The Last Hurrah: Late Career Revivals

Richard Chester had a recent guest post concerning George McQuinn, 1st baseman in the 30s and 40s, mostly for the Browns and Yankees. That’s George on the left, with Chet Laabs, Harlond Clift and Wally Judnich, all regulars for the 1940-42 Browns. Looking at McQuinn’s career, specifically his standout 1947 season at age 38 with the World Series champion Yankees, reminded me of something Bill James wrote about in his Abstracts back in the 80s. James called it the “Last Hurrah” phenomenon when aging players, having started their inevitable decline phase, suddenly have a bounce-back year reminiscent of their younger days.

James associates the Last Hurrah as occurring in a player’s next to last season or the season before that and most commonly at age 37 or 38. So, that’s what I looked for – players of that age and in that part of their careers who have a really good season, which I defined as a bWAR of 4.0 or better. Here’s the list:

Player WAR/pos Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
Bob Johnson 6.9 1944 38 BOS 144 626 525 106 170 40 8 17 106 95 .324 .431 .528 .959 *7
Babe Ruth 6.9 1933 38 NYY 137 576 459 97 138 21 3 34 103 114 .301 .442 .582 1.023 *97/13
Mike Schmidt 5.6 1987 37 PHI 147 613 522 88 153 28 0 35 113 83 .293 .388 .548 .936 *5/36
Zack Wheat 5.2 1925 37 BRO 150 671 616 125 221 42 14 14 103 45 .359 .403 .541 .944 *7
Joe Morgan 5.1 1982 38 SFG 134 554 463 68 134 19 4 14 61 85 .289 .400 .438 .838 *4/5
Tris Speaker 5.0 1926 38 CLE 150 661 539 96 164 52 8 7 86 94 .304 .408 .469 .877 *8
George McQuinn 4.7 1947 37 NYY 144 609 517 84 157 24 3 13 80 78 .304 .395 .437 .832 *3
Jake Daubert 4.4 1922 38 CIN 156 701 610 114 205 15 22 12 66 56 .336 .395 .492 .886 *3
Ellis Burks 4.0 2002 37 CLE 138 570 518 92 156 28 0 32 91 44 .301 .362 .541 .903 *D/7
Kiki Cuyler 4.0 1936 37 CIN 144 623 567 96 185 29 11 7 74 47 .326 .380 .453 .833 *897
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/27/2012.

What I got were some good players, some very good players and some all-time greats, including THE all-time great. There are 6 HOFers and 4 who are not. But, the ones who aren’t were either All-Stars or (in Daubert’s case) an MVP. So, I’ll call Daubert an All-Star too. Let’s see if the seasons we’ve found fit the Last Hurrah mold.

CAVEAT ALERT: This is a mostly for fun exercise to see who would come up in the query. Not intended to be a taken as a serious study.

Indian Bob Johnson – This was the best season of Bob’s career, breaking an increasing downward trend (although only modestly down) since his earlier peak years at age 31-33 (Bob was a late bloomer, making his major league debut at age 27). Part of the rebound may be attributable to moving from Griffith Stadium to the cozy confines of Fenway Park (although the park factors for the two seasons in question refute that notion). Fenway or not, the revival faded (in relative terms) the next season, Johnson’s last, even though Bob was still a quite productive player when Boston released him.  VERDICT: Last Hurrah

Babe Ruth – Babe’s age 38 season was the start of Babe’s decline phase, if you can call an OPS over 1.000 as declining. That decline accelerated in his next season, his last with the Yankees, and was confirmed without doubt in his brief stint with the Braves. VERDICT: No Hurrah

Mike Schmidt – Schmidt’s age 37 season was a virtual carbon copy of his MVP season the year before. Schmidt’s decline began the following season and ran its course in his final year at age 39. VERDICT: No Hurrah

Zack Wheat – Wheat had a most unusual career peak at age 35-37. His age 37 season was only slightly behind his career best season the year before. Wheat’s decline occurred over the next two seasons, though he remained a useful contributor to the end.  VERDICT: No Hurrah

