Chipper Jones And The Best Final Seasons, Part 2

Kevin C. Cox - Getty Images

With Chipper Jones entering the final regular-season week of his career, it's time to look back on how his swan song stats compare to those of other great players throughout MLB history.

Back in May, I noted that Chipper Jones' hot start had him on pace for one of the greatest final seasons in MLB history. Well, he hasn't quite kept up that pace, but he's still poised to go out with some excellent numbers, including a .292 / .381 / .466 slash line in 431 plate appearances. That's good for just short of 3 wins above replacement (WAR), by both FanGraphs' and Baseball-Reference's reckoning (2.9 for the former, 2.6 for the latter).

A total of around 3 WAR is merely somewhat above average for a normal everyday player, but for an old guy in his final season it's practically historic. Using Baseball-Reference's search tools, I looked for all players since 1901 who posted at least 2.5 WAR in their final seasons while playing at an advanced age (35+*). There haven't been very many.

* This weeds out many of the players whose careers ended early due to tragic deaths or being banned from baseball, providing a more apt comparison group.

Rk Player brWAR Year Age Tm PA H HR BA OBP SLG Pos
1 Roberto Clemente 4.7 1972 37 PIT 413 118 10 .312 .356 .479 RF
2 Jackie Robinson 4.3 1956 37 BRO 431 98 10 .275 .382 .412 3B
3 Will Clark 3.8 2000 36 BAL/STL 507 136 21 .319 .418 .546 1B
4 Barry Bonds 3.2 2007 42 SFG 477 94 28 .276 .480 .565 LF

Hank Greenberg 3.2 1947 36 PIT 510 100 25 .249 .408 .478 1B
6 Ted Williams 2.9 1960 41 BOS 390 98 29 .316 .451 .645 LF
7 Kirby Puckett 2.8 1995 35 MIN 602 169 23 .314 .379 .515 RF
8 Joe DiMaggio 2.7 1951 36 NYY 482 109 12 .263 .365 .422 CF

Tony Cuccinello 2.7 1945 37 CHW 450 124 2 .308 .379 .400 3B
10 Stan Javier 2.6 2001 37 SEA 323 82 4 .292 .375 .391 LF

Reggie Smith 2.6 1982 37 SFG 398 99 18 .284 .364 .470 1B
12 Bob Johnson 2.5 1945 39 BOS 593 148 12 .280 .358 .425 LF

Mike Grady 2.5 1906 36 STL 339 70 2 .250 .369 .332 C
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/26/2012.

Chipper's WAR is still in flux (it can go up or down, though it's more likely to go up), but if he stays at 2.6, he'll trail just 9 players--7 of whom are Hall of Famers. Even the worst players on the list--Javier and Grady--were still pretty good, earning over 20 brWAR in their careers.

Some of the notable players to just miss the list include Larry Walker (2.2 WAR in 2005), Mickey Mantle (2.2 in 1968), and Ty Cobb (1.7 in 1928).

Looking further at the ages of the players, you'll note that before Chipper, only two players in their 40s had posted a WAR above 2.5 in their final years. Those two players--Barry Bonds and Ted Williams--rank among the 4 or 5 best hitters of all time.

Also of note is that Chipper has played 99 games at third base; assuming he plays at 3rd again tonight, he'll become one of a select few oldsters to play 100 games at 3B in their final seasons. In fact, only 9 players have done it in their final years at age 35 or older. Of those, only Tony Cuccinello (see above) and Carney Lansford (2.4 WAR in 1992) were at all productive.

As I'm sure Chipper understands better than anyone, 3rd base is a tough position to continue to play every day into one's late 30s and 40s; to play it relatively well is even more difficult. Anecdotally, anyway, it seems that 3rd basemen wear down more quickly than most other positions, which may explain why they are under-represented in the Hall of Fame.

Think about this: Chipper is going to be just the 4th player to play 100 games at 3B at age 40 or older since 1901. Graig Nettles did it twice, Lave Cross did it way back in 1906, and Cal Ripken did it in his final season. That's it. Nettles is the best comp for Chipper, and like Chipper, he was pretty good at age 40 (3.0 WAR); however, Nettles fell off sharply the next year (0.2 WAR) and was never any good after. Cross was decent at 40 but sucked at 41, then retired. And of course Ripken wasn't even a 3rd baseman by trade (plus he was awful at age 40). So what Chipper is doing is very rare indeed.

