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:
|30 – 39||142|
|40 – 49||97|
|50 – 59||50|
|60 – 69||54|
|70 – 99||28|
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.
|Name||Last Season||WAR||Age||Career WAR|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||2010||-1.0||40||77.4|
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.
|Name||Last Season||WAR||Age||Career WAR|
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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