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:
|1||Shoeless Joe Jackson||7.3||649||1920||32||CHW||218||12||56||.382||.444||.589||*7/9|
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):
|2||Shoeless Joe Jackson||172||649||1920||32||CHW||218||12||56||.382||.444||.589||*7/9|
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:
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.