Thursday, May 13, 2010

What the End of the Road Looks Like

On Tuesday, The Common Man asked Rob Neyer about Ken Griffey’s nap session and the apparent end of the road for Junior that seems to be coming up fast. Rob didn’t answer the question, really, but he did pose an interesting question, “You know what would be a "fun" project? Making a list of the greatest players, then rating (or ranking) their career endings. Right now I have to think Junior's would rate pretty low (even with style points for finishing with M's).” Eager beaver The Captain’s Blog responded to the challenge in his way, and did a strong job at identifying the best performances at the end of a career. And Lar at Wezenball looked at a number of sad endings to Hall of Fame careers. The Common Man wants to go a little further though, and be a little more comprehensive. So The Common Man looked at the career end for every Hall of Fame hitter who got in as a player, as well as some notables who are either not yet eligible for enshrinement (Bonds, Rose, Thomas, Sosa, Sheffield, Piazza), or haven’t made it in yet but are considered legitimate candidates (Larkin, Alomar, Edgar, McGriff, McGwire). There are probably some guys The Common Man is missed, and he’ll accept your admonishments in the comments.

First, the challenges. The Captain’s Blog set a somewhat arbitrary cutoff at 75 plate appearances. This is useful in one sense, as it eliminates the challenges posed by Frank Chance, Fred Clarke, Hugh Duffy, and others who gave themselves random at bats in meaningless or one-sided games. The Common Man has chosen to ignore these ends, as they don’t represent the true end of the Hall of Famer’s playing career. That said, many Hall of Famers ended their careers in short stints where it was apparent they didn’t have anything left in the tank. TCM has tried to include these in the analysis. It’s patchwork and subjective, much like many of these kinds of lists. The Common Man is also using WAR, rather than The Captain’s OPS+, as it captures position adjustments that make a huge difference. Ernie Banks was approximately a league average hitter at the end of his run, but as a first baseman he was a tremendous liability. Finally, TCM is breaking down the list into categories. In all, there are 155 hitters considered, so it’s best to take them in chunks.

Went out “The Right Way”
Honestly, it was very surprising how many Hall of Fame caliber players left the game with their ability to hit still relatively intact. According to Sean Smith’s WAR database, here are all the players who have gone out with a WAR above 2.0:

1 Joe Jackson 7.4
2 Jackie Robinson 4.6
3 Robrto Clemente 4.4
4 Fred Clarke 4.3
5 Mickey Mantle 3.6
6 Barry Bonds 3.3
7 Hank Greenberg 3.1
8 Ted Williams 2.9
Jesse Burkett 2.9
10 Joe DiMaggio 2.8
11 Billy Hamilton 2.6
12 Kirby Puckett 2.5
13 Bobby Doerr 2.4
Monte Irvin 2.4
15 Luis Aparicio 2.3
Robin Yount 2.3
Kenny Lofton 2.3
16 Eddie Collins 2.1

By far, TCM thinks the most interesting name on this list is Mickey Mantle. We’ve been led to believe that Mantle finished his career hobbling around 1B for a bunch of bad Yankee teams. And that’s true. But he was hardly a shell of his former self. Despite playing a premium offensive position, Mantle was still worth more than three and a half wins more than a replacement level 1B. But the end of Mantle’s career tucks neatly into the height of the greatest era for pitchers in baseball history. Indeed, while Mantle was definitely slowing down, his .237/.385/.398 was still good for a 142 OPS+. What would be an interesting exercise, and perhaps a future project here, is to look specifically at players whose careers ended too soon, because their offensive era made it appear as though they were declining. Likewise, one could look at players who hung on because the offensive era masked their declining skills relative to the players around them.

Of the other players on this list: Joe Jackson, because of his involvement in the Black Sox Scandal was banned from baseball at the height of his career, which explains his dominance of this list. And there are a couple other players who were prematurely forced out because of injury (Puckett’s glaucoma) or death (Clemente). Barry Bonds became persona non grata after 2007, because of his presumed steroid use and standoffish behavior. Nobody really remembers how awesome Fred Clarke was, and that’s a shame. Eddie Collins got 37 PAs as a player-coach for Connie Mack’s A’s in 1928, 9 in ’29, and 2 in ’30, which TCM has chosen not to acknowledge here.

Thanks for the Effort
In all, 40 players finished their final season with more than 1 win above replacement. In addition to the players above, they include:

19 Joe Gordon 1.7
Joe Sewell 1.7
Ross Youngs 1.7
Ty Cobb 1.7
Bobby Grich 1.7
24 Joe Morgan 1.5
Ozzie Smith 1.5
Yogi Berra 1.5
27 Lou Whitaker 1.4
Lou Boudreau 1.4
29 Barry Larkin 1.3
Bill Terry 1.3
George Kell 1.3
Richie Ashburn 1.3
Jeff Kent 1.3
34 Mickey Cochrane 1.2
Stan Musial 1.2
36 Frank Chance 1.1
Harry Hooper 1.1
38 Gabby Hartnett 1
Kiki Cuyler 1
Willie Keeler 1

The standout here seems to be Lou Whitaker, who absolutely raked (.293/.372/.518) in part time duty in 1995. Cochrane, Hartnett, Terry, and Chance all rank here because of playing time issues. They performed excellently in their final go-around.

