Retiring Before Your Time

D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

October 6, 1966 was a pleasant fall day in Los Angeles. Clouds covered the city most of the day, and the temperature was a comfortable average of 72 degrees. The World Series entered its second day with the Baltimore Orioles leading the Dodgers by one game. Sandy Koufax took the mound and simply lacked his magic. Koufax only pitched six innings, his shortest start in the World Series, and surrendered four runs. An ignominious end to the career of who, some believed, was the best ever.

Koufax retired at the height of his powers at age 30. At 30 Koufax led the league in the pitcher's Triple Crown: ERA, Strikeouts and Wins, along with innings pitched, complete games and shutouts. Although we did not know it at the time, Koufax also led the league in FIP and WAR. A masterful season worth over 10 Wins (by Baseball Reference's counting). But Koufax walked away. A tough decision to even imagine for most fans.

Most great players struggle to walk away. This is not a new insight, but it's one we still witness today. Look at Albert Pujols. El Hombre is arguably the best first baseman since Lou Gehrig. In his youth for St. Louis he basically could have won the MVP every season; he 'only' won three awards despite leading the league in bWAR six times. He ended the 2011 season, at age 31, 'only' posting a 148 OPS+, 'only' batting 299, and 'only' smacking 30 homeruns. Many said it then, and it's obvious now, but it was a harbinger of his imminent decline.

Naturally Pujols signed a contract worth of $200M with the Angels and proceeded to decline precipitously year after year.

Year 1 was ok. Albert still was a productive hitter, but it was his last season with a raw OPS over .800. Los Angeles, forced by the contract, trotted out Pujols for 1,000 games and Albert simply flailed compared to his previous form. For eight seasons Albert was basically a league average hitter (OPS+ of 104 over 4,300 PAs). In that time Pujols limped to several major milestones: first 500 home runs, then finally 600. 3,000 hits came too, he's now at 3,300 which ranks 12th all time, only 14 behind Eddie Collins. Few modern players persist as long as Pujols.

In his last year of the contract Albert was particularly miserable and Anaheim dumped him. At 41, Pujols was a below average hitter. Yes he came back and managed to recapture the 2nd half of his career's offensive output (i.e. a league average hitter) for Los Angeles, but to what end? Pujols still wants to come back at age 42 and keep struggling on.

I am not saying that is the wrong decision. I am not Albert Pujols, I cannot understand what Pujols wants to accomplish. He is only 21 homers away from 700, which would make him one of four men to ever reach that summit. But Albert is not ready to stop playing the children's game: he soldiers on.

Which finally brings us to the actual subject of this post: Buster Posey retired yesterday. Unlike Albert, Posey did not choose to persist.

Is it better to retire young? Is it better, in fact, to burn out than it is to rust?* Retiring on top is so novel largely because it's so rare. Buster will exit baseball after a tremendous season where his Giants won over 100 games. Buster recovered after a weak 2019, and taking 2020 off. Perhaps Buster reverted to the mean, or perhaps we should take Posey's word for it:

"I think it [knowing 2021 would be his last season and taking a year off] would really allow me to -not that you don't give it your all-but really, really empty the tank this year like I never have before"

It's a tremendous statement: Buster did not want to fade, Buster gave 2021 his absolute all and posted one of his best seasons. Fangraphs reckons it was his 6th best season ever (Baseball Reference lists it as his 8th). But for a 34 year old catcher: that's really good! Hall of Fame catchers nearly always peak in their 20s. Posting any of your best seasons in your mid 30s is a success.

I will miss Posey. I have family in San Francisco and, while I do not consider myself a Giants fan, I was happy for them when they won three times early last decade. Posey is a tremendous man and player. Baseball will be worse without him. I also feel Posey still had good baseball left in him, even if he likely would not recapture his prime (we cannot all be Carlton Fisk after all).

Retiring young also appears to help players glow in their retirement. Look at Sandy Koufax: we never saw him decline, so Sandy shines ever brighter as the hero of the Dodgers World Series. But beyond Koufax there's also Roberto Clemente who died right after reaching his 3,000th hit, but at 37 remained a potent hitter with a cannon for an arm. Or think Kirby Puckett, who was basically the same player at 35 he was at 27. Or more recently Billy Wagner, who posted one of his absolute best seasons at 38, and then went home to spend time with family. Same with Mike Mussina who won 20 for the first time (and the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in years), and then went out with a blaze of glory.

Rest easy Buster, and I look forward to writing about you entering Cooperstown in 2027.

*One thing I have always found amusing about Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey" is...Neil Young most definitely did not burn out. Young has smoldered for decades, raging against the dying of the light. At 75: Neil Young is working on another album, and shows no signs of stopping. For all his contention that the Rock and Roll spirit is about burning brightly, we have seen quite clearly the opposite effect.

I personally disagree. Do not go gentle into that good night Neil: Rage, Rage against the dying of the light.

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