Worst Final Seasons, Part Two

Yesterday, I began the first of what will be a four-part series on the final seasons of a player’s career. You can check out part one here for the back story and players with the worst final seasons among those who posted between 30 and 69 career WAR. As I was wrapping that article I thought I would split it out, partially because it was already fairly long, partially to give the absolute best players a little bit more attention and partially because when I broke things out by 70+ WAR only, none of the 100+ WAR players ended up in the bottom five. So I thought there was no harm in one additional tier.

So, updating the table from yesterday, we’ll break it out as follows for hitters:

Career WAR Hitters
30 – 39 142
40 – 49 97
50 – 59 50
60 – 69 54
70 – 99 28
100+ 17

There aren’t enough 100+ WAR pitchers to warrant a second breakout, but that’s OK — more hitters in this stratosphere, so we’ll treat them differently.

70+ WAR

Name Last Season WAR Age Career WAR
Ron Santo 1974 -1.0 34 70.9
Ken Griffey Jr. 2010 -1.0 40 77.4
Eddie Murray 1997 -0.8 41 72.0
Pete Rose 1986 -0.8 45 80.1
Reggie Jackson 1987 -0.6 41 72.7

It’s no secret that Griffey stopped being productive once he reached his 30s, and so his inclusion here is not much of a surprise. His last two seasons were largely ceremonial — like the Astros, the Mariners also needed to sell tickets, and bringing back Griffey for another victory lap in 2010 was as good idea as any — even though he was carried off the field at the end of 2009. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Griffey wasn’t able to bash even one homer, and a report and ensuing faux controversy over him falling asleep in the clubhouse during a game early in 2010 likely contributed to him abruptly retiring midseason.

Santo retired far earlier — both in actual time and age-wise — and his diabetes likely cut his career short. We don’t think of diabetes as something that could cut your life tragically short as frequently these days, but when he was diagnosed at age 18, Santo was actually given just 25 years to live. The condition didn’t stop him from being a hall of fame player, but it might have helped cut his career a little short. Still, he wasn’t exactly a drain on the Cubs in his penultimate season, as he posted 2.8 WAR. The Cubs were done with him though, and tried to trade him. Santo became the first player to invoke his 10-5 rights, but he would eventually relent, and was sent crosstown to the White Sox. Unfortunately, he was relegated to designated hitter duty, which he apparently didn’t care for, and he didn’t handle AL pitching much better. His 70 wRC+ in 1974 was the worst mark of his career, and after the season he called it a career.

Murray is a little harder to evaluate. On the one hand, you could say that he was done halfway through 1996 just based on the numbers. After all, how valuable is a DH who only slugs .393? But three teams wanted him on their roster following that first half, so perhaps they assumed he would turn it around. He was on the market for a total of 16 days then — 10 days after the ’96 season between when he was granted free agency and signing with the Angels, and then six days between when the Angels released him in August ’97 and when the Dodgers signed him. And who knows? If those ’97 Dodgers had made the postseason (they missed out by two games) Murray would have been that one pinch-hitter you didn’t want to face, like Jason Giambi with the 2009 Rockies. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and through the cold distance of time, Murray’s last season looks ill-fated. Certainly, him wasting away on the bench, garnering nine plate appearances in a month, is not the way we want to remember Steady Eddie.

Players who just missed the cut here include Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Frank Thomas and Brooks Robinson.

