The Braves' Chipper Jones And The Best Final Seasons

Chipper Jones is attempting to cap his career with one of the best final seasons ever.

When Chipper Jones announced that 2012 would be his final season... and then announced the next day that he'd need minor knee surgery, I think we were all a bit afraid that Chipper's swan song would be a bit of a letdown. Happily, that has not been the case so far. In fact, Chipper has played some of his best baseball in years (when he's been in the lineup).

This got me to thinking: which players have had the best final seasons of all time, and does Chipper have a chance to finish among them? Below, I rank the best final seasons by position players using a few different criteria.

First up is Baseball-Reference's (new & improved) version of Wins Above Replacement (brWAR). Chipper already has accrued 1.0 brWAR in 2012, which, since the season is about 1/5 over, puts him on pace for around 5 brWAR. I don't think he'll get near that total, but he can fall well short and still rank among the best final seasons ever. Only 12 hitters since 1901 have topped 3 brWAR in their final seasons, and many of those seasons should have asterisks:

Rk Player brWAR PA Year Age Tm H HR BB BA OBP SLG Pos
1 Shoeless Joe Jackson 7.3 649 1920 32 CHW 218 12 56 .382 .444 .589 *7/9
2 Happy Felsch 5.2 615 1920 28 CHW 188 14 37 .338 .384 .540 *8
3 Roberto Clemente 4.7 413 1972 37 PIT 118 10 29 .312 .356 .479 *9
4 Jackie Robinson 4.3 431 1956 37 BRO 98 10 60 .275 .382 .412 *54/37
5 Roy Cullenbine 4.0 607 1947 33 DET 104 24 137 .224 .401 .422 *3
6 Chick Stahl 3.9 667 1906 33 BOS 170 4 47 .286 .346 .366 *8
7 Will Clark 3.8 507 2000 36 BAL/STL 136 21 69 .319 .418 .546 *3/D
8 Ray Chapman 3.7 530 1920 29 CLE 132 3 52 .303 .380 .423 *6
9 Barry Bonds 3.2 477 2007 42 SFG 94 28 132 .276 .480 .565 *7/D
10 Hank Greenberg 3.2 510 1947 36 PIT 100 25 104 .249 .408 .478 *3
11 Buck Weaver 3.2 692 1920 29 CHW 208 2 28 .331 .365 .420 *56
12 Jim Doyle 3.2 533 1911 29 CHC 133 5 40 .282 .340 .413 *5
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/10/2012.

Three of these players, including the top 2, were banned as a result of the Black Sox scandal (Jackson, Felsch, and Weaver). Four more died before they had a chance to play another game: Clemente, who perished in a plane crash; Stahl, who died of carbolic acid poisoning in what was ruled a suicide; Chapman, who was killed by a Carl Mays beanball; and Doyle, who died of complications from appendicitis surgery.

That leaves just 5 players who have posted 3 brWAR or more in their final seasons while being able to play another year: Robinson, Cullenbine, Clark, Bonds, and Greenberg. That's some pretty good company for Chipper, if he can manage to join them.

After the jump, I rank the best final seasons by OPS+ and by home runs hit.

Chipper currently has a 136 OPS+. There have been just 10 final seasons with an OPS+ higher than that figure (since 1901, with a minimum of 300 plate appearances):

Rk Player OPS+ PA Year Age Tm H HR BB BA OBP SLG Pos
1 Ted Williams 190 390 1960 41 BOS 98 29 75 .316 .451 .645 *7
2 Shoeless Joe Jackson 172 649 1920 32 CHW 218 12 56 .382 .444 .589 *7/9
3 Barry Bonds 169 477 2007 42 SFG 94 28 132 .276 .480 .565 *7/D
4 Will Clark 145 507 2000 36 BAL/STL 136 21 69 .319 .418 .546 *3/D
5 Mickey Mantle 143 547 1968 36 NYY 103 18 106 .237 .385 .398 *3
6 Happy Felsch 143 615 1920 28 CHW 188 14 37 .338 .384 .540 *8
7 Dave Nilsson 141 404 1999 29 MIL 106 21 53 .309 .400 .554 *2/D
8 Brian Downing 138 391 1992 41 TEX 89 10 62 .278 .407 .428 *D/4
9 Roberto Clemente 138 413 1972 37 PIT 118 10 29 .312 .356 .479 *9
10 Buzz Arlett 138 469 1931 32 PHI 131 18 45 .313 .387 .538 *93
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/10/2012.