Players Who Gave It All They Had Left
The following list of players finished with more than zero wins above replacement:

41 Chick Hafey 0.9
Ed Delahanty 0.9
Johnny Bench 0.9
Roy Campanella 0.9
Johnny Evers 0.9
46 Earle Combs 0.8
Hack Wilson 0.8
Home Run Baker 0.8
Roger Bresnahan 0.8
50 Tony Lazzari 0.7
Rick Ferrell 0.7
Ryne Sandberg 0.7
53 Al Kaline 0.6
Paul Waner 0.6
Tony Gwynn 0.6
56 Arky Vaughn 0.5
Bill Dickey 0.5
Jimmie Foxx 0.5
Rafael Palmeiro 0.5
Rod Carew 0.5
Jeff Bagwell 0.5
62 Ernie Lombardi 0.4
Hank Aaron 0.4
Eddie Matthews 0.4
Mark McGwire 0.4
66 Willie Stargell 0.3
Bill Dahlen 0.3
Tris Speaker 0.3
Dick Allen 0.3
Gary Carter 0.3
71 Frank Robinson 0.2
Rickey Hendrson 0.2
Pee Wee Reese 0.2
Hugh Duffy 0.2
Joe Cronin 0.2
Zack Wheat 0.2
Babe Ruth 0.2
78 Billie Williams 0.1
Johnny Mize 0.1
Rogers Hornsby 0.1
Paul Molitor 0.1
Sam Rice 0.1
Willie Mays 0.1
Elmer Flick 0.1

Ed Delahanty appears because, after being put off a train for disruptive (drunken) behavior, Delahanty tried to walk across a bridge above Niagra Falls, presumably fell in, washed over the Falls, and was found dead several days later. One of Rob’s chatters mentioned thinking Robinson was a shell of his former self in ’76, when he used himself as a pinch hitter as player-manager, but he managed a .2 WARP in just 78 PAs, despite only spending 21 innings in the field. Again, Robinson’s decline was partially accelerated by a tough era for hitters. Joe Cronin and Rogers Hornsby never stopped hitting, but did stop playing defense. They would insert themselves into the lineup every now and then. Babe Ruth’s brief stint with the Braves manages to be above replacement level. His OPS+ was 118 in 1935. Willie Mays’s final season has been described as one of the saddest ever to watch. Let’s see if we can top it.

Thanks for nothin’

85 Frank Thomas 0
Hughie Jennings 0
Nellie Fox 0

Thomas was trying to DH for Toronto and Oakland; Jennings had 19 ineffective plate appearances for Brooklyn in 1903, and Nellie Fox was a player-coach for the Houston Colt 45s.

One and Done
The following players endured one season where they were below replacement level, and wisely called it a career:

88 Ralph Kiner -0.1
Tim Raines -0.1
Phil Rizzuto -0.1
Harry Heilman -0.1
Joe Medwick -0.1
Luke Appling -0.1
Joe Tinker -0.1
95 Billy Herman -0.2
Tony Perez -0.2
97 Gary Sheffield -0.3
Wade Boggs -0.3
George Davis -0.3
Lou Gehrig -0.3
Mike Piazza -0.3
102 Carl Yastr'mski -0.4
Fred Lindstrom -0.4
George Brett -0.4
Honus Wagner -0.4
106 Cal Ripken -0.5
Mike Schmidt -0.5
108 Duke Snider -0.6
Enos Slaughter -0.6
Fred McGriff -0.6
Jimmie Collins -0.6
Reggie Jackson -0.6
113 Edgar Martinez -0.7
Orlando Cepeda -0.7
Willie McCovey -0.7
116 Ed Roush -0.8
Jim Rice -0.8
Sam Crawford -0.8
119 Jake Beckley -0.9
120 Larry Doby -1
Pete Rose -1
122 Dave Winfield -1.1
Craig Biggio -1.4
124 Travis Jackson -1.6
125 Ron Santo -2.1

When it was clear they were no longer able to carry their share, these players got out of the way. Though for some, it was easier to see than others. Gary Sheffield still hit a ton, but shouldn’t have been allowed near a glove. Lou Gehrig’s sad end came after just 33 plate appearances. Jim Rice was not the most feared hitter in the American League in 1986, when he .234/.276/.344. Fred McGriff’s chase of 500 homers was cut short in Tampa because he couldn’t hit a fastball anymore. Likewise, Pete Rose finally hung ‘em up after propping his chase of Ty Cobb up for several years as a player-manager. Dave Winfield was so bad in ’95, he only needed 130 plate appearances to have a WAR of -1.1. Of course, watching Craig Biggio’s Bataan Death March toward 3000 hits made all of Houston weep for what once was. Ron Santo’s quick decline has kept him out of the Hall of Fame so far. His 1974 (at just 34) must have been painful to watch. .221/.293/.299

Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt
The rest of the list is somewhat subjective. These are players who allowed their collapse to extend beyond one season. These players could not let go; you’d have to pry the bat from their cold dead hands. In a way, it’s inspiring. In another, more visceral, way, it is just sad. This just seems like a group of player who couldn’t see how badly their skills had diminished.

