I’m a sucker for Baseball-Reference. That site, more than any other, has consumed so much of my life. It’s truly the biggest baseball rabbit hole that I know of: “Hmm, I wonder how many career triples Darryl Hamilton hit?” which leads me to another page, and then another, and another, and so forth. The next thing I know, I’ve wasted three hours of my life looking at player pages.
Recently while messing around with their Play Index Tool (PIT), I started to look at the last year of a player’s career; specifically, players that had really good last seasons. After digging around for a couple of minutes, I decided that it would make a pretty good/interesting post, and here we are.
First, my criteria for the search, and some other ground rules: my search runs from 1950 onward. I’m not so interested in the early stages of baseball – well, I am, but not for this exercise – and looking after 1950 cuts out a lot of players that lost time due to World War II. Also, I wanted players that ended their careers without suffering tragedies such as death (Roberto Clemente) or injury (Sandy Koufax). So, if a player ended his career because of death or injury, I excluded him. All numbers are pulled from Baseball-Reference’s PIT.
. . .
Top ten final seasons for position players (ranked by bWAR):
10. Reggie Smith, 1982, age 37, 2.8 bWAR, 134 OPS+
9. Joe DiMaggio, 1951, age 36, 2.9 bWAR, 115 OPS+
8. Ted Williams, 1960, age 41, 2.9 bWAR, 190 OPS+
7. Stan Javier, 2001, age 37, 2.9 bWAR, 109 OPS+
6. Larry Walker, 2005, age 38, 2.9 bWAR, 130 OPS+
5. John Briggs, 1975, age 31, 3.0 bWAR, 116 OPS+
4. Barry Bonds, 2007, age 42, 3.3 bWAR, 169 OPS+
3. Mickey Mantle, 1968, age 36, 3.6 bWAR, 142 OPS+
2. Will Clark, 2000, age 36, 4.1 bWAR, 144 OPS+
1. Jackie Robinson, 1956, age 37, 4.6 bWAR, 106 OPS+
Now that’s an interesting list. Anytime you can get Stan Javier and Ted Williams on the same list, you’re doing something right. The list is largely populated by great players, very good players, and Stan Javier (who I always thought was slightly underrated).
As most know, I’m a huge Will Clark fan — my favorite all-time Giant — and his inclusion at the #2 spot surprised me. Looking back, I knew that Clark had a good last season, but I didn’t know just how good. Few players seem to walk away from the game when they can still preform at such a high level. Clark surely would have had suitors if he decided to stick around. After a trade that sent him from Baltimore to St. Louis for a pennant drive, Clark batted .345/.426/.655 (166 OPS+) for his new team over 197 plate appearances. He batted .250./.357/.500 in the NLDS and .412/.500/.706 in the NLCS. It’s not hard to imagine Clark playing two to three more years at a pretty high level. Through his age 34-36 seasons he averaged a 133 OPS+ while playing in 356 games.
After the season, Clark decided to retire and it probably hurt his chances at the Hall of Fame. He failed to reach the five percent threshold in 2006, and was subsequently removed from the ballot. (Though, Clark could always be a veteran committee vote.) Personally, I’m a “Big Hall” type of guy. It’s not outrageous to think that Clark deserves a spot in the Hall. If he compiled stats for a few more years, probably surpassing 300 HRs and getting much closer to 2,500 hits, his chances might have been greater.
In 2000, Will Clark’s OPS+ ranked him 22nd in baseball among those qualified for the batting title; he was better than players like Chipper Jones (141), Bernie Williams (139), and Scott Rolen (129) to name just a few. It’s hard to imagine any player walking away from baseball while still performing at an All-Star level. In the end, Clark did just that.