Baseball’s greatest swan songs part 2: the pitchers

A couple of weeks ago, we looked back at baseball history to see which hitters finished their career with the most productive final season. Depending on your perspective, the consensus held that either Ted Williams or Barry Bonds earned that honor.

Today, we turn our focus to the pitchers, where the competition isn’t quite so fierce. As with the previous piece, we are looking at the final season for every inactive/retired pitcher in baseball history. Final season means just what it says: it’s the last season a particular player appeared in a major league game, whether he played in one game or 162. In other words, we aren’t looking at a player’s last full season.

As several of you noted, Sandy Koufax’s 1966 season is the standard by which all final seasons are measured. Koufax was simply magnificent that year, going 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA, 27 complete games in 41 starts, with five shutouts and 317 strikeouts; he led the league in each of those categories. Koufax’s adjusted ERA+ of 190 not only led the National League, it was the highest mark of his 12-year career. He won the Cy Young Award and finished second in MVP voting. If the Dodgers hadn’t lost in the World Series (to Baltimore), it would have been the ultimate final season in every way.

Famously, Koufax retired after the World Series due to an arthritic condition in his pitching arm. He was only 30 years old at the time. For good measure, while we’re lauding Koufax for his incredible final season, take a look at his last five years combined: 111-34, 1.95 ERA, 100 complete games (in 176 starts), 167 ERA+, 1,444 strikeouts, 8.3 bWAR per 162 games. Oh, and he won three Cy Youngs and an MVP award, for good measure.

You often hear of athletes who want to retire at the top of their game; Koufax didn’t necessarily want to retire, but he was, without question, at the height of his ability when he called it quits.

Perhaps I should just stop here, or use a few hundred more words to heap praise on Sandy Koufax. Just for fun, however, let’s look at the rest of the top ten in wins above replacement for a pitcher’s final season:

1. Sandy Koufax, Dodgers (1966): 10.3 bWAR
2. Win Mercer, Tigers (1902): 6.1
3. Mike Mussina, Yankees (2008): 5.2
Eddie Cicotte, White Sox (1920): 5.2
5. Red Donahue, Tigers (1906): 4.5
6. Dutch Ulrich, Phillies (1927): 4.4
7. Britt Burns, White Sox (1985): 4.2
8. Curt Schilling, Red Sox (2007): 4.0
Mike Sirotka, White Sox (2000): 4.0
Larry Jackson, Phillies (1968): 4.0
Monty Stratton, White Sox (1938): 4.0

As with the hitters, let’s dispense with the Black Sox immediately: Eddie Cicotte was good in his final season (21-10, 3.26 ERA, 115 ERA+), but his departure from the game was due to his involvement in the fixing of the 1919 World Series. A pox on his house.

Perhaps the most interesting name on that list is Stratton, who was 15-9 with a 4.01 ERA and 123 ERA+ as a 26-year old, one year after making the American League All-Star team. He was well on his way to a fine career when, during the following off-season, Stratton’s right leg had to be amputated after a hunting accident. His major league career was over, but Stratton made a celebrated comeback seven years later, ultimately pitched in the minor leagues for a number of years on a prosthetic leg.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Jimmy Stewart played Stratton in a well-received (and aptly-titled) 1949 film, “The Stratton Story.”

Two other names on the list above have been in the news lately because they are fighting for their survival on the absurdly-crowded Hall of Fame ballot. I’m talking, of course, about Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling. Mussina’s final season, at age 39, was simply outstanding: 20-9 (one of only five pitchers to win 20 during his last hurrah), 3.37 ERA, 131 ERA+, league-leading 34 starts, and a Gold Glove award. One sees a season like that and wonders why Mussina would retire, but if a man wants to sit on his porch and work crossword puzzles in his old age, who are we to argue?

Like Mussina, Schilling is a criminally underrated name on that aforementioned Hall of Fame ballot. In Schilling’s final season, at age 40, he was only 9-8 with a 3.87 ERA, but his ERA+ was 123, and he won his third World Series ring (that number might have been four, if it hadn’t been for Joe Carter).

Looking at that top ten above, I see two other somewhat recent players, both of whom have similar stories. Mike Sirotka was legitimately good as a 29-year-old in 2000, going 15-10 with a 3.79 ERA and a 133 ERA+. He had started at least 32 games in each of his last three seasons for the White Sox, and appeared primed for bigger and better things (including dollars). After the 2000 season, Sirotka was dealt to the Blue Jays in exchange for David Wells (principally; four other players were involved in the trade, as well). Unfortunately, Sirotka had a torn rotator cuff and a torn labrum in his left (pitching) shoulder, and never threw another pitch in the major leagues.

