Worst Final Seasons, Part One

On Friday, when I was writing about Carl Yastrzemski, I thought about Willie Mays. Anecdotally, when we think of the worst-ever final season by a great player, we think of Mays wasting away on the Mets. But is that really the example we should think of, or is it simply the most well-known? With both Vladimir Guerrero and Todd Helton announcing their retirement over the weekend further adding fuel to the fire, I figured I’d dig in and see if we could look at this a little more objectively. I’ll be splitting this into four posts — two for hitters, and two for pitchers.

Initially, I wanted to look at all players with 30 WAR or greater. But even though that group still represents a very small percentage of qualified players overall, there were still too many players for my tastes, so I decided to break things up into tiers. The sample here was guys who played the entirety of their careers from 1901 to 2013. In addition to Helton, I also included Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Lance Berkman, Derek Lowe and Mariano Rivera. I suppose Berkman, Giambi and Tejada haven’t formally announced their retirements, but … come on. With those players added to the mix, we find the following:

Career WAR Hitters Pitchers
30 – 39 142 119
40 – 49 97 49
50 – 59 50 29
60 – 69 54 18
70+ 45 25

We have good players in each tier, no doubt, but many of the players in the lower tier weren’t as notable as the others. Splitting them up will allow us to add a little more context. Today we’ll cover all hitters but the 70+ WAR group.

For what it’s worth, the only criteria I used for this post was WAR. That may be lazy on my part, but it’s as good a barometer as any, and I wanted to keep this simple. In any case, consider yourself warned.

30-39 WAR

Name Last Season WAR Age Career WAR
Johnny Callison 1973 -1.5 34 34.6
Magglio Ordonez 2011 -1.2 37 37.8
Harold Baines 2001 -1.2 42 38.4
Jesse Barfield 1992 -1.1 32 39.0
Javy Lopez 2006 -1.0 35 31.5

The youngest of this group was Barfield, who was robbed of the tail end of his career by various injuries. He would play in Japan in 1993, but that was all she wrote for the eldest Barfield. He did plenty of damage when he was around though, as he compiled back-to-back seven win seasons in 1985 and 1986. Towards the end of his career, he creeped more and more into three true outcomes territory — in ’89, ’90 and ’91, more than 40 percent of his plate appearances ended with a walk, strikeout or homer. He would finish his career a bit player though, and on the last Yankees team with a losing record to boot. That’s gotta sting.

Callison also finished a backup on a losing Yankees squad — the Bombers’ main right fielder that season was some guy named Matty Alou. Callison had a real good run in the mid-60s, as he socked 47 triples and 112 homers from ’62 to ’65, leading the league in triples in two of those years. He would remain a useful player through the end of the decade, but things tapered off quickly after that. His glove was good enough to keep him employed from ’71-’73, but when he hit just .176/.197/.228 in 142 PA during ’73 — good for just a 17 wRC+ — it was the end of the road.

It should be noted that the margins for missing out in each tier were razor thin — generally 0.1 WAR (that’s a large part of why I wanted to split it into tiers in the first place). Players that missed the cut in this tier include Mo Vaughn, Bobby Bonilla, Cecil Cooper and Chuck Knoblauch.

40-49 WAR

Name Last Season WAR Age Career WAR
Ken Singleton 1984 -1.8 37 44.4
Bernie Williams 2006 -1.3 37 44.3
Roy White 1979 -1.2 35 41.0
Dave Parker 1991 -1.2 40 41.1
Travis Jackson 1936 -1.1 32 46.0

The decline of Williams, even for someone who spent years hoping that Bernie Williams would decline immediately, was a little jarring. He seemed destined to pump out two-three win seasons with occasional flashes of brilliance — just like his former teammate Paul O’Neill — for a very long time. Instead, he went from a five-win player with a 146 wRC+ at age 33, to a replacement-level player with a 108 wRC+ at age 34. Defense had never been Williams’ strong suit — he had negative fielding numbers in the seven seasons prior to that age 34 season (which was 2003) — but the second he couldn’t hit his value evaporated altogether. He went from 0.2 WAR, to 0.1, to -2.3, and finally -1.3. The interesting thing was that he didn’t think he was done. The Yankees offered to give him a role as a bench player in 2007, but Williams wanted to start, and declined. His swan song was playing for Puerto Rico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, when he went 0-for-5 with a pair of walks.

Parker managed to hang on for longer than did Williams, but he too finished on a down note. The man in the late ‘70s, the Cobra was traded from the Brewers to the Angels for a young Dante Bichette, but he didn’t last the season. California released him in mid-September, and he finished his career by playing 13 games with the Blue Jays. He got there too late to make their playoff roster however, and his season — and career — ended quietly.

