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A.J. Burnett wouldn't be first to go out on top

Justin K. Aller

We're still waiting for A.J. Burnett. Will he retire, at 37? Won't he?

Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage seems to think he will retire:

“I’m on that percentage point where he’s not going to come back,” Searage said. “I’ve got to prepare the pitching with no A.J, so that’s the route I’m going right now. If he does come back, alright. But right now, I’m leaning that way, where he’s going to retire.”

He explained that there isn’t any information on Burnett’s decision yet, though.

“There isn’t any information on A.J.,” Searage added. “We’re still waiting.”

I still haven't quite gotten used to good baseball players retiring when there's still many more millions to be made. Sure, you might figure that after enough millions it doesn't matter any more ... but why don't they have that attitude earlier in their careers, when free agency beckons? But I checked, and there have been dozens of pitchers who were actually pretty good in their last seasons.

Really, the only thing that would distinguish Burnett, if last season was really his last, would be his relative youth, and health. There have been plenty of truly old pitchers who quit when then they were still pretty good, and plenty of young(ish) pitchers who quit when they were hurt. But not many pretty good young(ish) pitchers quit just because they didn't feel like pitching any more.

This is where I mention that Burnett wasn't great last year. He did post the highest strikeout rate (per nine innings) in the National League, which is really impressive. But his ERA+ was just 107 (for the second straight season). He went just 10-11, which looks terribly unlucky but really wasn't. He probably deserved to go 12-9 or 13-10 or something.

Only four pitchers have ever won 20 games in their last season. Care to guess who they were? I'll give you a hint: Two of them weren't given a choice.

Both Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams won 20 (or more) for the White Sox in 1920, but after the season were suspended for life for their roles in the Black Sox scandal. It didn't happen again until 1966, when Sandy Koufax pitched 329 innings, went 27-9, and decided to quit before his elbow literally exploded. In a sense, he had little more choice than Cicotte and Williams. And of course our fourth is Mike Mussina, who had all the choice in the world. At 39, he won 20 games for the first time in his brilliant career, and almost certainly could have pitched effectively for another season or two. He chose not to, and quite possibly cost himself a plaque in Cooperstown. Not that you can blame him; there are more important things in life, at least for some players.

In terms of Wins Above Replacement, Koufax (10), Mussina (5) and Cicotte (5) rank first, second, and fourth among pitchers in their last seasons. Here's the rest of the top dozen:

2. Win Mercer (6 Wins+)
5. Red Donahue
6. Dutch Ulrich
7. Britt Burns
8. Curt Schilling
9. Mike Sirotka
10. Larry Jackson
11. Monty Stratton
12. Larry French

Win Mercer's the standout here. After pitching brilliantly in 1902, he was named the Tigers' player-manager for 1903. That winter, though, Mercer committed suicide at the conclusion of a cross-country barnstorming tour. From his obituary in The New York Times:

Mercer registered at the Occidental Hotel last evening. He was found asphyxiated in his room to-day. Mercer registered under the name George Murray and gave his residence as Philadelphia. The watchman of the hotel in making his rounds detected the odor of gas coming from Mercer's room and broke down the door. Mercer was on the bed with his coat and waistcoat covering his head; and a tube ran from the gas jet into his mouth. Among the papers found in the room was one which read: 'Tell Mr. Van Horn of the Langham Hotel that Winnie Mercer has taken his life.' Mercer was a sufferer of pulmonary troubles, and as the disease refused to yield to treatment he became despondent. He left a statement of his financial accounts, showing that he owed no money. He was twenty-eight years old.

There have been any number of theories over the years, attempting to explain Mercer's motive. In the absence of a specific note, they're only theories, and none particularly convincing.

About Red Donahue, I've found very little. Considered one of the craftiest pitchers of the early 20th century, Donahue pitched well for the Tigers in 1906, and then disappears from the record (and my library). But he died just a few years later, reportedly due to tuberculosis, and it's possible that he'd been ill throughout those years.

Frank "Dutch" Ulrich is barely a footnote today, but he threw hard and mixed in a good knuckleball, and enjoyed a nice run down the stretch in 1927, for a terrible Phillies team. His fate? Here's a bit of Phillies history:

The 1933 Phillies sank to seventh place and drew only 156,000 fans, despite a Triple Crown year by [Chuck] Klein and a banner performance by catcher Spud Davis, who batted .349. Klein and Davis finished first and second, respectively, in the batting race, and Klein and shortstop Dick Bartell started for John McGraw in the first All-Star Game.

Nonetheles, the club seemed to have a black cloud hanging over it. In July of that year, second baseman Mickey Finn suddenly died while recovering from surgery for ulcers. Finn was the third Phillies player to die in five years. Dutch Ulrich, a pitcher, died just before the start of spring training in 1929 after a lengthy illness, and Walt Lerian, a young catcher, was killed that October when struck by a truck.

Sheesh. Phillies. It's an accident of fate, by the way, that the Phillies are still in Philadelphia while the Athletics have moved twice.

Britt Burns and Mike Sirotka were both in their 20s, both pitched for the White Sox -- Burns in the '80s, Sirotka in the '90s -- and both were laid low by injuries. With Burns, it was a chronic, degenerative hip problem; with Sirotka, a bum shoulder. The White Sox actually traded Sirotka to the Blue Jays in a deal that netted David Wells. (The Jays later complained that the Sox had known Sirotka was hurt and appealed to Commissioner Selig, but the deal stood.)

In Curt Schilling's last season with the Red Sox, he posted a 3.87 ERA in 24 starts, and walked only four batters in his last nine starts. Afterward, he signed a one-year contract to return in 2008. But shoulder problems kept him from pitching at all that season, and he announced his retirement the following spring.

In 1968, Larry Jackson went just 13-17 with the Phillies, but his 2.77 ERA was perfectly decent, even in The Year of the Pitcher. His stock doesn't seem to have been particularly high, though; the Phillies didn't protect him in that winter's expansion draft, and the Expos were somehow able to grab Jackson with their 23rd pick. He might really have helped them in '69! Except he refused to report to the new franchise, choosing instead to retire, just six wins short of 200 for his career.

The rest of the stories are a bit more colorful. Monty Stratton lost his right leg in a hunting accident, and was later played in the movies by Jimmy Stewart. Larry French picked up a knuckleball in 1942, pitched brilliantly that season ... then enlisted in the U.S. Navy, at 35 ... and somehow made a career of it, retiring as a captain in the late '60s.

Baseball's still baseball. But some things have changed quite a lot. There have always been pitchers who went out on top (or close). The reasons are just different these days.