Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mantle's Miserable Closing Act

All great things, especially great athletic careers, must end (LIFE)
With the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World Series just having passed, I've been thinking a lot about the players on those teams, but I keep circling back to one in particular: Mickey Mantle.

Everybody remembers the 1964 Fall Classic as Mantle's last hurrah. It was the last World Series he ever played in, and statistically it was also one of his greatest. He slugged three home runs, including a walk-off blast in Game 3 that broke Babe Ruth's record for Series homers. He also knocked in and scored eight runs apiece while batting .333/.467/.792. Mantle was a beast and, had the Yankees prevailed over Bob Gibson in Game 7, likely would have copped World Series MVP honors.

After that great series, at the end of Mantle's last great season, it was all downhill for the Mick and his Yankees. His final four years, 1965-1968, are generally regarded as an exercise in futility. An old 33, worn down by his many injuries and years of hard living, Mantle declined sharply after the 1964 season. His last four seasons produced a meager .254 batting average, dragging his lifetime mark down from .309 to .298. To make matters worse, the Yankees were horrible during this time, losing 41 more games than they won and never sniffing a pennant. Mantle's misery was compounded by the failures of his team, and vice versa.

Theoretically, one could pinpoint the beginning of Mantle's decline midway through the 1964 campaign, Mantle's last truly great season. Through July 15th he was hitting .335/.453/.631, right in line with what he'd done the previous two seasons. Had he stayed on that pace, he probably would have secured his fourth MVP. As it were, he tailed off a bit and batted .271/.393/.550 the rest of the way. Still great numbers, but bringing his seasonal stats down enough for Brooks Robinson to steal the award out from under him.

What's often forgotten is that Mantle came roaring out of the gates in 1965, with four home runs in his first 11 games and seven through his first 24. Halfway through May he was hitting .275/.451/.623--in line with his second half performance from 1964. Then Mantle went into an extended slump, scuffling through the next three months, with just five home runs in June and July combined. He rebounded in August to hit .325/.404/.519, but went out with a whimper in September. After homering in his first two September games, Mantle went into a major funk, collecting just four hits in his final 34 at-bats, with no homers and no RBI. In those final three weeks he lost more than 40 points off his OPS, as his batting line fell from a respectable .269/.392/.480 to a more pedestrian .255/.379/.452 (still good for a 137 OPS+). Believing Mantle's retirement to be imminent, the Yankees hosted Mickey Mantle Day for their beloved legend at Yankee Stadium on September 18th.

Mantle had missed 40 games and struggled when he did play, posting the lowest batting average of his career to that point. It hadn't helped that the Yankees slipped to sixth in the standings, their worst finish since 1925. Embarrassed by his poor performance, Mantle very nearly retired following the 1965 season. Ailed by his battered legs and a shoulder injury that hampered his swing and throwing ability, Mantle made up his mind to quit. But when he went to New York to inform the Yankees, Ralph Houk talked him out of it. He said Mantle shouldn't retire on a bad note, and that he'd still be valuable even if he was only able to play half a season..
By the late '60s Mantle was no longer the physical specimen he had once been
1966 was better for Mantle, but not at first. It took him 21 games to launch his first home run. For most of the first half his numbers were in line with the previous season's until he enjoyed the last great power binge of his career. From June 23rd through July 19th, a span of 28 games, Mantle mashed 15 home runs. For one glorious month, he was the Mantle of old. His revival sparked the moribund Yankees to a brief spurt, helping them climb from ninth place at the All-Star Break to sixth place after play ended on July 29th. New York's hot streak ignited talk of a possible second half surge, but such speculation quickly dissipated as the Bombers bombed in August and stumbled towards a last place finish.

Mantle reverted to his old self, too, parking only two more dingers the rest of the way. With 21 in late July, he should have been able to bank one last 30 homer season, but managed only two in August and none in September. He had a real shot at batting .300 one last time and topping a .400 OBP as well, but did neither, falling short at .288 and .389. Mantle was not an All-Star for the first time since his rookie season even though he compiled a .927 OPS (170 OPS+).

