Rocket retirement right resolution

In deciding to retire, Roger Clemens has done what few other great pitchers did -- go out on top.

Originally Published: October 29, 2003
By Jim Baker | ESPN Insider

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?

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  • 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 to do.

    Roger Clemens
    Roger Clemens was 310-160 with a 3.19 ERA in 20 seasons in the majors.

    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 was borderline.)

    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.

    Consider this:

  • Only 14 of the 60-plus Hall of Fame pitchers managed to post ERAs better than the league average in their final seasons.

  • 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 little precedent.

    Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at jbakerespn@yahoo.com

    Jim Baker is an author at Baseball Prospectus and a frequent contributor to Page 2. You can e-mail Jim at bottlebat@gmail.com.