The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Reggie Smith”

Happy Endings: The Art of Going Out On Top

Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once it was announced that Andy Pettitte was going to come out of retirement to pitch yet another season for the Yankees, the first thing I thought was, why bother?  What does he have left to prove?  He has 240 regular season wins to his credit, plus another 19 playoff game wins.  Pettitte will turn 40-years old in June.  Why take the risk of potentially embarrassing himself in front of his fans?

Meanwhile, Chipper Jones is heading the other way, recently announcing that 2o12 will be his final season in the Majors.  When he was healthy enough to play, Chipper (who turns 40 in April) put up some decent numbers last season.  Again, though, one has to wonder why it is even necessary to attempt one more season.  Like Pettitte, Jones has had a long and distinguished career, so why risk going out with a sub-par performance?

This led me to consider how few players in baseball history have retired at or near the top of their game.  After examining the final seasons of many of baseball’s best players, the answer is damn few.

If Pettitte had decided to stay retired, his final performance in 2010, an 11-3 record in 21 starts with a 3.28 ERA (and an ERA+ of 132), would actually qualify as one of the finest final season performances by any pitcher in baseball history.

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, if Chipper Jones had retired after last season when he swatted 33 doubles to go along with his 18 homers, 70 RBI and OPS+ of 123, he could have held his head high.

This is not to say that Chipper or Pettitte will perform terribly in 2012, but baseball’s long history of final performances is one long, ugly indictment of playing one season too many.

Having said that, here are eight random final season performances that were actually quite impressive.  In some cases, the player was forced into retirement due to physical reasons.  In other cases, the player had become so controversial that no team would sign him, regardless of his ability to remain productive.

Albert Belle

Albert Belle (Photo credit: Keith Fujimoto)

1)  Albert (Joey) Belle – You remember him best, perhaps, as the infamous sociopath who tried to run over some kids with his car on Halloween night.  You might also remember that Belle was one hell of a hitter during his career.  As far as I can tell, Belle is the only player in history to drive in at least 95 runs in every one of his full seasons in the Majors, including 103 in 2000, his final season.

In 2000, Belle cranked 37 doubles to go with 23 homers and a .281 batting average for the Orioles.  His OPS was .817.  While not one of his greatest years, it was far superior to the average final season of most Major League sluggers.  He retired at the age of 33.

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank,...

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank, pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Eddie Plank – “Gettysburg”  Eddie Plank, unlike the vast majority of highly successful pitchers, Plank did just fine in his last season in the Majors.  Although his record in his final season in 1917 (pitching for the St. Louis Browns) was just  5-6, he posted a sparkling 1.79 ERA in 131 innings.  His ERA+ was an outstanding 147.  Clearly, this 41-year old future HOF’er had something left in the tank.  But he wisely decided to call it quits after that final season.

3)  Reggie Smith –  One of the most underrated players in baseball history, and one of the top 50 players not in the Hall of Fame, Smith enjoyed his final hurrah in 1982 at the age of 37 while playing for the San Francisco Giants.  Entering ’82, Smith was just four homers shy of 300 for his career.  He ended up slugging 18 while playing his home games in Candlestick Park, a notoriously difficult park for hitters.

Smith’s triple slash line in ’82:  .284 / .364 / .470, with an OPS+ of 134, were remarkably similar to his overall career numbers:  .287 / .366 / .489, OPS+ of 137.  In other words, Smith was about as productive in his final season as he had been in any previous average year.  That’s not at all a bad way to go out.

4)  Tony Gwynn– Even in his final season at age 41, was anyone really surprised that Gwynn batted .324?  Granted, he played in just 71 games in 2001, but his OPS+ during those plate appearance, 127, was pretty close to his career OPS+ of 132.  Gwynn was essentially the same professional hitter at age 41 as he had been much earlier in his career.

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5)  Jackie Robinson –  Given the relentless abuse heaped upon him day after day, year after year, it’s a wonder he played as long as he did.

