Warning: This post turned out much longer than I expected.
Playing around with BB-Ref’s great Play Index Tool (PIT) this morning got me thinking about Barry Bonds and his last season in 2007 where he hit: .276/.480/.565 at 42-years-old. Yes, that’s a four-eighty OBP.
Bond’s last season in the majors was memorable. He broke the home run record while performing at a very high level, OPS+’ing a cool 162 — or in other terms, Bonds was 69% better than the league average hitter. It’s hard to wrap your head around that number. It’s staggering. And, not to go off on a collusion tangent, how did Bonds not find a job in the AL as a DH? Or in the NL with another team? In Bond’s last season, Total Zone tells us that he was a -9.6 run fielder (UZR about -8.7 runs). He would have cost any team bringing him in about -1 win in the field. That seems reasonable. But Bonds’ hitting upside was tremendous. His 2007 season was worth about +4 wins by hitting alone when adjusted for by park.
It’s just hard to believe that every team in baseball passed him by. I get that sometimes teams will make decisions based on things other than performance, but Bonds should have found at least a few clubs interested in his services.
Stepping down from my soapbox … after looking at Bonds’ last season, I wondered where he ranked in performance for a player’s last season played. I decided to check the PIT and run a search for every player’s last season from 1954 onward limited by 400 PA’s* and sorted by OPS+. My list came back with 106 players who fit that criteria.
* I realize that by sorting players by 400 PA’s I’m not going to catch all the guys who flamed out in 100 PA’s or were injured and never got the chance to accrue 400 or more total PA’s. This was just meant to be basic search-and-answer. I might return to this topic with a broader scope.
After getting my list back, I then plotted a histogram to get a feel for the distribution for a player’s performance in their last season of baseball.
Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age 1 Barry Bonds 169 477 2007 42 2 Will Clark 144 507 2000 36 3 Mickey Mantle 142 547 1968 36 4 Dave Nilsson 140 404 1999 29 5 R. Clemente 137 413 1972 37
Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age 106 Sparky Anderson 43 527 1959 25 105 Gair Allie 50 482 1954 22 104 Bob Talbot 51 428 1954 27 103 Denny Doyle 55 500 1977 33 102 Billy Martin 62 404 1961 33
Let’s look at the Top-5 players of our group. Two Giants make the list in Barry Bonds and Will Clark. I wasn’t surprised to see Bonds and his 169 OPS+ top the list as the best last season from a player since 1954. But, I was surprised to see Clark’s OPS+ of 144. Will Clark has always been my favorite player and it’s neat to see him on this list. Clark finished his last year of baseball in 2000 at the age of 36-years-old. In that year he split time between the Orioles and Cardinals hitting a combined: .319/.418/.546. He was particularly good for the Cardinals in ’00 when they acquired him for Jose Leon to replace an injured Mark McGwire. Clark pounded the ball with the Cardinals hitting: .345/.426/.655 with 12 HRs in 171 at-bats. At the end of the season, Clark announced his retirement. It’s not hard to imagine Clark playing 2-3 more solid years. He would have certainly broke the 300 HR mark and might have gotten more consideration for the HoF.
Mickey Mantle ranks 3rd on our list. Injuries drastically slowed down ‘The Mick’ and by 1968 — his last season — he was playing first base because of his health. In his last year Mantle posted a low batting average — maybe indicating that his legs were shot — of .237. Despite the low BA, Mantle hit for power and got on base posting a slash-line of: .237/.385/.398 — good for a OPS+ of 142. While that line might look pedestrian by today’s standards, remember that the 60′s were a period of low offense dominated by pitchers. For example, in Mantle’s last year the league average AL batter only produced a line: .230/.297/.339. That’s amazing. The average pitcher in the AL had a 2.98 ERA that same year. Clearly times were good for the men on the mound.
Easily the most surprising player on our list is #4 Dave Nilsson and his season in 1999. I follow a lot of baseball but I couldn’t for the life of me remember Nilsson. He played his entire career with the Brewers from 1992-99 and owns a career batting line of: .284/.356/.461. He was predominately a catcher (309 career games) but he also spent time at 1B, LF, and RF. Nilsson posted his best year at the plate in ’99 and as a 29-year-old — making him the youngest player in our Top-5 list. According to Wikipedia, he made the 1999 All-Star team when he replaced an injured Mike Lieberthal.
After ’99, Wikiepedia says:
Nilsson became a free agent in the offseason following that year, but opted not to sign with any MLB teams because of his desire to play for Australia in the 2000 Olympics. He was widely applauded for this move as he was turning down big money to represent his country, something very rarely seen in baseball. Before leaving the US, he had been Australia’s second highest earning sportsman behind Greg Norman, according to the Business Review Weekly.
Interesting. Turns out that Nilsson tried to make a comeback in the majors in 2003 when he signed a contract with the Red Sox, but eventually backed out because he no longer had the will to play baseball in the majors. He competed in the ’04 Olympics and the ’06 WBC but has since retired.
Ending our Top-5 is the tragic Roberto Clemente. Clemente had a strong year in 1972 hitting: .312/.356/.479 — that’s good for a OPS+ of 137. Sadly, Clemente died on December 31, 1972 in an airplane crash while attempting to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
The first thing I noticed about our trailers is that it holds two players that turned out to be pretty good managers, Sparky Anderson and Billy Martin. Sparky Anderson’s first (and last) season was in 1954 with the Phillies. The 25-year-old second basemen was your typical all-field, no-hit player. In his only year of MLB action, Anderson hit .218/.282/.249 for an OPS+ of 43. Anderson might have washed out as a player, but he made up for it by winning 2,194 career games as a manager with 3 World Series titles. Brian Bocock, you still have a chance! Sparky Anderson made Billy Martin (career OPS+ 81) look like Jeff Kent, but Martin was another middle infielder (he played most of his career games at 2B like Anderson) that found success in managing. He went on to win 1,253 games and a World Series title.
Gair Allie and Bob Talbot are similar in that both could never hit and combined they only played 3 years in the majors. Denny Doyle was another light hitting second baseman. He somehow played 8 years in the majors and by age 33, he was finished. Of our bottom 5, all but Talbot were middle infielders. It goes to show that, historically, if you can play defense in the infield, you’ve got a chance to pick up some at-bats even if you can’t hit.
I also found it interesting that for our histogram, our biggest distributions ranged from 90-110 OPS+ with drop-offs on both sides. That’s most likely a byproduct of my required minimum of 400 PA’s because players aren’t going to get the opportunity to rack of PA’s if they are truly horrible, they’ve got to be at least semi-productive. Back to Bonds, most players on their way out (without injury) just don’t preform at such a high level like Bonds did. A large portion of them were still around league average as hitters, still valuable, but it’s rare to see someone with Bond’s production to leave the game when they did. He wanted to play, he just couldn’t find an employer. It seems likely to me that Bonds was the victim of collusion at the end of his career.