Joe Morgan – Morgan’s decline phase began at age 34, just two years removed from the second of his back-to-back MVP seasons, and continued for 4 years until interrupted in dramatic fashion with his age 38 season, similar to his age 33 season jut before his decline. But, the revival was short-lived, as Morgan’s slide resumed over the last two seasons of his career.  VERDICT: Last Hurrah

Tris Speaker – Speaker did not have any significant decline until his final season at age 40. Thus his age 38 season did not follow an earlier decline phase. VERDICT: No Hurrah

George McQuinn – McQuinn is a different level of player from the ones discussed to this point. His age 37 season was the best of his career, but similar to his age 31 season after which began his decline phase culminating in a quite dreadful season, the worst of his career, at age 36. But, after the revival, the slide continued in his last season at age 38. VERDICT: Last Hurrah

Jake Daubert – Like McQuinn, Daubert’s season on this list was, at age 38, the best of his career. He had a broad but not high peak from age 27 to 32 after which his decline ensued, interrupted at age 36 and then interrupted again with the season on this list. But, the slide accelerated rapidly in the Daubert’s final two seasons. VERDICT: Last Hurrah

Ellis Burks – Burks’ age 38 season was close to a carbon copy of his good season the year before. His real decline began the following year. Interestingly, Burks’ age 36 season (he turned 37 before the end of the year) looks more like a Last Hurrah. That year was very similar to his age 31 season, with Burks slugging above .600 both times. In between, Burks had a couple of down years at 32 and 33 before ramping up at age 34 and 35 leading into his big age 36 year. Part of the difficulty assessing this period of his career is that Burks played over 140 games only once after his age 31 season. VERDICT: No Hurrah

Kiki Cuyler – Cuyler had an unusual career pattern, with a early peak at age 25-27 and a late peak at age 30-32 (guess we can’t really call them both peaks, but you know what I mean). Cuyler then started his decline, with limited playing time at age 33 and 34, a good year at 35, a real stinker at 36, and then quite a good season at 37. All down hill after that, though. VERDICT: Last Hurrah 

Some of you may be thinking “What about Ted Williams in 1957?” Indeed, that year looks very much like a Last Hurrah season and did happen at age 38. But, it was in the 4th to last season of Williams’ career, so not picked up in the query.

Player Year WAR/pos OPS+ Age R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
Ted Williams 1939 6.8 160 20 131 185 44 11 31 145 107 .327 .436 .609 1.045 *9
Ted Williams 1940 6.0 161 21 134 193 43 14 23 113 96 .344 .442 .594 1.036 *79/1
Ted Williams 1941 11.3 234 22 135 185 33 3 37 120 147 .406 .553 .735 1.287 *7/9
Ted Williams 1942 11.0 216 23 141 186 34 5 36 137 145 .356 .499 .648 1.147 *7/9
Ted Williams 1946 11.8 215 27 142 176 37 8 38 123 156 .342 .497 .667 1.164 *7
Ted Williams 1947 10.3 205 28 125 181 40 9 32 114 162 .343 .499 .634 1.133 *7
Ted Williams 1948 8.9 189 29 124 188 44 3 25 127 126 .369 .497 .615 1.112 *7
Ted Williams 1949 9.5 191 30 150 194 39 3 43 159 162 .343 .490 .650 1.141 *7
Ted Williams 1950 4.1 167 31 82 106 24 1 28 97 82 .317 .452 .647 1.099 *7
Ted Williams 1951 6.5 164 32 109 169 28 4 30 126 144 .318 .464 .556 1.019 *7
Ted Williams 1954 7.2 201 35 93 133 23 1 29 89 136 .345 .513 .635 1.148 *7
Ted Williams 1955 6.7 208 36 77 114 21 3 28 83 91 .356 .496 .703 1.200 *7
Ted Williams 1956 5.7 171 37 71 138 28 2 24 82 102 .345 .479 .605 1.084 *7
Ted Williams 1957 9.9 233 38 96 163 28 1 38 87 119 .388 .526 .731 1.257 *7
Ted Williams 1958 4.0 179 39 81 135 23 2 26 85 98 .328 .458 .584 1.042 *7
Ted Williams 1959 0.2 114 40 32 69 15 0 10 43 52 .254 .372 .419 .791 *7
Ted Williams 1960 2.9 190 41 56 98 15 0 29 72 75 .316 .451 .645 1.096 *7
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/2/2012.

