It’s that time of the year again. The regular season is winding down, and with it quite a few major league careers will come to an end.
Everyone wants to go off with a nice storybook ending where you get the bit hit or throw the perfect strikeout pitch to win the game at the end and then walk off into the sunset with a John Williams score playing in the background. Or something like that.
But, of course, that really almost never happens. In fact, a player is far more likely to go out quite differently than that. After all, if you’re still capable of hitting the big blast or making the clutch out, someone will take a chance on you next year.
Thus, most guys have a sad final act to their careers. Sad, but true.
But not all finales are equally sad. The question arises: Which players had the worst endings to their careers? On a literal level, I’m sure the answer is a bunch of guys you never heard of before. The worse the player, the more likely his last game wasn’t very good.
But who cares about those guys? Let’s look at the better players. They’re the ones that matter. Which one of them had the worst ending?
Here’s what I did: I looked up all batters and pitchers with at least 35 career WAR since 1919 (the years when it’s easy to check their final games). Turns out there are 361 such players, not including those playing in 2011.
That’s my sample size, plus one earlier player whose final game I already knew something about. And those who had the most pathetic career endings? Let’s see.
10. You know, we hardly needed you for that: Rafael Palmeiro
A great hitter, but a dismal departure.
In and of itself, Rafael Palmeiro’s last game wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t good—he went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts—but nothing historically bad.
Sure, two strikeouts is pretty lame, and it’s even worse than it appears because he never got the ball out of the infield all day.
He popped up to the pitcher once. He did make solid contact, but that just ended up a liner to the first baseman.
No, but what sets Palmeiro apart was his last at-bat. Here’s the sequence in the last time he ever stood in the batter’s box:
He took the first pitch for a called strike. The second offering was outside for ball one. Then Palmeiro took another one for a called strike. Finally, Palmeiro took a final pitch for strike three.
Four pitches, and his bat never left his shoulder. That’s…kinda sad. It’s his last time up, and he just observed the battery playing catch.
Plenty of men struck out in their last at-bat. In fact, a slew went 0-for-1 with a K as a pinch-hither in their last game, including Tris Speaker, Robin Yount, Jimmy Wynn, Darrell Evans, Larry Doby, Rocky Colavito, Ralph Kiner, Tony Oliva, Darrell Porter, Felipe Alou, Ray Lankford, Bill Nicholson, and Lance Parrish.
But Palmeiro’s might be the meekest last at-bat of all.
9 (tie). No relief: Bob Gibson and Bob Lemon
Two starting pitchers. Both named Bob. Both really good-hitting pitchers, so maybe there’s some justice that their careers ended in a blaze of offensive fireworks. Or not.
As long as we’re talking similarities, though both made their fame as starters, each made his last appearance out of the bullpen. And each man faced eight batters—and combined to retire five of the 16 hitters.
Yeah, that ain’t good. Maybe Gibson had the better appearance. After all, he recorded three outs, one more than Lemon achieved.
Maybe not, though. At least Lemon left some men on base. That wasn’t the case with Gibson.
In Lemon’s final game, he allowed four hits—including two doubles—and walked a pair. His two outs were a lineout and a strikeout of opposing pitcher Milt Pappas. (Though Pappas was a decent-hitting pitcher, he’s also one of only four pitchers to fan over 500 times at the plate). Lemon also found the time to add in a wild pitch.
But he left the bases loaded for another reliever, who recorded the third out to end the inning, so only three runs scored off Lemon.
Gibson? He did get all three of the inning’s outs himself. He also walked three men (one intentional), and allowed two hits. Damn shame one of those hits was a grand slam by pinch-hitter Pete LaCock. Between that and a run-scoring wild pitch, Gibson allowed five runs in his last game.
Gibson only allowed three grand slams in his career, but two came in his last season.
8. It’s one, two, three, strikeouts and you’re career’s out: Yogi Berra
Turns out none of the players I checked on ever fanned four times in one game. In part, that’s because these guys are good batters. In part, it’s because the final game for Yogi Berra didn’t go into extra innings.
Berra went 0-for-4 in his game. At least he saved the best for last. After three straight Ks, he grounded into a force play with his final swing.
