Diego Padres from 1977 to 1980, he was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers. With the Brew Crew in 1981, he would record a 1.04 ERA and notch 28 saves to lead the club to their first post-season appearance. For his efforts, he was named both the American League Cy Young Award winner and league MVP. He completed his major league career with 114 wins, 341 saves and a 2.90 ERA and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.
Fingers shares his first Topps card with Bob Floyd and Larry Burchart, two other American League pitching prospects that Topps deemed "Rookie Stars." This card is regularly plagued by print defects on the front and by poor left-to-right centering. Of the 2,670 submitted, there have been 14 PSA 10s and 124 PSA 9s. One PSA 10 sold for $3,600 in a Heritage Auctions sale in April 2018.
Rich Gossage #174
This 6-foot-3 fireballer employed a menacing glare and a fastball that reached three-digit speeds. Gossage began his major league career with the Chicago White Sox in 1972 and in his fourth big league campaign, in 141-2/3 innings in relief, he registered nine wins, a 1.84 ERA, 26 saves and an 8.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) - which is the highest single-season WAR by a major league reliever. The Colorado Springs native spent 1977 with the Pittsburgh Pirates before he signed with the New York Yankees. It was in the Big Apple that his star would shine the brightest.
In his next six seasons with the Bronx Bombers, he was an All-Star four times, posted a 2.10 ERA, registered 150 saves and helped the club to a World Series title in 1978. After the 1983 campaign, he landed with the San Diego Padres and registered 10 wins and 25 saves to propel the club to its first World Series appearance. In all, in his 22-year big league career, Gossage notched 124 wins and 310 saves. For his efforts, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.
His 1973 Topps rookie (#174) features a posed throwing photo of Gossage with the White Sox. This card was located in the bottom row of a print sheet (third from the right), which helps explain why it's difficult to find properly centered from top-to-bottom.
McHolland says the fact that this card pictures Gossage with the White Sox rather than the Yankees has likely hurt its value. Of the 1,836 submitted, there have been 11 PSA 10s and 179 PSA 9s.
Dennis Eckersley #98
This 6-foot-2 right-hander was an effective starting pitcher with the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs for his first 12 major league seasons. But after he joined the Oakland A's in a trade prior to the 1987 campaign, he was transformed into one of the most dominant closers in major league history. In five years with the A's from 1988 to 1992, he averaged 44 saves and helped the club to four division titles and a World Series triumph in 1989.
In 1992, he posted a 7-1 record, a 1.91 ERA and notched 51 saves, which earned him American League Cy Young and MVP honors. The six-time All-Star completed his 24-year major league career with 197 wins and 390 saves, and he remains the only major leaguer with at least 100 saves and 100 complete games. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2004.
His 1976 Topps rookie (#98) offers a head-and-shoulders shot of him with the Cleveland Indians in a posed pitching motion with his glove above his head.
"It's a great card. It has a great picture on it," said Lee Niren, who owns the No. 8 Current Finest 300 Career Saves Club set on the PSA Set Registry. "You can see the grit on his face."
This card is also elusive in top grade. It's located in the top-right corner on the print sheet, a position that made it extremely vulnerable to condition flaws during the production process. So it's not surprising that it's hard to find well-centered examples.
"You just don't see PSA 10 Eckersley rookies anymore," said McHolland.
Of the 3,120 submitted, there have been just nine PSA 10s and 136 PSA 9s. A PSA 10 sold for $9,000 on eBay in May 2018.
Bruce Sutter #144
Sutter was a struggling minor league pitcher until Cubs roving instructor Fred Martin taught him how to throw a split finger fastball. With that weapon in his arsenal, he blossomed into a six-time major league All-Star and the 1979 National League Cy Young Award winner. After the 1980 season, the Cubs dealt him to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he continued to dominate the late innings and helped the club to a 1982 World Series title.
Two years later, he set a then-National League record with 45 saves, which was one of five times he topped the league in that category. Sutter was also a four-time winner of the National League Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year award. In all, in 12 major league seasons, he recorded 300 saves and a 2.83 ERA in 661 games. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
His 1977 Topps rookie (#144) features a shot of a young and shaggy looking Sutter with the Cubs in a posed pitching motion with his arms above his head.
"The Sutter card is tough in a [PSA] 10," said McHolland. "That 1977 stock is a little flimsy."
Of the 1,813 submitted, there have been 29 PSA 10s and 354 PSA 9s. One PSA 10 sold for $970 on eBay in August 2018.
Lee Smith #452
This 6-foot-5 right-hander was chosen by the Chicago Cubs in the second round of the 1975 MLB draft. Like Fingers, he spent the bulk of his minor league career as a starting pitcher before being converted into a reliever. Over the course of his 18-year major league career, in which he also made stops with the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, California Angels, Cincinnati Reds and Montreal Expos, Smith led the league in saves four times, picked up three Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year awards and was selected to seven All-Star Games. Along the way, he accumulated 478 saves, which is the third-most all-time. For his efforts, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Today's Game Era Committee in December.
His 1982 Topps rookie (#452) can be evasive in pristine condition. It's located on the far right edge of the sixth row on the print sheet, a position that made it vulnerable to condition woes such as miscuts. This helps explain why this card is regularly found with poor left-to-right centering.
Robinson, McHolland and Niren have noticed that this card has increased in value since the Hall of Fame announcement.
"It has been on fire," said Niren.
