The genesis of this post was pretty straightforward. Last August, Bryan Grosnick wrote about Jeff Heath leaving baseball immediately after being one of the best hitters in the league (sidebar) and that got me thinking about the other players who have walked off into the sunset while while they were still tremendously successful. James Gentile (sidebar) took up the same type of question about a year ago in these pages using rWAR, but I wanted to take a run at it from another angle for two reasons.
First, the defensive estimations from earlier periods of history are imprecise to say the least, which means that great offensive seasons could be masked or terrible offensive seasons could be saved based on a number in which we don't have tons of confidence. This isn't to say older WAR values aren't useful, just that when we're looking for single season, extreme outliers, it might not be the best tool. Second, the players who topped Gentile's position player list left because they were banned from the game or passed away between seasons and once you get to the back half, you're looking at two and three win players which doesn't satisfy my thirst for elite production on the eve of retirement. I'm hoping if we try answering the question in a different way, we'll find less depressing answers.
So the methodology here is quite simple. I started with every position player season from 1901-2013 in which a player registered 250 PA or more (~half a season or more) and then isolated each individual's final season. These seasons are ranked below by wRC+. In other words, to qualify, you had to have at least 250 PA in your final major league season. If you had five plate appearances in your final year, you're out. Obviously, active players are not included because we assume that 2013 will not be their final season.
|8||1920||Happy Felsch||White Sox||142||613||139|
|5||2000||Will Clark||2 Teams||129||507||146|
|2||1920||Joe Jackson||White Sox||146||649||167|
|1||1960||Ted Williams||Red Sox||113||390||184|
You'll notice some familiar names on this list if you've done the assigned reading as Williams, Jackson, Bonds, Blark, and Felsch appear on Gentile's list as well. This is a pretty interesting list for a couple of reasons. The list is populated by names from three distinct eras (1918-1920, 1960-1968, 1992-2007). This is more than a century worth of data and the top ten all cluster around a few years. That probably doesn't mean anything, but it caught my eye.
The list is also interesting because Ted Williams was Ted Williams. He had a 184 wRC+ in his final season. You don't need me to tell you that he of the 130 fWAR and 188 career wRC+ was great, but just as a public service, it's important to remind you that Ted Williams' last season ranks as the 99th best season ever (min 300 PA), of which there have been about 22,000. When Ted Williams decided to retire, he was still the best hitter that even lived.
The final note of intrigue here is how difficult it was to cull through this list to find players whose final season included more than 250 PA. It stands to reason that players who perform well over a decent number of trips to the plate will come back for another year. If you list each player's final season of 250 PA or more, you need to travel down to number 79 to find Dave Nillson at number ten on our list of best final seasons.
It's extremely rare to hang it up if you're a really good hitter who can still play in about half of your teams games. Very few hitters go out on top, which makes the ones who do all the more interesting.
. . .
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.