When a player is cut loose in baseball, generally the writing is on the wall and their production has suffered. Occasionally, though, players have decent, even good years and still are out of a contract.
Here are 10 players who excelled in one way or another but had to move on when the season was over:
1. Barry Bonds, 2007: Barry Bonds was by no means a bad player his final two seasons. His numbers just weren’t anywhere close to his 2001-04 run– an unfair standard, really, since it’ll be a long time before any hitter is so far and away better than all others as Bonds was those seasons. Imagine if those years never happened as they did. Imagine no cumulative 256 OPS+, no 209 homers, no 43.4 WAR. Bonds’ notorious attitude problems aside, I’m guessing his 28 homers and 169 OPS+ in 2007 would’ve been enough for another contract.
2. Babe Ruth, 1934: Seven decades before Bonds’ coda, the Sultan of Swat more or less faced the same problem. His numbers were good for an aging slugger, just seemingly nothing close to what he’d done before. Most any baseball history fan knows what came next for Ruth after 1934, with the Yankees dumping him and the Bambino showing up out of shape the following season for a humiliatingly poor, abortive run with the Boston Braves. Ruth’s 160 OPS+ in 1934, though, suggests to me he had more to give. I assume if he’d stayed with the Yankees or gone to a better team in 1935 (the Braves went 38-115), retirement may have come more smoothly.
3. Rogers Hornsby, 1926-28: Rajah must’ve been some kind of prick, as each of these seasons ended with him being sent to a new team. He hit .354 cumulatively over this stretch, though and might’ve hit .400 in 1927 had he not been with the Braves; Hornsby hit .371 at Braves Field that season, batting .401 on the road. (Lots of players, perhaps the majority it should be noted, hit better at home than on the road.)
4. Ned Garvin, 1904: I researched this post, in part, by looking for stats players excelled in that were undervalued or didn’t exist during their careers. For Ned Garvin, that stat is ERA+. A hard-luck pitcher– Bill James called Garvin the hard-luck pitcher of all-time– Garvin last appeared in the majors in 1904, going 5-16 with a 1.72 ERA, finishing out the year with the New York Highlanders after the Brooklyn Superbas waived him in September. While Garvin’s 160 ERA+ was tied for third-best in baseball, he never pitched again in the majors and died of consumption four years later.
5. Roy Cullenbine, 1947: For Cullenbine, his undervalued asset was on-base ability. He had an astonishing 137 walks on a .224 batting average in 1947, weirder still given that he’d hit .335 the year before. I’m guessing the walks went unrewarded. In fact, Bill James notes that one general manager said he unloaded Cullenbine mid-career because he “was a lazy player, always trying to get on-base with a walk.” As it stands, Cullenbine is one of five players in baseball history to top 100 walks his final season. The others: Bonds, Hank Greenberg in 1947, Mickey Mantle in 1968 and Jim McTamany in 1891.
6. Johnny Dickshot, 1945: His legacy of having the greatest surname in baseball history complete, Johnny Dickshot, like so many other players, lost his spot in the majors at the end of World War II. It wasn’t a bad swan song for Dickshot, with the 35-year-old hitting .302 with a 127 OPS+ and 10 triples.
7. Larry Jackson, 1968: Jackson is one of a handful of pitchers to compile a sub-3.00 FIP his final season. Granted, 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher and Jackson’s 2.61 FIP was nowhere near the best in baseball. The Philadelphia Phillies left the aging hurler unprotected for the 1969 Expansion Draft, and Jackson opted to retire over playing for the Montreal Expos.
8. Mike Marshall, 1981: In a follow-up to Ball Four released prior to the 1981 strike, former teammate Jim Bouton suggested Marshall couldn’t find a pitching job because owners didn’t want him in the player’s union. Marshall finally caught on with the New York Mets after play resumed. The 38-year-old went 3-2 with a 2.61 ERA for the duration of the season, but that was it for him in the majors. He pitched just one more game in organized baseball, a disastrous appearance in Triple-A in 1983 where he surrendered nine runs in 1.1 innings.
9. Jack Morris, 1996*: Technically, Morris didn’t pitch in the majors after posting a 5.60 ERA for the Cleveland Indians in 1994. He attempted a comeback with St. Paul of the Northern League in 1996, though, going 5-1 with a 2.61 ERA in 10 starts. In his SABR bio, Morris said he hoped to pitch that year for the Minnesota Twins, who spurned him and passed on a chance to sign with the Yankees.
10. Dave Kingman, 1986: This may be a stretch. Kingman, after all, was at the end of the line with Oakland in 1986, hitting .210 with a garish .255 on-base percentage for a team that prized the stat. Regular readers of this site may also know I contributed to a digital magazine from the San Francisco Chronicle; my first editor on the magazine, Susan Fornoff, had an infamous run-in with Kingman that ’86 season. Fornoff was one of the first female sportswriters granted locker room access and Kingman, ever the feminist at heart, sent Fornoff a rat in the press box. Fornoff assumes it got Kingman blackballed from the majors. All this being said, it’s worth noting Kingman had 35 homers that ’86 season and was just 37. Kingman’s ISO of .221 is third-best of any player with at least 500 plate appearances in his final season besides Greenberg in ’47 and Will Clark in 2000.