Britt Burns debuted as a 19-year-old. By the age of 26, he had played in the All-Star game and finished in the top ten of Cy Young voting twice. His age-26 campaign, however, would be his last. Burns went 18-11 with a 3.96 ERA that year (109 ERA+) and the second-best WAR (4.2) of his short career to that point. Before the 1986 season, he was traded to the Yankees and, like Sirotka, never again pitched in the big leagues. In Burns’ case, the culprit was a degenerative left hip. He’s now the pitching coach for the AA Birmingham Barons. (And yes, I called Burns a “recent player” above. It’s because I’m really, really old. I wasn’t yet a teenager in 1985, but it seems “recent” to me.)

The remaining names above all have interesting stories that might deserve a closer inspection (for which I don’t have the space here, today). Ulrich’s best season came in his final campaign, as a 27-year-old, and he was dead two years later. Mercer had some great seasons before the turn of the century, and his last year (1902) was very good (15-18, 3.04 ERA, 122 ERA+, 28 complete games in 33 starts), but he committed suicide before the following season, at age 28. Donahue made his major league debut with the Giants while he was still a student at Villanova and pitched 13 seasons in the big leagues. In 1897, Donahue’s record was an astounding 10-35, and he led the league in hits and earned runs allowed. He went on to pitch nine more seasons in the major leagues.

There are a number of other pitchers who deserve mention. Jeff Zimmerman had been mostly brilliant over three seasons before elbow injuries ended his career; he went 4-4 with a 2.40 ERA and a 195 ERA+ over 66 games in his final season, 2001. Larry French won 197 games in the big leagues; in his final campaign with Brooklyn, at age 34, he was 15-4 with a 1.83 ERA in 38 games (147.2 IP, 180 ERA+). J.R. Richard was arguably the best pitcher in the National League when he suffered a stroke that ended his career; to that point in his final season, he was 10-4 with a 1.90 ERA. John Tudor pitched well in a comeback season in 1990, but his career was over after going 12-4, 2.40 ERA, 159 ERA+. Phil Douglas was banned from baseball in 1922, but he concluded his career with an 11-4 record, leading the league in ERA (2.63) and ERA+ (153).

I suppose there are others we could discuss here, including Hall of Famers Eddie Plank, Addie Joss, and Early Wynn, but no one is going to compare to Koufax’s brilliant swan song. It’s the greatest final season in baseball history, bar none, and there’s only one question to ask whenever you look at his numbers: what might have been?

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Comments

  1. Anon said...

    Brandon Webb probably deserves some mention here: his final season consisted of 4 innings on OPening Day in 2009 after which he was yanked for shoulder soreness (I think it was his shoulder). Hasn’t pitched since and doesn’t look like he ever will.(In fact, I think he officially retired)

    He had 5.8 WAR in his 2008 final full season.

  2. Paul G. said...

    Is this skipping the 19th century (again)?  I’m not saying that there is a 19th century swam song of 4 or more WAR, but with the number of innings thrown and the number of players who walked away to make more money in other occupations, I would think there would be at least one player that would qualify.

  3. Paul G. said...

    Ah, not only found a 19th century one but one better than Koufax.  Jim Devlin scored 13.3 bWAR in 1877 for Louisville, then was banned from baseball for throwing games.  Of course Devlin pitched a lot more (61 starts, 61 complete games, 559 innings) than Koufax so his edge is more about quantity than quality.

    I’m not sure if there are many more 19th century swan songs of note.  Didn’t find anymore, but my search was not comprehensive.  A lot of the elite pitchers of the days seemed to play until they became replacement players.

  4. Jim said...

    Ah, Koufax, the most un-deserving Hall of Famer.  Four great years, one good year and seven lousy years.  As a Brooklyn fan when he came up, he was so bad he broke my heart many times and I never did think much of him, and I still don’t.  But I have to acknowledge his great years although every pitcher in that time was great as it was during the time of the pitcher.  I bring this up only because writers on this site seem to think it is important.  It wasn’t, this stuff is like global-warming, it is cyclical and so is hitting and pitching.

    If Schilling makes the Hall, it will be because he smeared ketchup on his sock.  No other reason.