So, FWIW, here’s the final score.

Last Hurrah No Hurrah
HOFers 2 4
All-Stars 3 1

What this might mean is that the all-time greats, with their much higher and broader peak, don’t start declining until later in their careers than most other players. With that late start in their decline, there’s less likelihood of a Last Hurrah season at 37 or 38, and less likelihood of one later just because it is later (not many players have 4 WAR seasons in their forties).

Finally, for a little more to talk about, here’s a larger group (including the above seasons), of players since 1901 who had 4 WAR in their 2nd to last or 3rd to last season, aged 37 or older.

Rk Player WAR/pos OPS+ Year Age Tm G PA AB R H HR RBI BB BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
1 Bob Johnson 6.9 174 1944 38 BOS 144 626 525 106 170 17 106 95 .324 .431 .528 .959 *7
2 Babe Ruth 6.9 175 1933 38 NYY 137 576 459 97 138 34 103 114 .301 .442 .582 1.023 *97/13
3 Willie Mays 6.5 158 1971 40 SFG 136 537 417 82 113 18 61 112 .271 .425 .482 .907 *83
4 Mike Schmidt 5.6 142 1987 37 PHI 147 613 522 88 153 35 113 83 .293 .388 .548 .936 *5/36
5 Zack Wheat 5.2 142 1925 37 BRO 150 671 616 125 221 14 103 45 .359 .403 .541 .944 *7
6 Joe Morgan 5.1 136 1982 38 SFG 134 554 463 68 134 14 61 85 .289 .400 .438 .838 *4/5
7 Dummy Hoy 5.1 127 1901 39 CHW 132 641 527 112 155 2 60 86 .294 .407 .400 .807 *8
8 Babe Ruth 5.0 160 1934 39 NYY 125 471 365 78 105 22 84 104 .288 .448 .537 .985 *97
9 Tris Speaker 5.0 127 1926 38 CLE 150 661 539 96 164 7 86 94 .304 .408 .469 .877 *8
10 Darrell Evans 4.9 135 1987 40 DET 150 609 499 90 128 34 99 100 .257 .379 .501 .880 *3D/5
11 George McQuinn 4.7 132 1947 37 NYY 144 609 517 84 157 13 80 78 .304 .395 .437 .832 *3
12 Barry Bonds 4.6 156 2006 41 SFG 130 493 367 74 99 26 77 115 .270 .454 .545 .999 *7/D
13 Luke Appling 4.6 125 1949 42 CHW 142 619 492 82 148 5 58 121 .301 .439 .394 .833 *6
14 Honus Wagner 4.5 126 1915 41 PIT 156 625 566 68 155 6 78 39 .274 .325 .422 .747 *643
15 Jake Daubert 4.4 129 1922 38 CIN 156 701 610 114 205 12 66 56 .336 .395 .492 .886 *3
16 Joe Kuhel 4.2 135 1945 39 WSH 142 615 533 73 152 2 75 79 .285 .378 .400 .778 *3
17 Ellis Burks 4.0 139 2002 37 CLE 138 570 518 92 156 32 91 44 .301 .362 .541 .903 *D/7
18 Ted Williams 4.0 179 1958 39 BOS 129 517 411 81 135 26 85 98 .328 .458 .584 1.042 *7
19 Kiki Cuyler 4.0 130 1936 37 CIN 144 623 567 96 185 7 74 47 .326 .380 .453 .833 *897
20 Ty Cobb 4.0 134 1927 40 PHA 133 574 490 104 175 5 93 67 .357 .440 .482 .921 *98
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/8/2012.

What do you think?