126 Ray Schalk '23-'29 1.1
127 Frankie Frisch '35-'37 0.1
128 Nap Lajoie '14-'16 0
129 Charlie Gehrngr '41-'42 -0.1
Goose Goslin '37-'38 -0.1
Heine Manush '35-'39 -0.1
Red Schoendist 1959-1963 -0.1
133 Bill Mazeroski '70-'72 -0.2
Max Carey '26-'29 -0.2
Pie Traynor '35-'37 -0.2
Robbie Alomar '02-'04 -0.2
137 Carlton Fisk '92-'93 -0.3
138 Harm Killebrew '73-'75 -0.5
Bernie Williams '05-'06 -0.5
140 Dave Bancroft '27-'30 -0.6
Alan Trammell '94-'96 -0.6
142 Sammy Sosa '05-'07 -0.7
143 Lloyd Waner '39-'45 -0.8
144 Earl Averill '40-'41 -0.9
145 Ken Griffey '08-'10 -1.1
Brooks Robinson '76-'77 -1.1
Al Simmons '40-'44 -1.1
Mel Ott '46-'47 -1.1
George Sisler '29-'30 -1.1
150 Ernie Banks '69-'70 -1.4
151 Chuck Klein '40-'44 -1.6
152 Eddie Murray '96-'97 -1.9
153 Jim Bottomley '35-'37 -2.2
Rabbit Marnvlle '32-'35 -2.2
155 Lou Brock '77-'79 -2.4

Ray Schalk and Frankie Frisch should probably be listed above where they're at, but Schalk surrounded two decent years with four seasons (two on each side) where he finished with a negative WAR, and Frisch never should have been playing, except that he was also managing. George Sisler was still hitting .300 at the end, but so was the rest of the National League. Chuck Klein’s end took five years, and he was below replacement level in all five. The Common Man wonders what would have happened in the Hall of Fame voting if Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker had both retired after ’95. Griffey has been below replacement level in ’08 (-.1) and ’09 (-.4), and has taken sucking to a whole new level in 2010. According to Fangraphs, he’s already cost the Mariners -.6 wins in just 88 plate appearances. The longer Griffey stays with the Mariners this year, the further he is going to fall down this list, putting him in danger of surpassing Banks and Klein, and perhaps even Murray. As none of us were lucky enough to watch Bottomley and Maranville play, it looks as though Griffey and Brock are poised to be the modern faces of hanging on too long. At least Brock had a milestone he was pursuing. What’s Junior’s excuse?


Jay said...

Excellent analysis, but don't you have to factor in some "intangibles" like Mike Schmidt's touching (in my view - others would say embarrassing) press conference?

Anonymous said...

Nice follow-up...while WAR is better than OPS+ for modern data (in which fielding data is more comprehensive), I don't think the historical versions are necessarily accurate.

The Common Man said...

@ Jay
I can't tell if you're being sarcastic or not. But The Common Man is not planning to dig up news accounts of each of the 155 players and use them to subjectively move players up or down the list.

@ Anon

TCM would tend to agree with you, as our defensive numbers are suspect for past eras. That said, TCM wanted to use some objective criteria and recognized that there had to be some kind of adjustment for position, otherwise M. Sean Smith's WAR was the best tool TCM had available for that. Otherwise Aparicio and Yount would rank much lower and Banks, Murray, and Sisler would rank much higher.

Larry said...

TCM, great post! But there's a problem using WAR to make these comparisons, in that WAR varies depending on numbers of games played. Some of the players on your list played part time in their final year, others played full time. A Mickey Mantle who had 547 plate appearances in his final season would have had the opportunity to accumulate more WARs than a Dick Allen who had 200 plate appearances.

This does not take much away from your analysis, by the way. Particularly interesting that Mantle's final year rates so highly. I was alive in 1968, and we were all kind of relieved to see him retire.

Jay said...

@TCM: I was being semi-sarcastic, but a big part of remembering some of these guys' last seasons were truly how someone "went out". Schmidt's press conference for me was particularly bittersweet since he was my favorite player as a kid and it was painful to hear him talk about having "two bad knees and a dream" as a kid from Dayton, OH.

I think Neyer echoed something similar in today's links. Still though, an impressive analysis.