Now a Yankees’ broadcaster, Singleton was also a pretty good player, and he holds the record for most consecutive hits, with 10. His final season with the Orioles though, was a true “fall off the cliff” moment. Heading into his final season, Singleton had posted at least a 105 wRC+ in all 14 seasons of his career. The year before, he had been worth 2.5 WAR and had posted a 129 wRC+. As such, he played pretty regularly for the ’84 Orioles, serving as their primary designated hitter. It didn’t go well, obviously.

Players who just missed the cut in this group include Steve Finley, Mark Grace, Jorge Posada and Dale Murphy.

50-59 WAR

Name Last Season WAR Age Career WAR
Brian Giles 2009 -1.7 38 54.8
Larry Doby 1959 -1.0 35 51.1
Jimmy Wynn 1977 -0.9 35 52.8
Todd Helton 2013 -0.9 39 55.7
Dave Winfield 1995 -0.8 43 59.9

Now we’re venturing into crème de la crème territory. Many of the players in this group are borderline hall of famers, and some — like Jackie Robinson, Bobby Doerr, Andre Dawson, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Rice and Winfield — are hall of famers. Being a hall of famer doesn’t exempt Winfield from this list, however.

Growing up, it was a little difficult to square with the notion of Winfield as an other-worldly player. Sure, he was awesome for the ’92 Blue Jays, but for most of my cognitive childhood, Winfield was an old guy with bad knees. He only ends up on this list because he hung around longer than he should have, and is in this group only by a whisker (he literally had 59.9 career WAR), but his last spin on the merry-go-round was pretty woeful — a 48 wRC+ and just two homers in 48 games for the Indians, who left him off of the playoff roster on their march to the American League pennant.

Here, we also find Helton. As I wrote at the season’s outset, there was a time when Helton was one of the very best players in baseball, but that time has long since passed. Helton was not able to contribute in an average in any of the three phases of the game this year, and while he was able to add some nice statistical milestones to his resume — 2,500 hits, ascending all the way to 16th place all-time in doubles — it was clearly time to say goodbye. If on-base percentage is life, Helton lived a good one — he is currently 26th all-time in OBP, and might wind up back in the top 25 someday depending on how Joey Votto’s career plays out. Speaking of Votto, he and Helton are just two of 10 players who played in the Integrated Era (1947-present) to be career .300/.400/.500 hitters, so that is pretty cool too. The end, however, was bittersweet, particularly with the Rockies teasing at contention in April, only to fall off dramatically afterwards.

Helton is saved from having the worst season in this group however, thanks to Giles. Nothing that Giles was involved in ever seemed to be about him. His trade at the end of the ’98 season seemed to be most notable for how ridiculous dealing a first-division outfielder for a reliever like Ricardo Rincon was (remember that trade the next time you hear John Hart waxing poetic on MLB Network), and his trade to San Diego was just as notable for the fact that it sent Jason Bay to Pittsburgh. He even managed to go forgotten in the biggest play of his career, when he lollipopped his throw from shallow right field on the play that would become known as “The Slide” (seriously, a throw with any juice on it nails Matt Holliday there). He can’t even crack the top 10 when searching here for “Brian” here at FanGraphs, despite being probably the best player of the group:


So when he went out with a whimper, few people really noticed. I know I sure didn’t.

Players who just missed the cut here include Keith Hernandez, Fred McGriff, Rice, Ted Simmons and the also recently retired Guerrero.

60-69 WAR

Name Last Season WAR Age Career WAR
Darrell Evans 1989 -1.4 42 61.1
Alan Trammell 1996 -1.3 38 63.7
Craig Biggio 2007 -1.0 41 65.3
Paul Molitor 1998 -0.8 41 67.6
Carlton Fisk 1993 -0.7 45 68.3

While I don’t really remember Giles’ swan song, Biggio’s definitely stands out. With the Astros on the downswing following a middling 82-80 finish to the 2006 season, wringing those 70 hits out of Biggio to make sure he joined the 3,000 hit club was basically the most important thing to happen for the franchise that season — and arguably was the last important moment for the franchise in general (unless you count tanking for good draft picks an important moment). Get them he would, although it seemingly took forever — he wouldn’t get his 3,000th hit until the end of June, and in typical bullheaded, Biggio fashion, he got gunned down trying to stretch it into a double. It was a cool moment though, even if getting it at all costs landed him on this list.

Taking the cake here though, is Evans. The 1988 season looked like the end for Evans, as his value dipped to 1.1 WAR, and for the first time in his career he played more games at DH than in the field. Still, he hit 22 homers, and that was good enough for the still bottom-feeding Braves. In the National League though, Evans couldn’t be hid at DH the way he was for much of his final five seasons in the AL, and it showed. Add a still declining bat to the mix, and Evans had the perfect concoction for a truly terrible final season.

Just missing the cut here was Roberto Alomar, Joe Torre, Ernie Banks, Duke Snider, Willie McCovey, Tim Raines and Manny Ramirez.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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I saw a study a few years back (couldn’t find it now) that gives the average age of the “retirement plunge” at around 36 years. Modern Medicine seems to have extended that a little these days, but not by much. Very interesting data.