100+ WAR

Name Last Season WAR Age Career WAR
Mike Schmidt 1989 -0.5 39 106.5
Lou Gehrig 1939 -0.3 36 116.3
Mel Ott 1947 -0.1 38 110.5
Eddie Collins 1930 0.0 43 120.5
Rickey Henderson 2003 0.0 44 106.2

Schmidt should get some credit for transforming his game to try to stay relevant. In his last few seasons, he cut down on his strikeouts while keeping his walks the same — seemingly aware that his power was fading and that it was imperative that he put the ball in play more in order to succeed. In his first 14 seasons, he was able to post a higher walk than strikeout rate, but in those instances (1979 and 1981) it was more because his walk rate was so ridiculously high that it just dwarfed his K rate. Starting in 1986, we can see a change in approach — he cut his K rate by over five percent while maintaining the same healthy walk rate. But by 1989, it wasn’t enough. Towards the end of 1988, he suffered a rotator cuff injury, and though he made a go of it in 1989, it wasn’t happening, and like Griffey, he abruptly retired. Unlike Griffey, he made a tearful retirement speech from the visitors’ clubhouse in San Diego.

Including Gehrig might not be fair here. I don’t think I need to detail why Gehrig dropped off at the end. The year before his final season, he was worth 4.9 WAR, and in the 12 seasons preceding that he was worth at least 7.0 WAR. If we removed Gehrig here, Frank Robinson would drop into the bottom five.

Ott is kind of an odd example as well. He became player-manager during the war, and when players came back from the war in ’46 it was apparently difficult for him to choose players for the roster. Understandably so. I doubt, “Hey, thanks for serving our country in the world’s bloodiest war of all-time, but you’re no longer good enough for this team,” was a conversation he relished having with anyone. And then on Opening Day he hurt his knee, which obviously didn’t help matters. He would post -0.9 WAR for the season. His SABR player bio says he was retired the next season, but both B-Ref and us have him down for four plate appearances — all just pinch-hit appearances. But whether you count ’46 or ’47 as his last year, he’s on this list.

Collins was a similar case. He mostly coached in his final years, appearing as a pinch hitter a few times from 1928 through 1930. Such odd playing time makes it hard to evaluate the “last” year, but again, clearly he thought he was good enough to not embarrass himself in those last few seasons, otherwise he wouldn’t have agreed to pinch hit.

If there is a quintessential example of a player who didn’t know how to quit, it was Henderson. And yet, even in his final season with the Dodgers, he stole three bases without being caught. So the instincts were still there. In fact, in his final stolen base attempt, the Rockies had him picked off and he still beat the throw, so the speed was still there too. And he had hit well enough in his penultimate season — he posted a 100 wRC+ with the Red Sox — and had swiped eight of 10 bases. That would have been a pretty nice capper to a career, especially for someone in their age-43 season. But Henderson wanted one more go at it, and one more go at it he got. Unlike Murray though, Henderson would have to wait more than eight months before the Dodgers came calling in July of ’03. He really didn’t have any records left to break, they were all his. He just wanted to keep playing, and while the leadoff skills were still there, there was no semblance of power, and the Dodgers — who had signed him out of desperation — weren’t able to get over the hump.

But, where’s Willie Mays? Here we are, the truly best players of all-time, and here we should find Mays…except we don’t. In fact, of the 17 players here, Mays’ 0.4 WAR actually ties for seventh-best. It’s not anywhere near the final seasons posted by Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, or even Chipper Jones, but it wasn’t as bad as we remember it. Yes, players should know when to call it quits, but Mays is hardly alone in not knowing when it’s time to go. Mays probably gets a little extra credit — or rather demerit — in this category, because he finished in New York. Still, plenty of guys finished their careers with teams other than those with which we associate them. Henderson played forever, you could make a giant quilt with the all the different jerseys he wore in his last seven seasons. Frank Robinson capped his career with two seasons with the Indians. Hank Aaron, two seasons with the Brewers. Babe Ruth’s last season was with the Braves. After the Indians parted ways with Tris Speaker, he hung on for a year with the Senators and then one with the A’s. Jimmie Foxx hung on with the Cubs and Phillies before hanging them up. Ty Cobb snuck in two seasons with the A’s as well, at the end. And Bonds would have signed with anyone that would take him. Sure, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle and Williams stuck it out with one team, but they are the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, just because a player never changes teams doesn’t mean he “knew” when it was time. Look no further than Schmidt for an example of that.