  5. mlb fan said...

    Disagree with Jim about Koufax, who was as dominant as Bobby Orr in the NHL for a brief period of time, and agree that Schilling receiving a piece of Randy Johnson’s 2001 World Series MVP or being elected to the Hall of Fame has a lot more to do with self-promotion and the fawning sportswriters than any career accomplishments.

  6. tom said...

    It’s a shame Catfish Hunter’s “historic” contract had ended in 1978, ending with his second half season comeback and a World Series win. Unfortunately his arm had noting left for his final season. It is very hard to have a Ted Williams type finish when money comes into play in a bygone era they didn’t make a lot, today with so much money and so many teams it’s hard to walk away. Koufax, like Orr and Gale Sayers deserve their HOF statues, many compilers are gaining entry these days.

  7. Barney Coolio said...

    The honorable mention for Early Wynn seems generous. 

    Wynn 1963:  1-2 2.28 era 161 era+, 20 games, 5 starts, 55 innings. 

    Nice line, and he got his 300th win, but out of place on this list. 

    Then again, in 13 plate appearances, he hit: 
    .273/.385/.273.  Pretty good for a pitcher.

  8. killeverything said...

    For complaints about Schilling ( his “ketchup” sock ) or Koufax how are you going to feel when Jack #÷%÷/ Morris gets in this year?

  9. Blahblahblah said...

    Ketchup on his sock?
    Watch the ESPN 30/30 show on that postseason. It contains clubhouse footage of Schillings ankle, kinda nauseating to watch really

  10. DD said...

    A name on your list that deserves a mention is Larry “Cocky” Jackson, who was picked by Montreal in the 1968 expansion draft and retired rather than play for an expansion team.  As with Jackie Robinson retiring rather than playing for the New York Giants the decision sounds quaint today. 

    Of course the financial ramifications for the players were far less back then, salaries being what they were.

  11. Cliff Blau said...

    A 19th century player who should be considered is Charlie Ferguson.  He had a 7.7 WAR as a pitcher and a 2.7 WAA (there is some flaw in the WAR calculation) as a second baseman.

  12. Paul G. said...

    @Wayne Jones: Urban Shocker did have a good year in 1927 (18-6, 2.84 ERA, 137 ERA+) but that was only worth 2.6 bWAR which is too low for this list and low by his own standards.  Furthermore, that wasn’t his final season as he pitched a couple of innings in 1928 (+0.1 bWAR).  He had a congenital heart condition that forced him to sleep sitting up or standing.  By late 1927 his condition had weakened him considerably – he didn’t pitch in the World Series – and when he contacted pneumonia in 1928 his heart gave out.

    Henke’s last year was in 1995 with St. Louis, worth 2.3 bWAR.  Wagner’s last season was worth slightly more at 2.4 bWAR.  With modern closer usage it is exceedingly difficult to break 4.0 bWAR.  They just don’t pitch enough.

  13. Wayne Jones said...

    So Urban Shocker had an ERA+ of 137 back in 1927, but it was only worth a WAR of 2.6?  Doesn’t that seem awfully low?  Hmmmm.  I was unaware that he actually pitched some in 1928, though I don’t think it would count for this purpose, would it? 

    Missed Henke pitching for the Cards, or just blocked it out of my mind. 

    Makes sense about reliever WAR.  That’s why I separated starters and relievers; can’t really compare the two accurately with usage being what it is.

  14. Wayne Jones said...

    For starters, didn’t Urban Shocker have a great year for the 1927 Yankees, then die in the off-season?  I don’t ever remember reading how he died though.  And for relievers, Billy Wagner’s swan song with the Braves in 2010 was pretty great, then apparently he gave Craig Kimbrel his closer mojo when he walked away.  And I think I remember correctly, but I think Tom Henke had a pretty good year for the Blue Jays in 1992 (?) then retired.

  15. Paul G. said...

    Yes, the 1928 season counts per our author’s rules.  And, yes, 2.6 bWAR does seem really low, but I’ve never really gotten a good explanation how to calculate bWAR so I can’t say why it is so.  My guess is because his strikeout rate was so low: 1.6 per 9 IP.  Shocker’s K rate was never high, especially by modern standards, but this was really bad even by Urban’s standards.  His FIP was 3.83, a hair less than a full run higher.  He also “only” pitched 200 innings, which was also low for him, probably a product of his deteriorating health.

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