Robinson was already 28-years old when he debuted in the Majors in 1947.  He played a solid decade before retiring after the 1956 season at the age of 37.  During this decade, he was a career .311 hitter who scored at least 99 runs in each of his first seven seasons.  His career OPS+ was an excellent 131.

In his final season, despite playing in just 117 games, Robinson drew 60 walks while striking out just 32 times, posting a .382 on-base percentage.  He posted an outstanding dWAR of 1.9, and a respectable overall WAR of 4.6, third best on the 1st place Dodgers.  He also finished 16th in MVP voting, not a bad way to end a legendary career.

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inn...

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inning of 12 August 1992 game between San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Game boxscore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Will Clark – Will “The Thrill” Clark was one of my favorite players of the late 1980’s into the early ’90’s.  He played with intensity, had a beautiful left-handed line-drive swing, and was nimble around first base.  His career OPS+ of 137 is the same as the aforementioned Reggie Smith, and is better than those of Hall of Famers Bill Terry, George Brett, Al Kaline, and Paul Waner.

His final season in the year 2000 did nothing to blemish his fine career.  In splitting his season between Baltimore and St. Louis, Clark posted a fine triple slash line of .318 / .419 / .546 and an OPS+ of 144 in 507 plate appearances.  His overall WAR was a respectable 4.1.  Retiring at the age of 36, Clark certainly went out at the top of his game.

7)  Mike Mussina –  That rarest of rare pitchers, Mussina decided to retire after winning 20 games for the first time in his career (at age 39) while pitching for the New York Yankees in 2008.  As far as I know, no health issues would have prevented him from returning for yet another season at the age of 40.  Clearly, he decided he’d had enough.

Those 20 victories pushed his career total to 270, and probable induction into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer ...

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer in a 1961 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8)  Sandy Koufax – Koufax and Mussina are the only two pitchers since 1920 who retired after posting 20-win seasons.  Mussina did it out of choice.  Koufax was forced into retirement due to chronic pain in his elbow.

It’s interesting to speculate how much longer Koufax would have pitched had he not suffered from this lingering pain.  Would he have eventually bounced around like Steve Carlton in his final years, trying to recapture lost glory?  And if he had tried to pitch while declining in effectiveness year after year, would his legendary reputation have become diminished over time?

Regardless, Koufax’s final season in 1966 at age 30, pitching for the L.A. Dodgers, was the single finest final performance in baseball history.  En route to his third Cy Young award over four seasons, Koufax posted a 27-9 record, a 1.73 ERA (which led the league for the fifth straight year), 27 complete games in 41 starts (both of which led the league), 317 strikeouts, and a ridiculous ERA+ of 190.  His WAR was 10.8, matching his career high set in 1963.

I think Neil Young had it correct when he said it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

Regarding Chipper Jones and Andy Pettitte, it remains to be seen if their final seasons will match those listed above, or if their respective final seasons were one year too many.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 9 – The Boston Red Sox

Back in the 1970’s, a powerfully built young black man roamed the outfield in Fenway Park.  Although he would go on to hit over 300 home runs in his career, he would never ingratiate himself with the powerful Boston sports media.

Born in the South, he found himself playing for an overwhelmingly white baseball team, the last to integrate in the years subsequent to Jackie Robinson’s arrival 200 miles south in Brooklyn.

But, although by now the Red Sox were integrated, they were far from harmonious.  According to an article published in Sports Illustrated on October 2, 1978 (about the Red Sox clubhouse in the late 1960’s-mid ’70’s), the Red Sox were divided up into at least four different cliques.

There was a Carl Yastrzemski group, a Jim Lonborg group, a Ken Harrelson group, and a Tony Conigliaro group.  Apparently, each group would throw parties primarily to exclude teammates they didn’t like.

Entering this fray, a black man on a team that had never had a black hero, was problematic enough.  But this particular black man, young and brash, was unafraid to speak his mind.

This did not turn out to be a good career move.

Labeled for years afterward as a negative clubhouse presence, his reputation overshadowed his physical skills as an athlete, particularly his powerful bat in the middle of the Red Sox lineup.