I’m not necessarily defending Mays’ final season — there isn’t much case for that. I’m simply saying that there have been lots of sad career conclusions. In fact, most of them are. Of the 388 position players looked at here, only 70 of them had a final season with 1.0 WAR or more, and a few of those — like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Roberto Clemente — weren’t really planned final seasons. So maybe it’s time we ease up on the Mays references when someone goes out like a lamb.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

26 Responses to “Worst Final Seasons, Part Two”

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  1. Wobatus says:

    Willie Mays also ended up on a world series team at least. And he was still a 5.9 WAR player at age 40.

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    • Wil says:

      That’s just ridiculous. 5.9 WAR at 40? I though Chippers 2.7 WAR last year at 40 was impressive, a 6 win season is ridiculous.

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      Mays was the MLB leader in WAR eight times, second only to Ruth and in the top four in WAR for 13 straight years. Even as an older player, Mays was still a great player.

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  2. Radivel says:

    Mel Ott probably didn’t relish having those conversations. You’re missing a word in there.

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  3. LookItUp says:

    It seems worth reminding folks that Rose was his own manager in 1986, and gave himself 272 PA in his final season even though he hadn’t had a good year since, oh, 1981, and the previous season had posted a .319 SL% in 501 PA – as a first baseman! – in his pursuit of Cobb’s hit record. Frank Robinson was also his own manager in his final season, but at least he had the grace to limit himself to only 79 PA.

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  4. Robbie G. says:

    How many more MVPs would Rickey Henderson have won if OBP had been properly appreciated by voters?

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    • Richie says:

      Not that many, I don’t think (without actually looking it up). What I recall year-in year-out he missed a fair amount of games due to the wear and tear engendered by the way he played. I suspect there was most always some other star having a good, 160-game season.

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    • GregS says:

      Good question! I think you can make a good case for Henderson in three other years. He finished third in 1985 with a WAR of 9.93; Mattingly (6.44) got the trophy. Henderson had a great year in 89 (8.63 WAR) but finished 9th; getting traded mid-season probably hurts your MVP chances. He was also great in 81, when Fingers won it, but Evans also had a great year. The oddest year to me was 86, when he led the league in runs and didn’t get a vote. Marty Barrett, Dick Schofield, Jim Presley, and Pete O’Brien got votes that year!

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      • Blue says:

        George Brett was the true MVP of 1985, in every sense of the word. He basically carried a mediocre team to the World Series.

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    • Ian R. says:

      Rickey almost certainly should have won the MVP in 1985, his first season in New York. He had a strong case in 1981 and 1989 as well. On the other hand, there’s at least a case that Rickey shouldn’t have won the award in 1990 – Roger Clemens was so amazing that year that he very well could have taken home the award, and this was in a time when pitchers won it somewhat often.

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  5. Richie says:

    No “faux controversy” regarding Griffey. The Mariners marketed him as a team leader, figuring that sounded better than “hey, we’re trying to sell a few extra tickets here”. Regularly sleeping through games, including at points he might be expected to pinch hit, he of course was nothing of the sort. Some anonymous young player outed him on it, a vet on the team threw an actual fit regarding that, the manager’s near-total lack of influence in the clubhouse was revealed, resulting in his firing. It was one darn good controversy.

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    • Detroit Michael says:

      It seems to me that Griffey takes the prize for worst final season. I would factor in performance, coming back for another season when it was already obvious he was done, pathetic controversy, being recent (and therefore more memorable), not even being able to last until the end of the season, etc.

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  6. Richie says:

    Mays and Aaron both changed franchises by returning to the city where they began and first became stars. I know as a Milwaukeean I didn’t see anything sad in Aaron finishing as a Brewer. (finishing for headcase manager Alex Grammas, now that was unfortunate)

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  7. Breadbaker says:

    What we remember with Mays was one incident stumbling in the outfield, which unfortunately happened during the World Series, at a time when everyone watched the World Series.