It may seem funny at first, but despite all the injuries (large and small), Chipper Jones is actually one of the most durable 3rd basemen of all time. He doesn't hold a candle to Brooks Robinson in that regard, but who does? This will be Chipper's 14th season of 100+ games played at 3rd base. Only 4 players (Robinson with 17; Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, and Nettles with 15) have more**. If not for Vinny Castilla, Chipper might have more such seasons than anyone but Robinson. (Or not; maybe Chipper breaks down more or retires earlier without that LF hiatus.)

** I should mention, though, that Adrian Beltre is also sitting at 14 seasons, counting this year. He will almost certainly get his 15th next year. Surprised? I was.

By stepping away after this season, Chipper Jones will become the first great 3rd baseman to retire while he's still a valuable player. Of the top 10 3rd basemen of all time by career brWAR, Chipper is the only one to play at much above replacement level in his final season. He just decimates the field:

Rk Player brWAR Year Age Tm G PA H HR BA OBP SLG Pos
1 Chipper Jones 2.6 2012 40 ATL 107 431 109 14 .292 .381 .466 3B
2 Scott Rolen*** 0.3 2012 37 CIN 86 309 66 7 .242 .320 .392 3B
3 Eddie Mathews 0.2 1968 36 DET 31 57 11 3 .212 .281 .385 1B
4 Brooks Robinson -0.2 1977 40 BAL 24 52 7 1 .149 .212 .255 3B
5 Wade Boggs -0.4 1999 41 TBD 90 334 88 2 .301 .377 .377 3B

Mike Schmidt -0.4 1989 39 PHI 42 172 30 6 .203 .297 .372 3B
7 George Brett -0.6 1993 40 KCR 145 612 149 19 .266 .312 .434 DH

Buddy Bell -0.6 1989 37 TEX 34 90 15 0 .183 .247 .232 DH
9 Graig Nettles -0.8 1988 43 MON 80 104 16 1 .172 .240 .247 3B
10 Ron Santo -1.8 1974 34 CHW 117 418 83 5 .221 .293 .299 DH
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/26/2012.

*** Scott Rolen is, of course, still active; however, he's posted just 0.3 brWAR this year and seems unlikely to play much longer or much better. Crazily, that 0.3 WAR actually looks pretty good by the standards of the final seasons in the table.

Of these all-time greats, only Nettles and Boggs were older than Chipper, only Brett had more PAs or homers, and only Boggs hit for a (slightly) better batting average. However, Boggs' overall offense was actually a bit below average for 1999 despite that good BA, as his OPS+ was 94 (Total Zone thought Boggs' defense was atrocious as well). Indeed, none of the other players posted an OPS+ above 100; Chipper is at 127.

Thanks to his knees, Chipper is not a great defensive 3rd baseman, but for his age, he's doing quite well. Most of the players on the list above had terrible defensive ratings (and several weren't even 3rd basemen anymore). The advanced defensive metrics place Chipper at slightly below average relative to the league as a whole, but the league as a whole is a lot younger and has had a lot fewer knee surgeries than Chipper, so I'd say he comes out ahead all things considered.

With all of these other great players ending their careers in ignoble fashion, it is no wonder that Chipper sought to end his career on his own terms. I know it seems from our vantage point that Chipper could play productively in 2013, but with the state of his body and the above track record of top 3rd basemen, such a feat seems to me like it would be just short of a miracle. Heck, what Chipper has done this year at age 40 is astonishing enough.

========

I've seen a few pundits wondering about the hoopla surrounding the Chipper Jones Farewell Tour, specifically asking why Chipper is being singled out from the pack of great retiring players over the years. I think the answer is contained in the tables above. Hardly anyone gets to leave the game of baseball in the way that Chipper is doing it. Name the last player who A) announced his retirement in advance so he could be honored, B) still played regularly and well, and C) did it in the city where he had his best seasons.

I can't think of anyone else who fits that description. You can rest assured, though, that if Derek Jeter (for example) gives us advance warning of his retirement, he'll get at least the amount of celebration that Chipper has gotten.

Most players, even great ones, go out with a whimper, and the rare ones who manage a last-season bang don't usually announce their retirement in advance. Chipper has done a huge favor for his fans around the country by giving them a chance to say goodbye while he's still not too far from being the Chipper of old.

So thanks, Chipper. Here's hoping that your last postseason goes as well as your last regular season.

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