Reggie Smith, therefore, did not become Boston’s first great baseball superstar, although, by all rights, he should have.

Drafted by the Red Sox in December, 1963, Reggie Smith made his Major League debut in 1966 at the age of 21.  A switch-hitter with speed, power and a strong arm, Reggie Smith patrolled center field in Fenway for seven years.  During that time, he threw out base-runners, tracked down fly balls, slammed line drives, alienated fans, and pissed off the Boston media.

In that same S.I. article, Smith said he first realized that Boston was a racist city to play ball in when one of the Red Sox executives told him, early in his career,  that Smith had the kind of body that would last a long time in the Major Leagues.  At first believing he had been complemented, the executive then added, “Blacks have that kind of body.”

In another instance, Smith, running late for the team bus one day in his rookie season, complained that the team bus always waited for the sports writers and journalists, no matter how late they were, but sometimes threatened to leave players behind for being late.  Smith thought this was unfair, and said so.  In retaliation, a Boston sportswriter told Smith, “Son, I made you, now I’ll break you.”

Meanwhile, during his tenure with the Sox, Smith made two All-Star teams, led his league in doubles twice, in Total Bases once, batted over .300 three times, finished in the top ten in Slugging Percentage five times, led the A.L. in put-outs once, and in outfield assists once, and hit at least twenty home runs in five consecutive seasons.

Reggie Smith’s Best Forgotten Season with the Boston Red Sox was in 1971.

In 1971, at the age of 26, Smith led the A.L. in Total Bases with 302, in Extra Base Hits with 65, in doubles with 33, and in center field Range Factor at 2.94 chances per game.

Smith also finished second in Runs Created – 106, Assists – 15, third in RBI’s – 96, and forth in hits – 175.

Mysteriously, Smith finished only 17th in the voting for league M.V.P. in 1971.  Freddie Patek of the K.C. Royals, who amassed an embarrassingly flaccid .697 OPS  (143 points behind Smith), placed sixth in the voting.

During his tenure in Boston (excluding his rookie year), Smith’s OPS+ range was between 126-150, meaning he was always significantly better than a typical, league-average outfielder.

But by the end of 1973, Smith’s final year in Boston, the Fenway faithful were singing out to him, “Goodbye, Reggie, we’re glad to see you go.”

In 1974, still very much in his prime at the age of 29, Reggie Smith was traded to the Cardinals.  He enjoyed two productive seasons in St. Louis, including his first 100 RBI campaign in ’74, before finally settling in with the Dodgers in 1976.  Smith finished 4th in N.L. MVP voting twice in L.A., in both ’77 and ’78.

In Los Angeles, Smith came to be looked upon as a respected clubhouse veteran, a leader on and off the field.  In his thirties, Smith had found a place that recognized his talents, and that allowed him to shed his prior reputation, deserved or not, as a malcontent.

Switch-hitting Reggie Smith retired after playing one season with the Giants in 1982 at the age of 37.  He played on seven All-Star teams throughout his career, and was one of the best overall players in the decade of the ’70’s.

Ironically, in 1975, a couple of years after Smith’s turbulent exit from Boston, another young, black slugger (also born in the South), moved into the Red Sox outfield.  He, too, would experience his fair share of run-ins with the Boston sports media.

Jim Rice, however, gradually learned to keep his opinions to himself.  As a result, he spent his entire career with the Red Sox.  Rice, unlike Smith, finally made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, albeit after a 15-year wait.

Interestingly, although Rice generally posted better counting stats than Smith in his career, they aren’t that far apart in certain key statistics. For example, Rice’s career OPS is .854;  Smith’s is .855.  Rice’s career OPS+ is 128; Smith’s career OPS+ is 137.

It is, of course, impossible to say in retrospect how Smith’s career would have turned out if he had played for 15 years in the bandbox that is Fenway Park.  What we can say for sure is that, in 1971, Reggie Smith enjoyed one of the Best Forgotten Seasons in Red Sox history.

Post Navigation