Monday, July 1, 2013

Players Who Stayed in the Majors Too Long

The careers of most players can be charted as a standard bell curve with the most productive years occurring between the ages of 25 to 35 then followed by a gradual decline. There are always exceptions to the rule. In some cases, the decline is sudden and inexplicable. In other rare instances, players seem virtually undaunted by the march of time. Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter at the age of 44. Ted Williams posted a .316 average in his final season. He was 41. For whatever reason, there comes a time when every player must bid farewell. And while most diamond greats know when to hang up their cleats, there are others who have hung around a bit too long, losing a measure of respect in the process. The following players are glaring examples of this phenomenon at work:

Rickey Henderson
Among the greatest lead-off men in history, there was hardly ever any doubt that Henderson would make it to the Hall. But frankly speaking, this man simply did not know when to let go. In a 25-year career, he established the all-time record for stolen bases and runs scored. He reached the first milestone at the age of 32. He waited 10 years to set the latter mark. So why did he continue to play until the age of 44 with nothing left to prove? Records clearly show that Henderson's skills had almost completely deteriorated by the time he exited the majors. After 1999, he never posted a batting average above .233. His caught stealing percentage rose to 28% in '99 and hovered in that vicinity the following year. That's nearly 10 points above his lifetime mark. Additionally, Henderson's defense had gone to pot. In '97, he fielded his position 16 points below the league average. In 2001, he was 5 points below. In his final season, he had become a bonafide defensive liability in the outfield with a fielding percentage 24 points below the National League standard. I personally attended an interleague game between the Yankees and Mets during the 2000 slate and watched Henderson (who was with the Mets at the time) drop a fly ball in left field while attempting his signature glove wave. He was booed heartily by the Yankee Stadium crowd. Still pining for the majors though nobody wanted him anymore, Rickey played portions of 3 seasons in the Independent League from 2003 through 2005. He was 46 when he disappeared from the professional ranks.

Roger Clemens
Here we go again! For the third time in four posts, I'm speaking out against "The Rocket." Clemens' career can be divided into two distinct phases: 
1.) The period spent with the Red Sox during which he peaked then began his decline 
2.) The career rejuvenation point, which was fueled by performance enhancing drugs
From 1986 through '96, Clemens posted a 176-102 record for Boston, winning 3 Cy Young Awards and claiming 4 ERA titles. By '96, he was in decline, having suffered through an injury plagued '95 campaign then returning to assemble a substandard 10-13 record with a 3.63 ERA. Lured to the dark side by steroid king Jose Canseco, the right-handed flame thrower began injecting himself with "the juice." The results were dramatic as 4 more Cy Young Awards and 2 pitching triple crowns would follow. The cost was tremendous, however, as his secret leaked out and he was forced to stand before Congress and defend himself. Although he was acquitted of perjury by a federal jury in 2012, virtually every reasonably educated fan knows that Clemens cheated. The addition of the splitter to his pitching arsenal does not adequately explain the superhuman feats he accomplished well into his forties. In the case of the ageless Nolan Ryan, there was never a statistical decline until the very end. Clemens, on the other hand, returned from the dead (metaphorically speaking). And there are too many credible steroid accusations against him to ignore. Had Clemens accepted a natural career demise, he may have had a shot at Cooperstown. But his decision to delay the inevitable through chemical means will almost certainly keep him out of the running. He was eligible for the first time in 2013 and received just 37.6% of the vote. You reap what you sow (or inject, in this case).

...More discussion on the topic of players who loitered in the majors too long will appear in my next post.      


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