Chipper’s Going Out (Nearly) On Top

Chipper Jones announced in March that he would retire at the season’s end. He cited various reasons for ending his hall-of-fame career and admitted that he was tired of living the baseball lifestyle. Always one to answer questions honestly in an era of generalities, he said that his decision was firm; no matter what, he was done once the Braves’ season ended.

As expected, his steadfastness to that decision has been tested, and reporters frequently ask whether he’s changed his mind. Maybe there’s a point to those questions. After all, Jones has a .379 wOBA and 2.9 WAR right now. And he’s on pace for his best season in four years. He projects to finish the season with a .372 wOBA and 4 WAR, and players don’t generally retire after posting numbers like that.

So where does his final season rank among career-concluding seasons throughout history. Is he truly going out on top?

To that end, I pooled all final seasons from 1920 through last year and sorted by both wOBA and WAR. Both rankings are interesting in Chipper’s case, because he rates positively in the field this season, which also tends to go against the grain of why players retire in the first place. His batting line might not be the greatest among future retirees, but the value he derived elsewhere certainly helps his case.

There’s an obvious selection bias inherent here, in that players who produce this well tend to continue playing. If playing at this level indicates an ability for future success; and future success means keeping a lucrative salary, then you can see why it might be tough to walk away from the game. Generally speaking, players retire because their skills have declined — through aging, injuries, or both. Every now and then a player is essentially forced into retirement. Barry Bonds fits that case. Kenny Lofton comes to mind, as well, since he was a player who could contribute to a team but couldn’t find a contract that he liked. Joe Jackson was banned after the 1920 season, when he was 30 years old, and he was still incredibly productive. But, for the most part, these examples are the exception.

So where does Jones’s 2012 rank? Using a 400 PA cutoff among players whose careers ended between 1920 and 2011, here are the top 10 wOBAs:

Joe Jackson 1920 649 0.473
Barry Bonds 2007 477 0.429
Happy Felsch 1920 613 0.421
Buzz Arlett 1931 469 0.417
Will Clark 2000 507 0.414
Hank Greenberg 1947 510 0.412
Dave Nilsson 1999 404 0.403
Roy Cullenbine 1947 607 0.390
Curt Walker 1930 547 0.385
Bobby Doerr 1951 463 0.382

If he finished the season with his current .379 wOBA, Jones would rank 14th — right ahead of Kirby Puckett, whose retirement was caused by a sudden case of glaucoma. Bonds and Jackson were special cases, but other interesting names are Clark, Nilsson and Arlett.

Clark struggled with injuries near the end of his career, but from 1997 to 2000, his age-33-through-age-36 seasons, he posted wOBAs of .385, .385, .381 and .415. He also became one of very few players to hit .300/.400/.500 as a 35-plus-year-old player when he hit .319/.418/.546 in his final season. In fact, Clark’s retirement was viewed similarly as Jones’s: He made his decision to retire after the 2000 season and he was pestered about returning after he produced well. Nilsson retired for personal reasons but managed a .309/.400/.554 line with a career-best 21 home runs as a 29-year-old in his final season. Not only was it one of the best final seasons in history, it was his best season.

Arlett is noteworthy because he played just one major league season. When he retired, he was the all-time minor league leader in homers and runs batted in. He now ranks second in both categories.

Other interesting names that pop up are Darren Daulton (No. 24) and Ray Durham (No. 33). Daulton hit .263/.378/.463 with the Phillies and the Marlins in 1997, won a World Series and hung up his cleats. Durham hit .289/.380/.432 as a 36-year-old for the Giants and the Brewers in 2008, but he wasn’t offered anything other than minor league deals with Spring Training invitations the next season.

When the players are sorted by overall WAR, the list changes quite a bit. Jones would fare much more favorably if he were to finish with 4 WAR, as ZIPS projects. In fact, at 4 WAR, Jones would finish his career with the eighth-highest tally for a final season, behind these players:

Name YR PA ValueW
Joe Jackson 1920 649 8.8
Happy Felsch 1920 613 6.5
Ray Chapman 1920 530 4.9
Roy Cullenbine 1947 607 4.7
Roberto Clemente 1972 413 4.6
Buck Weaver 1920 690 4.6
Jackie Robinson 1956 431 4.5

Barring a terrific surge upon returning to the lineup, it’s unlikely that Jones will finish much higher than 10th on either the wOBA or WAR leaderboards. He won’t finish his career with the best final season in history, but there’s nothing wrong with finishing among the best. Players don’t usually retire of their own accord after producing like this, but Jones has always been an odd duck of sorts. Perhaps it’s poetic that he will end his career with a season that leaves people guessing just how much he still had in the tank.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

27 Responses to “Chipper’s Going Out (Nearly) On Top”

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  1. Angelsjunky says:

    If you had used 390 PA instead you would have Ted Williams to contend with: .470 wOBA, 184 wRC+ and 4.0 WAR.

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    • Bronnt says:

      I really would like to see these same lists generated with wRC+, or at least some numbers that account for the era and the league offensive context.

      Chipper has a higher wRC+ than Happy Felsch, Buzz Arlett, Hank Greenberg, Dave Nilsson, Roy Cullenbine, Curt Walker, and Bobby Doerr. He’s just a tick behind Will Clark. Unfortunately I don’t know how many other seasons I’m missing that also fare better with contextual numbers than wOBA. I do know it’s a higher wRC+ than Kirby Puckett, another name mentioned.