 


Comments

The Last Hurrah: Late Career Revivals — 27 Comments

  1. Interesting post Doug! There’s also what I would term the “final season bounce back”. In this case, bouncing back from a truly horrible season. Two examples are Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith. In his next to last year, Brock had a 46 OPS+ (ouch!). He bounced back in his final year to post an OPS+ of 100. Same thing with Smith, from a 41 OPS+ in his next to last year to a 93 in his last year.

  2. McCovey had a bounce back season at age 39 while posting a 132 OPS+ coming off a prior season 82 OPS+ in < 300 PA's…..If I recall correctly, this also caused a public relations disaster for the Giants when he followed it up with another bad season and refused to retire.

    I guess you could says something like Ted Williams had his bounce back season at age 41? If he stuck around for some expansion pitching in 1961, he may have been able to repeat that performance at age 42….

    • Oddly, in the offseason after McCovey’s 1977 bounce-back, the Giants traded for Mike Ivie. It’s not clear what they had in mind. My first thought was a platoon, but there’s no sign that McCovey sat vs. LHPs in ’78 (and in fact Stretch hit much better against southpaws that year).

      • If I recall correctly, Ivie may have initially caught and played some 3B when he hit the big leagues. And he was a big time prospect with the Padres but eventually had some “mental health/pressure” issues

        • Ivie was a serious hitter, but he was a “catcher” the same way Dale Murphy was — i.e., “who are they trying to kid, here?” Ivie only wound up catching 9 games in the bigs. SFG never did try him behind the plate and very little at 3B (which SD had tried). He did play a bit of LF for them, not well. Mostly he shared time with McCovey at 1B in 1978-79, which was kind of a shame as those were the 2 years when Ivie really hit.

      • John – I’m not sure why you find it odd. McCovey was 40 years old. I’m sure they saw Ivie as a potential successor. After all, he was only 25 years old and was a former #1 overall draft pick. And all they had to give up to get him was Derrel Thomas (who was also a #1 overall draft choice but for the January draft).

        (Paul E – Ivie was drafted as a catcher and moved to 3rd by the Padres, then to 1st. Sounds like his issues were more in the “attitude” realm – he didn’t like catching or playing 3rd and wanted the Padres to move him to 1st sooner than they did)

        • Okay, just read some more re: Ivie’s career. Sounds like he developed a mental block in throwing the ball back to the pitcher. So there were some mental issues.

          • I just saw a Buster Olney article claiming that Zack Greinke had a prior “shitty” attitude and was a cancer/clubhouse lawyer/dark-presence type in Kansas City. He stated something to the effect it was going to cost him $$$$ at free agency time.

            Like is everyone supposed to want to play for a perennial also-ran? I mean, when stars are free agents, are they lining up to play in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and wherever else hasn’t had a winning season in the last ten years?

            Regarding Ivie, I think I remember him missing some serious time getting his head straightened out. Medicated, etc…I believe he may have even had the whole religious experience thing going on at some point?

    • Ted Williams had a neck injury for much of 1959 that he tried to play through (a pinched nerve?), hence the totally out-of-character numbers that year. He was going to retire after that year, but didn’t wish to go out on a down note. I don’t consider 1960 a “bounceback” season, so much as a “return to normal form” season.

      Considering how good Williams was still at hitting in 1960, if the DH were around when he played, he probably could’ve played another two/three years, though he would’ve taken off a lot of games.

  3. Stan Musial’s last hurrah season came at age 41.

    137 ops+, WAR 3.5, playing in far more games than Williams did at 41.

    Maybe because I’m older I can remember what the era was like. Musial was always regarded as the better player—a complete player who won games and didn’t give the perception of being bored when he wasn’t in the batter’s box. He never got fined the way Williams did—$5000 for spitting at the crowd (I think it was the crowd. It might have been an ump.) No one outside of Boston liked Williams, as much as they feared his bat. Musial was cheered by the opposing fans for his skills and dedication, even when he was killing the home team.

    Statistics give a constant edge to Williams, mainly on the recently much discussed subject of bases on balls, and Williams’ last season was made famous by the John Updike essay. I’ll still take Musial, even without the literary send-off.

    • No stat, thanks for the observations on Musial and Williams. I am too young to remember anything helpful from personal experience about either of them.

