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:
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:
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.