      Will Clark and Chipper Jones really stand out in this regard. Guys who walk away willingly aren’t generally hitting 40% better than the league average. Joe Jackson and Barry Bonds were better, but didn’t leave willingly.

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    • JimNYC says:

      The very first name that came to mind for me was Dave Orr (a.k.a., the only player in baseball history to hit over .300 every season he played in the majors). His last season, he hit .371/.414/.534, with a .431 wOBA. Two weeks after the season ended, he had a stroke which left him paralyzed.

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      • JimNYC says:

        TO CLARIFY: The only player to ever hit over .300 every season of his career with at least 3000 career PA’s.

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  2. Just the facts, sir says:

    Can you do this for players age 40+? I can’t imagine many guys over 40 doing what Chipper is doing.

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    • mcbrown says:

      Yes, that would be an interesting set to look at (and would still include Williams if the PA requirement is changed slightly, as Angelsjunky notes).

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      • Sam says:

        Yeah, it would be nice to separate the guys like Puckett, who were forced to retire at an earlier age than they would normally have retired, from the guys like Chipper, who have what I’d term a “natural retirement”, done on one’s own volition, and based solely on age, declining performance in most cases, or simply b/c they felt it was their time to go.

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  3. Mr. Know-it-All says:

    On the WAR chart: Jackson, Felsch, and Weaver were all members of the Black Sox who were expelled after 1920. Chapman died mid-season, and we all know about Clemente. When you remove those 5, Chipper looks even more remarkable.

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    • JimNYC says:

      I was actually shocked to see that Chapman had 4.9 WAR through the middle of August when he died. I never thought of him as a particularly great player; I’ll have to take a look again.

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  4. Kinanik says:

    I’m browsing some player pages, and WAR after 2002 isn’t showing up, neither is wOBA… some contract just expire?

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    • William S. says:

      I just noticed this too.

      Chipper went yicketty twice last night so his WAR is most likely sitting past the 3.0 threshold.

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  5. Brandon says:,58&filter=&players=0&sort=18,d

    Right now Chipper’s 146 wrc+ would be the 5th best season of a 40 year old if you cut off the PA’s at 350 to include Williams. Only Mays, Williams, and two of Bonds seasons were better. Pretty impressive company there.

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  6. MrKnowNothing says:

    If include pitchers, Koufax immediately comes to mind.

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  7. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Going out on a positive note is great for Chipper. Don’t most baseball fans feel kind of bad when a great player is hitting .150 and struggling to run to first?
    Watching Willie Mays in his last year with the Mets was very sad.

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    • B N says:

      I don’t know. There’s something really touching about a player who just wants to be out on the field and can’t bear to hang up his uniform until they make him.

      It’s one of the many reasons that Rickey Henderson is one of my favorite players of all time: the guy just never wanted to leave. I remember when he was a special running coach for Jose Reyes on the Mets, while still hoping the team might give him a shot to play again. That’s genuine love for the game. When some people have too much to drink, they call ex-girlfriends. I’m betting when Rickey drinks too much, he calls GM’s and asks if they need a pinch runner.

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  8. Nathan Nathan says:

    Speaking of Kenny Lofton, does anyone know why his Fangraphs page doesn’t have any linear weights stats (wOBA, wRC+, WAR) after 2001?

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    • Josh says:

      I’m wondering that, too. Also, an interesting note on Lofton: from 1992 to 1999, Lofton was 6th among all hitters in WAR, behind Bonds, Griffey, Bagwell, Thomas, and Biggio. The next four guys were Piazza, McGwire, Palmeiro, and E. Martinez. At his peak, Lofton was as good as a group of Hall of Fame talents. If he had spent his career with the Indians rather than being a mercenary for the last several years, I think he would be getting a lot more HoF support.

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      • Nathan Nathan says:

        It looks like all of post 2001 linear weights (and defense) type data may have disappeared from the pages. (I checked Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols and Lofton).

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      • Bill but not Ted says:

        Must be a bug, The stats were there last night

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  9. Dave S says:

    OK… I’ll ask. Who the heck was Happy Felsch, and why have I never heard his name before?

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  10. Nilsson wanted to represent Australia in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, so he signed a contract with Chunichi to play in Japan. NPB allowed its players to play in the Olympics, MLB did not. He only played a few games for Chunichi though.

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  11. Derp says:

    You must have written this article prior to last night’s game!
    After a 2 HR game he’s now at a .388 wOBA (146 wRC+) and 3.2 WAR.
    ZiPS now projects him at a .380 wOBA.

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    • bstar says:

      Tonight is Chipper Commemorative Print night at the ballpark, and he went yicketty again in his first AB off Capuano and the Dodgers. Current wOBA-.390 wRC+ 148

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  12. Antonio Bananas says:

    I feel like part of the reason Chipper is playing so well is because he committed it to being the end. He sees and end and isn’t leaving anything. I know this is fangraphs and we like to lol at that sort of thing. Also, I’m not saying he wasn’t trying hard last year or in 2010 or in 2009, just that he seems more motivated. I hope they make the playoffs (the real ones, not just the play in). It’d be cool if there were a few October heroics to end his career.

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