Jack Clark also fanned three times in his final game, and he did it in just three at-bats. True, but Clark also drew a walk in what turned out to be his last time up. He led of the eighth inning with a base on balls and was yanked for a pinch runner, who came around to score. That’s enough for Clark to avoid a tie with Berra on this one.
7. Worst Game Score in a finale: Orel Hershiser
Hershiser’s last game could’ve gone better.
Game Score is one of the better Bill James stats. It’s not the most advanced stat, but it does what it’s supposed to do, turn a starting pitcher’s line (IP, H, R, ER, BB, and K) into one number.
Plus, it’s an easy figure to read. An average start is 50, one of the best starts of the season around 100, and the worst around 0.
By Game Score, the worst finale by a prominent pitcher came when Orel Hershiser posted a nine in his final game. Here’s the longhand version: 1.2 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 3 BB, and 1 K.
Yeah, that sucks. Despite entering the day with a four-digit ERA (10.96), Hershiser made it even worse. That takes some doing.
The damage came in the second inning, when Hershiser faced 11 batters. It had everything a pitcher doesn’t want to see: A leadoff walk (on four pitches), singles, a bases-loaded double (everyone scored, naturally), a homer, a hit batter, a wild pitch, and Hershiser even surrendered a double steal when the pitcher was batting.
Even an out did some damage—an RBI sacrifice fly. Thank God for the opposing pitcher. Hershiser fanned him.
If anyone cares, here are the worst Game Scores for prominent pitchers who started their final game since 1919:
Pitcher GS Orel Hershiser 9 Jack Morris 14 Steve Carlton 16 Steve Rogers 17 Kevin Brown 18 Tom Glavine 19 Luis Tiant 19 Jerry Koosman 20 Phil Niekro 21 Walter Johnson 22 Charlie Hough 23 Bob Feller 24 John Smoltz 24 Red Ruffing 25
6. (Tie). Better off missing the ball: Edgar Martinez and Bill Madlock
When you look at the final games for these two guys, it’s clear that Berra could’ve had a worse day after all.
No one wants to strike out, but at least it’s just one out. Madlock and Martinez both grounded into multiple double plays in their last game, and neither got a hit. Last but least, they each still found time to strike out.
Here’s how Edgar Martinez’s last day at the office went: Struck out looking, flyout, and then two consecutive GIDPs to end his career. Others have ended their careers with a GIDP. Madlock did it, as did Jason Kendall. But back-to-back GIDP to end a career? That takes some doing.
At least Martinez had one at-bat that didn’t end in a K or GIDP. Bill Madlock was 0-for-3 with a K and two GIDP. Actually, it was in a famous game, too. He played for the Tigers in a showdown with the Blue Jays on the last day of the 1987 season. If Toronto won, they’d tie Detroit for the division lead.
Toronto pitchers only allowed three hits all game. Two of them were singles to Lou Whitaker, and immediately after each one, Madlock grounded into a twin killing. Good thing for Detroit the third hit was a solo home run for a 1-0 Tiger win to clinch the division.
As a result, this wasn’t technically Madlock’s last overall game, just his last regular-season game. Madlock played once in the 1987 ALCS, going 0-for-5 with three Ks. In other words, any way you slice it, he belongs on this list.
5. Suffering the ultimate indignity: Jerry Koosman
Koosman was very good pitcher in his prime. But of course, his last game was well past then.
He came, he saw, he sucked.
He didn’t even get out of the first inning. He faced nine batters and got only two outs. It’s even worse than it sounds, because the first out was a sacrifice bunt. Koosman surrendered two walks and five hits, including back-to-back home runs.
Pretty putrid, but it’s an extra little detail that really earns him his high place on this list. You know what the key stat here is? Not the two outs or the five hits or the two home runs. It’s nine batters faced.
Riddle me this: If you face only nine batters in the first inning, who is the last guy you face? That’s right, the opposing pitcher. And why would the team take you out right then? Because you didn’t get him out.
Not only did Koosman suck, but he ended his career by allowing a base hit to Fernando Valenzuela. That was his last batter faced. Ouch.
To be fair, the last pitch Steve Rogers ever threw also turned into a single to the opposing pitcher (Andy Hawkins in this case). But at least Rogers made it to the fifth inning. Hershiser had a worse Game Score, but he made it to the second inning, plus he fanned the opposing pitcher.