      You make it sound like one wore a black hat and one wore a white. I guess I always thought of Ted Williams as an All-American boy, a WW2 veteren who has a role model and team player.

      Please post again in this blog or the lobby (underneath chat).

  4. Jim Thome’s 2010 season with the Twins doesn’t quite meet the criteria(it wasn’t his second to last season and he didn’t compile 4.0 WAR) but does deserve mention. He posted an alarming 1.039 OPS(173 OPS+) as a 39-year old, accumulating 3.2 WAR in only 340 plate appearances.

    Granted, Thome got almost 75% of his PA against RH pitching, but he did manage to slug 6 homers in 94 at-bats vs. lefties, and his lefty-righty splits for 2010 look very similar to his overall career LHP/RHP splits.

    Verdict: No Hurrah, but Nice Try

  5. Nice work, Doug. Thanks for the feature.

    Did I understand your article correctly that you only searched for 37 and 38 year olds who would play at least two more but no more than three more years?

    That’s how Williams and Musial were missed?

    There are 10 players on your list, spanning 9 decades. I wonder why last hurrahs are not happening as often in recent times. Three times only since 1947.

  6. I hope I’m not missing something obvious, but why was one of the HOFers (either Cuyler or Morgan, I think) included in the all-star group instead?

  7. A couple of things stood out for me.

    The first was that Ted Williams lost almost 4 & a half dWAR in his final 3 seasons. If Pujols can come close to matching his offensive performance without as big a decline on defense I suspect the Angels will be ecstatic.

    And Dummy Hoy, was actually out of the major leagues the season before his big revival. He played in the National League until 1899 and then for Chicago in 1900- but when Chicago was still a minor league team.

    Great stuff, Doug.

  8. What is significant about McQuinn’s comeback is that he had a WAR of -0.9 the prior year, probably the lowest of any of the other players.

  9. Doug:
    In checking out the “unpolitically correct” Dummy Hoy, I couldn’t help but notice Louisville Colonels teammate and future Hall of Famer Fred Clarke had a 4.3 WAR season at age 38 in 1911 coming off a 1.6 WAR season the prior year. He doesn’t hit the Play Index search due to not playing in MLB in 1912, and making 14, 2, and 2 plate appearances in succesive years 1913-’15.

    I imagine this type of scenario probably played itself out several times as some of these guys played for decent money in the PCL or Southern Association or somewhere closer to home and didn’t have the follow-up seasons in MLB that might hit the PI.

    How dumb was Dummy Hoy? I never heard that trivia question…..

    • Not sure if you’re serious about that trivia question :) but, if anyone wasn’t aware, Dummy Hoy was deaf.

      Amazing that he was such an accomplished player with such limited ability to communicate on the field with teammates (I know whereof I speak, having a deaf man on my church softball team).

      Reading his SABR biography, mentions that Hoy threw out the ceremonial first pitch for game 3 of the 1961 WS. At the age of 99.

  10. Another season that comes to mind is Carlton Fisk’s 5 WAR season in 1990 t age 42. That season (not on the list because Fisk played 3 more years) and Willie Mays season on the second list are the only 5 WAR season by 40 year-olds.

  11. Doug, for our edification, will you create another “Last Hurrah” list extending outside Bill James’ age range of 37-38 as the bounce-back season or including a longer career than age 40?

    Not immediately, but it would be a nice follow-up, in my opinion, to the original blog, given reader reaction.

    • Actually, Neil, that’s what the second list is, although with restrictions on the season relative to a player’s career.

      Here is a larger list of age 37+ with 4 WAR, with no restrictions on the season’s placement in the player’s career.

      http://bbref.com/pi/shareit/cCn9G

      58 seasons on the list. Breakout by age is:
      37 – 29 seasons
      38 – 13
      39 – 8
      40 – 4
      41 – 2
      42 – 2

  12. An interesting aside about McQuinn, was that not only was he the starter the next year in the 1948 all star game, and played the whole game, but that he was in such a decline that he was eventually benched and finished with a .248 average for his final season.

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