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Jeff Heath and the art of finishing strong

You're forgiven if you've forgotten about Jeff Heath -- who was out of the major leagues in 1950 after being the third-best hitter in baseball in 1948 and 1949.


So, on Sunday, I was inspecting the wRC+ leaderboard over on FanGraphs ... specifically the leaderboard of qualified position players since integration. The reason, as always, was to find another way to describe just how incredible Mike Trout is -- he's No. 4 all-time right now with a 162 wRC+. When you hit No. 20 on the list, you find Jeff Heath, a former outfielder for the Indians, Senators, Browns and Braves.

Heath was a two*-time All-Star, and a damn fine hitter (137 career wRC+), but he shows up on this leaderboard due to the equivalent of a clerical error: he only played three years of his career, which spanned from 1936 to 1949, during the "integration" era. Incredibly, Heath's final two seasons, played with the Boston Braves before (and after) a vicious ankle injury would ultimately end his career, saw him post a 167 wRC+ over 545 plate appearances. In his final 1127 plate appearances, from 1947 on, Heath posted a hefty 147 wRC+.

[ * - Jeff was also kind of an All-Star in 1945, but we won't get into that here.]

Boy, that sure is a great example of how to finish a career strong.

While plenty of players have stretches of extreme offensive effectiveness, it seems more than a little strange to see a player post such terrific numbers before ending a major-league career -- even if that career is at least partially ended by injury.

Why would the Braves let Heath go after a relatively effective 1949, even in a small sample? Well, there's a couple of possible reasons. Though Heath had a pretty great wRC+, it's not like that was a metric anyone was using back in '49. But Heath had a respectable batting average (.306) and hit nine homers in 36 games. He was hitting for more power in this short period than he ever had in a full season of work before.

Then again, Heath's performance tailed off a bit after a hot start to August, and he was operating on a bum wheel. Perhaps the team felt that it was too risky of a health risk -- even though this was a team that employed the also-risky "Pistol" Pete Reiser in the outfield as well in both '49 and '50.

Heath was also not what one would call a good clubhouse guy*, so perhaps that had something to do with his exodus from the game as well. He'd eventually find his way on to the Seattle Rainiers in 1950, but was finished playing shortly thereafter.

[ * - For more on Heath's colorful (to put it one way) career, check out his entry at the SABR BioProject.]

Heath is an interesting case, because when we talk about players leaving the game these days, we usually see them leave after a bit of a decline -- not at the peak of their powers.

Imagine this: Chipper Jones, coming off his effective-but injury-shortened 2005 season, suffers a serious ankle injury in 2006, and plays only 34 games instead of 110, but at the same level of performance after coming back at the end of the season. Then, instead of the Braves bringing him back for a powerful age-35 season in 2007, they just cut him loose. It would never happen today, would it?

Much ado was made of Chipper retiring after last season, despite still being a very effective third baseman in limited action. But Jones only hit for a 127 wRC+ over his last somewhat-full season. Can you imagine what the situation would have been like if he were hitting like Joey Votto?

That's, in a sense, the situation with Jeff Heath's last two seasons. On a rate basis, he was the third-best hitter in baseball during 1948 and 1949, with only Stan Musial (189 wRC+) and Ted Williams (185 wRC+) out-performing him.

I'm not sure if there were additional extenuating circumstances that necessitated Heath's quick exit from the bigs, whether they had to do with an injury that couldn't be treated the same way a modern one might, or clubhouse issues or a simple misunderstanding of a player's true offensive value. Regardless, it's certainly an interesting event when you find a player who's not just good upon retirement, but rather at the peak of their powers. I can hardly imagine a situation -- save Ryan Braun serving a lifetime ban from baseball -- where the same thing could happen today.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, with a special hat-tip to C. Paul Rogers III's bio of Heath at the Society for American Baseball Reseach (SABR).

Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.

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