4 When you’re last game is you’re worst WPA game: Eddie Murray
WPA is the story stat. By calculating how a team’s chances for winning the overall game change with each PA, it tells us what the game felt like when watching it. Some criticize the stat because of how it differently values late-inning moments. A homer in the first will never be worth as much as one in the late going of a close game, but it does capture the story of the game.
The highs and lows of WPA can be seen in Eddie Murray’s final game. The 3,026th game of Murray’s career had the “honor” of the lowest one-game WPA score of his life. Well, isn’t that appropriate. His score: -0.531 WPA.
Here’s the fun part: Murray only had one at-bat in the entire game. Just one, but he was bad enough in it for the horrible WPA.
He came to the plate for the Dodgers with the bases loaded and one out, with LA trailing 2-1. In that situation, the math says LA had a 53.1 percent chance of winning.
Instead, their odds immediately dropped to zero as Murray dropped into a game-ending double play; hence the –0.531 WPA.
You’d expect a guy’s lowest WPA to be a game in which he played the duratin, but there are few worse things a guy can do than hit into a bases-loaded double play with his team down by one run in the ninth. The numbers make sense from that perspective.
3. The Ryan Express derails: Nolan Ryan
By his last start, Ryan finally showed his age.
A lot of prominent pitchers had a terrible start to end their career, but only Ryan left the game without retiring a single batter. And that was only the beginning of his problems.
Here’s a brief history of Nolan Ryan’s last game:
Leadoff single (by Omar Vizquel!), stolen base, walk, walk, run-scoring walk, home run. Ryan was relieved midway through the next batter, who also walked, and Ryan was charged with that free pass as well. Four walks in six batters? Rather fitting for the all-time walk leader.
But the fun part wasn’t all the walks or even the run-scoring walk, but the home run. As you probably figured out on your own, it was a grand slam, but not just any grand slam. It was the tenth slam Ryan allowed his career, giving him the all-time record.
Heading into that game, he was tied with several other pitchers for nine slams surrendered, but the last batter Ryan faced for the entire plate appearance gave him sole possession of the slam record.
The good news for Ryan: Kenny Rogers later surrendered 11 slams, breaking that record.
2. There will be no 512th win: Cy Young
This one isn’t in Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, but it is up on Retrosheet. Besides, it’s Cy Young, so might as well check him.
Young’s Game Score of 13 is bad, but Heshiser was worse but still didn’t rank this high. It’s how Young got there, and more importantly how he ended.
Through six innings, Young’s Boston club and the opposing Brooklyn Dodgers were tied, 3-3. Young appeared to be in fine form. All his runs were unearned, and he’d allowed just three hits and a walk. Only one Dodger had reached base since the second inning.
It started out fine, with a leadoff out. That turned out to be the last out of Young’s career. After that, here’s what the next eight hitters did: Triple, single, single, single, single, double, double, and double. One of the greatest pitching careers of all-time ended with eight consecutive hits allowed, four of them for extra bases.
1. Fine, I didn’t want to play this stupid game anymore anyway: Vida Blue
Of all the pathetic ways to end a career, it’s tough to top Vida Blue. No, he didn’t allow a grand slam or an avalanche of hits. He didn’t hit a batter, or walk everyone in the ballpark.
No, what Blue did was worse—he got ejected.
At least with a bad performance, you’re going down fighting. It could be more a flail than a fight, but at least it’s a fight. Blue pitched five shutout innings for the Giants against the Astros, but when he walked the first batter in the sixth, he sounded off to the ump on the strike zone. Home plate ump Greg Bonin didn’t want to hear it, so he ran Blue. And that was that.
Other players have had a career-ending ejection, but none were as prominent as Blue. Jerome Walton, the 1989 Rookie of the Year Award winner, was ejected in his last game, but he fizzled badly after his freshman season, anyway.
My favorite is Francisley Bueno, ejected in his last game while playing for the Braves in 2008. What’s that you say&mdah;you’ve never heard of him? Yeah, there’s a good reason for that: Bueno played in exactly one game in his big league career. He faced 13 batters on Aug. 13, 2008, and was ejected from the game.
Yeah, so some guys had pathetic endings to their careers. Others had rather nice endings, though. Still others just had weird career finales. I have lists for both of those categories, as well. Come back next month and I’ll go over them.