Of the 883 submissions, there have been 43 PSA 10s, one of which sold for $699 on eBay in December 2018.
Trevor Hoffman #11
Selected as a shortstop by the Cincinnati Reds in the 11th round of 1989 MLB draft, Hoffman was converted into a pitcher early in his minor league career. But he failed to impress the Reds enough to protect him in the 1992 MLB Expansion draft and the Florida Marlins took him with the eighth pick. Hoffman was then swapped to the San Diego Padres as part of a package for slugger Gary Sheffield in June 1993.
On the West Coast, Hoffman would develop into one of the most reliable closers in major league history. Employing his devastating changeup, he would record 14, 30-save seasons and be selected to seven All-Star Games. Along the way, he twice topped the National League in saves and became the first big league reliever to reach 500 and 600 saves respectively. He finished his 19-year major league career with 601 saves (second all-time) and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018. MLB's National League Reliever of the Year Award is named in his honor.
His 1992 Bowman rookie (#11) flaunts a posed throwing photo of him in a Reds uniform. This card is occasionally found with poor left-to-right centering, but it's generally easy to obtain in high grade. There are 601 PSA 10s and one sold for $99 on eBay in September 2018.
"The Hoffman card is still relatively affordable compared to the other [top reliever] cards," said McHolland. "There are about half as many PSA 10 Hoffmans as there are Riveras."
Mariano Rivera #302
Most baseball pundits would rank Mariano Rivera as the greatest relief pitcher of all time. Originally signed for the bargain basement price of $3,000 out of Panama in 1990, Rivera was primarily a starting pitcher during his early seasons in the Yankees' minor league system. After he was called up, he served as a lights-out set-up man for closer John Wetteland on the 1996 World Series-winning squad, before Wetteland signed with the Texas Rangers as a free agent.
Assuming the closer's role in 1997, Rivera would register 30 or more saves in a season 15 times, record an ERA of 2.00 or less in 11 campaigns and be selected to 13 All-Star Games. He also garnered five Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year awards and became the only player to win the World Series MVP (1999), League Championship Series MVP (2003) and All-Star Game MVP (2013). A key contributor to five World Series-winning Yankees teams, Rivera was on the mound for the final out for four of those championships (1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009). He finished his 19-year major league career with a record 652 saves and a 2.21 ERA. MLB's American League Reliever of the Year Award is named in his honor.
As is the case with several prospects in the 1992 Bowman set, Rivera is photographed in his street clothes, sporting a golf shirt and white pants. Robinson says poor centering is the main condition issue with this card but that it can generally be uncovered in high grade.
"Rivera was a great pitcher, but there are hundreds of his 1992 Bowman cards out there in [PSA] 10," added Niren.
Of the 5,306 submitted, there have been 1,299 PSA 10s.
Billy Wagner #18
Though he has yet to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, this hard-throwing left-hander has received enough support to stay on the ballot ever since he became eligible. Like Rivera, Wagner was a starting pitcher in the minors before being converted into a closer. Selected in the first round (12th overall) by the Houston Astros in the 1993 MLB draft, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound southpaw showcased an overpowering fastball.
In 16 major league seasons with the Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, the seven-time All-Star posted a 2.31 ERA and racked up 422 saves. His 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest by any pitcher in major league history that has tossed at least 800 innings.
Wagner's best rookie is his 1994 SP single (#18). This card presents the closer throwing off a bullpen mound. Its foil finish is difficult to find blemish-free.
"It took me a while to get that card because there are only five [PSA 10s]," said McHolland.
One PSA 10 sold for $249 on eBay in February 2018.
There is also a rarer die-cut version. Just 28 of these have been evaluated and there's one PSA 10 and four PSA 9s.
2011 Topps Chrome
Craig Kimbrel #195
Selected in the third round of the 2008 MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves, this hard-throwing right-hander set a rookie record by collecting 46 saves in 2011 and was named the National League Rookie of the Year. His triple-digit fastball has helped him amass at least 31 saves in each of his first full eight major league seasons.
A seven-time All-Star, Kimbrel, who has also closed for the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, has topped the league in saves four times and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young Award voting five times. Just 30 years old heading into the 2019 season, he has amassed 333 saves, which is more than Rivera had at the same age.
"He's probably on pace for 500 saves if he stays healthy," noted McHolland.
Kimbrel's 2011 Topps Chrome single (#195) is his most coveted mainstream rookie. It boasts an action photo of him in the follow through of his motion. Its shiny Chrome surface is easily scratched. Of the 48 submitted, 32 have been PSA 10s. A PSA 10 fetched $30 on eBay in January 2019.
"The price for Kimbrel is still very reasonable," said McHolland.
There's also an autographed version and several rarer parallels of this single that command significantly more.
1969 Topps Sparky Lyle #311
1976 Topps Kent Tekulve #112
1980 Topps Dan Quisenberry #667
1981 Topps Jeff Reardon #456
1984 Donruss Tom Henke #134
1984 Fleer Update John Franco #U-39
1999 Bowman Chrome Joe Nathan #388
2000 Bowman Chrome Francisco Rodriguez #321
2003 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks & Prospects Jonathan Papelbon #BDP51
2011 Bowman Chrome Aroldis Chapman #177
For more information on trading cards featuring these baseball players and more, please visit PSA CardFacts.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thank you to Kevin McHolland for providing some of the cards featured in this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of February 2019.
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