Have you ever heard of these two pitchers?
Al S. Kaput: 222-301 lifetime
I.M. Dunpher: 234-297 lifetime
Kaput had an ERA about 13 percent worse than the
leagues he pitched in and Dunpher was about 19 percent
below average. Who were these two and who let them
pitch for so many years with such poor results?
Actually, they never really existed. They are
composites of two groups of men. The first --
represented by Kaput -- is made up of Hall of Famers
and the second -- represented by Dunpher -- comprises all pitchers who won 200 games or more but
who are not in the Hall of Fame. Composites of what,
though? How can baseball's elite compile such numbers
under any circumstances?
By hanging around too long.
These numbers represent the total of what they did in
the final season of their careers. Think about it:
these men represent the elite of baseball history --
among the 100 or so finest ever to step on a major
league mound and together they posted a .433 winning
percentage in the last season of their careers. What
does this say about the end? Right -- that it is unkind
to even the very best.
What does it also say about Roger Clemens' decision to
retire? That it is, most definitely, the right thing
Clemens is borrowing the old show business
adage: "Always leave 'em wanting more." To mix
metaphors, he is cashing in his chips in the middle of
a decent hand. The number of pitchers who have done
this is alarmingly small. Most stick around until they
are either physically incapable of pitching or
incapable of getting anybody out. Here are the best
final seasons for great pitchers since 1901:
1. Sandy Koufax
1966 Los Angeles Dodgers (27-9, 1.73 ERA)
No surprise here as Koufax has long been famous for
being the one player in baseball history who walked
away not only before it was too late, but while he
still seemed to be improving.
I got behind in my baseball reading and am only now getting to Jane
Leavey's wonderful biography, "Koufax." (I say
wonderful because she uses this great device by
interspersing the chapters with a detailed description
of his 1965 perfect game on an inning-by-inning
basis.) In it, she repeats Koufax's well-known pregame
and postgame regimens; the hoops he had to jump
through to ease the hurt in his arm. These included
ice, heat, beer and pain killers. In the end, they
were just temporary fixes and the pain became
unbearable so he went out on the highest note of any
player ever, save for a World Series loss.
Koufax posted the lowest ERA of his career in '66 and it's
fun to wonder what he would have done the following
two years when the league ERA continued to fall. Would
he have challenged Bob Gibson's 1.12 in 1968, or would
he have been throwing junk by then? That's the great
thing about his decision: he lived fast, died young
and left a beautiful memory. Except he didn't die -- he
continued to live on as a legend. By leaving when he
did, he only enhanced that legendary status.
2. Eddie Cicotte
1920 Chicago White Sox (21-10, 3.21 ERA)
This one comes with a mighty big asterisk and probably
shouldn't even be on this list, but it does help to
illustrate that for most of us, we never know when the
end might come. Mr. Cicotte was asked to leave
baseball when it was revealed he was one of the main
conspirators in the tossing of the 1919 World Series.
The news came at the end of a fine 1920 effort. (As a
sidenote, would Cicotte have gone into the Hall of the Fame
had he pitched another three or four years? He was 36
in 1920 with a career record of 208-149. I would have
to say that even with another couple of good years he
3. Roger Clemens
2003 New York Yankees (17-9, 3.91 ERA)
Clemens leaves the game several notches below his peak, but not so far gone that he will be remembered by the
youngest fans who saw him pitch as a washed-up junker
getting by on guile. Clemens is going out with his
essential self still intact. Given that Koufax felt he
was in too much pain to continue (in other words, he
believed he had no choice but to retire) and Cicotte
recused himself by tanking the World Series, Clemens
definitely qualifies as the best pitcher to leave the
game with a choice in the matter.
4. Paul Derringer
1945 Chicago Cubs (16-11, 3.45 ERA)
Like Koufax and Clemens, Derringer's last major league
appearance was in the World Series. It also happened
to be the Cubs' last appearance in a World Series, but
that's another story.
5. Hooks Dauss
1926 Detroit Tigers (12-6, 4.20 ERA)
Of the very best final seasons among pitchers in the
two groups mentioned above, Dauss' is the only one
who's ERA was below the league average. It wasn't by
much, but it might be enough to make his presence on
this list a controversial one. Or, on the other hand,
it might help to illustrate just how slim the pickings
are and just how unique it is to have Clemens do what
he has done.
Other fairly good final seasons since 1901:
Sam Jones, 1935 Chicago White Sox; Joe McGinnity, 1908
New York Giants; Carl Mays, 1929 New York Giants and
Chuck Finley's 2002 campaign with Cleveland and, more
especially, St. Louis. Tom Seaver had a decent year in
1986 with the White Sox and Red Sox, although he did
post a 7-13 record.
Only 14 of the 60-plus Hall of Fame pitchers managed
to post ERAs better than the league average in their final
Only eight of them had better ERAs than they did for
the rest of their careers relative to league average.
Among the 200-game winners who aren't in the Hall,
only seven of the nearly 50 had ERAs better than the league average in their swan-song years.
Only four of them had ERAs better than their career
marks relative to league average.
A number of these great pitchers posted ugly, ugly
won-loss records in their last years:
Bob Gibson: 3-10
Warren Spahn: 7-16
Gaylord Perry: 7-14
Phil Niekro: 7-13
Jim Bunning: 5-12
Bob Feller: 0-4
Catfish Hunter: 2-9
These are not numbers we equate with these men, are
they? They are the sad codas to mostly happy careers.
By leaving now, Clemens has avoided the possibility of
tacking on a tacky ending that looks like 4-13 with a
5.13 ERA. Yes, he could very probably come back in
2004 and go 15-8 with an ERA better than league
average, but, on the other hand, something could go
wrong and he could end up with something very much
like what these other former greats posted.
So while few of us get to choreograph our lives, it is
refreshing to see somebody who has the chance to do so
taking advantage of the opportunity. The temptation to
stay in the game -- to walk away from fabulous
paydays, intense adulation and the thrill of
competition -- is incredibly strong. Roger Clemens is
to be marveled at for taking a step with so very
Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at email@example.com