In honor of Chipper Jones' 40th birthday today, here's a quick look at how other 40-year-olds have fared at the plate in Braves history. Below is a list of the 12 Braves hitters with the most plate appearances in their age-40 season, including Larry Wayne:
All in all, that's some prestigious company for Chipper: of the 11 other players, 5 are in the Hall of Fame and 1 (John Smoltz) likely will be in a few years. And of course Chipper will make it 7 out of 12.
I love that the "most home runs by a 40-year-old Brave" list goes like this:
- Hank Aaron, 20
- Babe Ruth, 6
- Warren Spahn, 4
- Chipper Jones, 2
You have the former HR king (in his last season with the Braves), followed by the man he supplanted (Ruth, in his last season in baseball), followed by a pitcher. Obviously, Chipper will pass Spahn (and Ruth) this season barring a catastrophe, but for right now, that's a great list.
(I should point out that the lists above don't include players who were age 41 or older; if we did, there'd be 6 Julio Franco seasons, plus 4 more from Phil Niekro and 3 more from Spahn.)
Only 3 hitters have been regulars for the Braves at age 40--Aaron, Johnny Cooney, and Rabbit Maranville. And Maranville, while he had an excellent career, was terrible by that time, posting an OPS+ of 59 (meaning he was 41% worse than the league average on offense).
Cooney had an incredibly interesting career. He debuted in MLB at age 20 as a pitcher, and appeared in parts of 9 seasons for the Braves in that role, including two very good seasons in 1924 and 1925. However, by age 30, injuries and ineffectiveness forced him to make a change, so--like Ruth before him--he made the switch to being a hitter and outfielder. Cooney didn't have Ruth's power (just 2 career home runs), but he had decent batting averages and was a very good defensive outfielder.
Cooney's first 5 years as a hitter were fairly mediocre, but then something strange happened. In 1940 and 1941, at the ages of 39 and 40, Cooney had easily his two best years with the bat. That makes him one of a very select group of players to peak at that late age.
I think it's pretty cool that probably the 4th-best offensive season by a 40-year-old Brave came from Warren Spahn. His 89 OPS+ at age 40 is better than the career marks of Rick Dempsey, Adam Kennedy, or Garry Templeton, among many others. That would turn out to be Spahn's 2nd-best hitting season (he was phenomenal in 1958), but it was no fluke. His career line of .194 / .234 / .287 is admirable for his position, especially for a guy who played well into his 40's.
Among the other pitchers on the list, John Smoltz had some good years but never really hit at all after his stint in the bullpen; Niekro was an OK hitter for a pitcher, though not at Spahn's level; and Bob Smith was actually quite a good hitter (.242 / .265 / .309 career) for a pitcher. However, Smith did start his career as an infielder before switching to the mound, which makes his hitting skills seem decidedly less impressive.
It's also interesting that this list features three pitcher-to-hitter conversions (Ruth, Cooney, and Cy Seymour) and a hitter-to-pitcher conversion (Smith). Is there something about these players that makes them better able to last until age 40? Perhaps spending years at another position saves them from wear-and-tear, allowing them to play longer at their new position?
Finally, you may have noticed that most of the players on the list are outfielders or pitchers. In fact, Chipper Jones is the first 40-year-old infielder to get 30 or more PAs for the franchise since Maranville did it in 1932. That's two Chipper Jones lifetimes ago!
All kidding aside, I know we all appreciate everything that Chipper has done for the team over the years. Here's hoping he has a great 40th birthday, preferably including a homer or two.