Again, Jackson, Felsch, and Clemente aren't good comparables for Chipper, since all of them would certainly have played longer had they been able.

There are some interesting stories among the new names. Dave Nilsson left MLB after his best season to fulfill his dream of playing in the Olympics for his home country of Australia; he never made it back. Buzz Arlett was known as the "Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues." His final season was his only season; despite excellent numbers everywhere he played, including MLB, Arlett did not get another chance to prove himself.

I doubt that Chipper can crack this top 10 in a full season, but it's certainly not impossible, especially if his walk rate goes up (it's currently 7%, which is half of his career rate). It's not too big of a jump from last year's 122 OPS+ to this year's 136.

Finally, let's look at home runs. Chipper has already hit 5, which puts him on pace for 25; that's a lot by his recent standards, as he hasn't hit 25+ since 2007 and hasn't topped 18 since 2008. But again, 20 homers is hardly unreasonable, and that would put him in some pretty exclusive final-year company:

Rk Player HR Year Age Tm PA H BB BA OBP SLG Pos
1 Dave Kingman 35 1986 37 OAK 604 118 33 .210 .255 .431 *D/3
2 Mark McGwire 29 2001 37 STL 364 56 56 .187 .316 .492 *3
3 Ted Williams 29 1960 41 BOS 390 98 75 .316 .451 .645 *7
4 Barry Bonds 28 2007 42 SFG 477 94 132 .276 .480 .565 *7/D
5 Jermaine Dye 27 2009 35 CHW 574 126 64 .250 .340 .453 *9/D
6 Hank Greenberg 25 1947 36 PIT 510 100 104 .249 .408 .478 *3
7 Jack Graham 24 1949 32 SLB 573 119 61 .238 .326 .430 *3
8 Roy Cullenbine 24 1947 33 DET 607 104 137 .224 .401 .422 *3
9 Albert Belle 23 2000 33 BAL 622 157 52 .281 .342 .474 *9D
10 Kirby Puckett 23 1995 35 MIN 602 169 56 .314 .379 .515 *9D/8645
11 Phil Nevin 22 2006 35 TEX/CHC/MIN 450 95 48 .239 .323 .438 D3/792
12 Sammy Sosa 21 2007 38 TEX 454 104 34 .252 .311 .468 *D9
13 Paul O'Neill 21 2001 38 NYY 563 136 48 .267 .330 .459 *9/D
14 Will Clark 21 2000 36 BAL/STL 507 136 69 .319 .418 .546 *3/D
15 Dave Nilsson 21 1999 29 MIL 404 106 53 .309 .400 .554 *2/D
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/10/2012.

Notice how many of these players are from the homer-happy 1990s and 2000s. Comparatively, it is much harder to hit 20 homers today than it was in those years (as Chipper himself could tell you).

It's also worth noting that all of the players on this list except for Nilsson played at DH, 1st base, or in a corner outfield spot. No one has ever hit 20 HRs in his final season while playing 3rd base, as Chipper is attempting to do. The record is 18 by Doug Rader in 1977. (George Brett hit 19 in his last year, but he was a DH by then; the same goes for Nevin and his 22 final-year homers.)

Regardless of whether he ends up making any of these lists, Chipper's career won't be defined by his final season. He long since clinched his Hall of Fame status. This year is a sort of victory lap for him, but if he can continue his solid start, it could be much more.

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