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  8. Jeopardydd says:

    Little bit of trivia inspired by this part of the article:

    “After the Indians parted ways with Tris Speaker, he hung on for a year with the Senators and then one with the A’s. Jimmie Foxx hung on with the Cubs and Phillies before hanging them up. Ty Cobb snuck in two seasons with the A’s as well, at the end.”

    Only twice have two 3000-hit players been on the same team (after having 3,000 hits). Speaker and Cobb with the 1928 A’s; Gwynn and Henderson with the 2001 Padres.

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      The 1928 A’s also had Eddie Collins with +3,000 hits on that team.
      In additon they had four other HOF players on the roster, Jimmy Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove for a total of seven HOF players!!!!

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      • Josh says:

        And none of them were even borderline. Speaker, Cobb, Foxx, Collins, and Grove are all inner-circle HOFers, and no one doubts the merits of Cochrane of Simmons. Pretty astounding.

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    • Josh says:

      It could happen again next year if Jeter and A-Rod (who is only about 60 short of 3000) both play for the Yankees.

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  9. Raff says:

    I draw the opposite conclusion about Schmidt: not that he didn’t know when to quit, but that he DID.

    His 1988 season was his first poor season in his late 30s — he delivered 6+ WAR in 1987 and was MVP in 1986. It was possible that Schmidt would come back from his 1988 injuries and deliver reasonable value, if not the all-star caliber results from a year or two earlier.

    In fact, on May 2, 1988, Schmidt hit his 6th HR of the year (on track for 30) and his OPS stood just below .900. Over his final 18 games, Schmidt mustered just 5 hits and no HRs in 57 ABs (although he had 11 walks vs 5 Ks, consistent with Paul’s point about his late career BB/K improvement). He made weak contact — highlighted by his .093 BABIP over those last weeks. So on May 28, less than four weeks after his hot start, he retired.

    It took him less than a month to see what it took others (ahem, Steve Carlton in part 4 of this series!) years to see.

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    • Balthazar says:

      Mike Schmidt had also lived out his first years with the Phillies as a young, unfinished product promoted for his obviously mammoth potential and really excellent defense but constantly berated by everyone for ‘not living up to his potential.’ Schmidt had already _had_ the experience of flailing and being shredded for it, and very clearly did not want to go through a variation on that theme at the end of an historically great career. He was not going to hold on as a shell of his best, like Dave Parker was doing very obviously those same years to constant comment about ‘how much he has declined.’ I think it was a very good decision on Mike’s part. One could say much the same about Chipper Jones. Yeah, he could hang on, but his body was going to be in tatters and his performance was going to plunge. Neither pretended they didn’t see where things were going.

      Eddie Collins what a great career! The very prototype of a dead ball era pitch contact-pitching era: great D, superb contact skills, walk-if-they-won’t-pitch-to-me. It’s easy to lose track of just how good some of the early players of the game actually were.

      Hank Greenberg was let go his last year, and became another guy who signed with a different team and different league (for a fantastic pile of money for the time). Had the worst year of his professional career—and still put 22 balls in the seats and turned in 3.2 WAR to top 60 WAR career. And quit: that wasn’t up to his standard. Some guys do know when it’s time to go.

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  10. N8*K says:

    To look at the worst endings to careers, it would be interesting to measure the difference between peak career WAR and ending career WAR.

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  11. Mr Punch says:

    Henderson clearly expected to end his career back with the A’s; that was obviously the understanding when he was honored by the Red Sox at the end of his time in Boston. But they never called. This probably made his retirement messier than it might have been.

    The A’s, meanwhile, were eliminated from the playoffs when on two key occasions baserunners simply failed to touch home plate (for no reason – they just didn’t do it). It seems possible that having the all-time scoring leader on the team could have provided a useful example.

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