1967 marked the true beginning of the end. Mantle was moved from the outfield to first base to preserve his body (which worked, as Mantle played 144 games that year and the next) as well as limit the harm he could incur on defense, which had been terrible for five years by that point. Once again it took awhile for Mantle to get going, as he went without an extra base hit in his first 10 games of the season and managed but one RBI. He caught fire after that though, homering in consecutive games and launching 11 in all over the next month, including the 500th of his career on May 14th, Mother's Day. Mantle celebrated by hobbling around the bases on a dreary day at the Stadium.

Mantle's numbers remained strong through late July, with his OPS just a shade under .900. But like most old players, Mantle crashed and burned during the dog days of summer. From July 26th through the end of August, Mantle managed just one home run and six RBI while slugging .308.  By September Mantle was clearly out of gas, and once again his numbers were dragged down by a terrible finish. Hitting .259/.403/.462 midway through September, he recorded just three hits in his final 12 games and lost nearly 40 points off his OPS, which fell from .864 to .825 over the season's final two weeks. He failed to go yard in his last 22 games of the season as well, ending up with 22 taters on the year when he easily could have had 25+.

Looking back, it's puzzling as to why Mantle did not hang it up after that miserable '67 campaign, which had been even worse than his 1965 season. The Yankees were still terrible, having lost 90 games and finishing 9th in 1967. Whitey Ford, his good friend, drinking buddy and last remaining link to the team's heyday of the 1950s, had retired, giving Mantle the perfect opportunity to go out side-by-side with one of the few pals still left from his glory days, With 518 home runs and a .302 batting average, Mantle should have been satisfied. He should have called it a career. He should have walked away.

But Mantle did not quit. He came back to play one more season at age 36, though nobody was certain that the 1968 season would be Mantle's last. He did not officially retire until the next spring training, but there was a general sense that Mantle's pride and ability had diminished to the point where retirement was going to be a superior option to grinding out another meaningless season.
Late-career Mantle made home run trots look painful (Yanks Go Yard)
Sure enough, that's what 1968 wound up being for Mantle and the Yankees. New York improved considerably, going 83-79 to bump themselves up to fifth place, but were never seriously in contention and finished 20 games out of first. Mantle got off to a decent start with a .918 OPS at the end of April, but that turned out to be an early season mirage. His numbers flatlined in May, save for a turn-back-the-clock performance against the Senators on May 30th in which Mantle stroked two home runs and a double as part of a 5-for-5 day.

Mantle had one multi-hit game in June, no homers in July, and a thoroughly mediocre August. He entered September stuck on 534 career home runs, having gone homerless since tying Jimmie Foxx on August 22nd. It would take him awhile to eclipse Foxx, and only because Denny McLain gifted him several pitches in a meaningless late season game against the World Series-bound Tigers. The following day Mantle ripped his 536th and final home run, taking reigning AL Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg deep at the Stadium. It was Mantle's last highlight as a big leaguer, for he managed just one hit--a measly single--and three walks over his final 21 plate appearances as his batting line tumbled to .237/.385/.398. Mantle played his last game at Fenway Park, popping up in his lone plate appearance before walking off the field for the final time.

Looking back, Mantle should have sailed off into the sunset after 1965. Joe DiMaggio retired after his lone bad season. So did Hank Greenberg and, for all intents and purposes, Derek Jeter. Ted Williams almost did the same before going out on his terms with one last monster season. It would have been better for everyone. Mantle could have spared himself and his fans three more years of watching him flail away for terrible Yankee teams. All that pain and misery could have been avoided. Plus, had he done that, Mantle would have retired with a .306/.426/.576 line and a career 1.002 OPS. He would have been one of only eight players to finish their careers with a four-point OPS (the others being Ruth, Williams, Foxx, Greenberg, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby).

So yeah, Mantle hung on too long, but most great athletes do. Even Willie Mays did. But Mantle knew he was washed up long before he said goodbye, and came oh so close to retiring a full three years before he did. If only he had gone through with it.

2 comments:

  1. Yeah, by his own standards, the Mick was pretty bad. But it's exacerbated by the pitching dominant late '60s. In his last year, he still drew over 100 walks, had a .385 OBP, and a 143 OPS+. Not exactly horrible.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right his final years are actually very underrated because he walked so much and still had decent power. With those brutal batting averages he was a lot like Adam Dunn actually

      Delete