Every playing career needs to end somewhere. In a few special cases—Mariano Rivera in 2013, David Ortiz in 2016—their final season turns into a celebratory farewell tour. They go out on their own terms, feeling fulfilled while also knowing they could have continued contributing at the highest level.
For everybody else, however, the ending is awkward. Especially in today’s game, MLB front offices focus on projected performance over past performance. They won’t pursue players if they feel age, injury or skill set could get in the way of them sustaining success.
Does anyone have fond memories of the 2009 Florida Marlins? That team won 87 games, hanging around the playoff conversation thanks to terrific individual years from Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramírez. But one of the unsung heroes on the Marlins that season—if not in the sport as a whole—was Kiko Calero.
Joining the club on a minor league deal shortly before Opening Day, Calero had previously established himself as a dependable arm out of the ‘pen. He pitched to a 3.56 ERA (122 ERA+) and struck more than a batter per inning (9.5 K/9) from 2002-2008 as a member of the Cardinals and Athletics.
What he would do in his 7th (and last) MLB season would put him in some elite company. A 1.95 ERA, regardless of your role on the pitching staff, is downright historic for a player’s swan song.
Among the 506 final career seasons in which MLB relievers pitched at least 50 innings, Calero’s 1.95 ERA in 2009 ranks 4th all-time. His 221 Adjusted ERA+ places him fifth. His 2.4 rWAR that season was every bit as good as the Hall of Famer Rivera’s.
Before delving into why Calero never toed the rubber in an official big league game after 2009, let’s look at what made that age-34 campaign so exceptional.
Calero allowed an adjusted OPS+ of 41 to his opponents (where 100 is always seen as league average). Only 2010 Billy Wagner (38 OPS+) retired on a better note. In terms of batting average against and OPS against, we see Calero, again, trails only Wagner, .180 to .159 and .520 to .492.
Individual pitch tracking shows us that Calero threw 585 of 1,011 pitches for strikes in 2009 or just 57.9-percent. That iffy control resulted in a 12.6-percent walk rate, but when he threw strikes, he really made them count.
Allowing only 1 home run that season, Calero’s .235 slugging percentage against has him in sole possession of first among the end-of-the-road relievers. His 28.9-percent K-rate was 4th-best.
Calero wasn’t typically pitching with the game on the line. His average leverage index of .928 in 2009 was below the MLB average and trailed the vast majority of qualified relievers. However, Calero thrived when called upon for “high-leverage” work, posting a .158/.313/.211 opponent slash line in 49 plate appearances fitting that criteria.
Both in the moment and looking back now, Calero’s vanishing act seems bizarre. After a career-defining season and despite his interest in continuing to compete, why didn’t he pitch in The Show again?
Well, Calero’s 2008 season with Oakland was limited to just five appearances with what would later be diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff. He pitched through it for most of 2007-08 before electing to do a muscle strengthening rehab program over surgery. Perhaps the right-hander’s reliance on the slider was the main culprit here, a pitch he threw 55.8-percent of the time over the course of his career. It’s hard for Calero to harbor any regrets about that considering he generated 48.2 runs above average with its effectiveness.
The lack of interest paid to Calero on the free-agent market came down to shoulder health. Longtime Marlins’ beat writer Joe Frisaro tweeted that Florida had trepidation about re-signing him due to the injury risk:
#Marlins Marlins are cautious about signing Kiko Calero because of risk that the veteran's right shoulder may not hold up like it did in '09— Joe Frisaro (@JoeFrisaro) January 28, 2010
Ultimately, Calero would find a prospective buyer on his services for 2010 in the divisional rival New York Mets. They signed Calero to a minor-league deal on March 4.
Things would not transpire the way Calero had hoped. He pitched to a 5.68 ERA in 6 1⁄3 spring training innings before a 10.59 ERA in 17 innings at AAA Buffalo called for his release by New York on May 16. Though he would soon sign a minor-league deal with the Dodgers on June 10 and rebound to the tune of a 3 ERA, the Dodgers would cut ties with Calero on July 19, effectively closing the door on him.
A special thank you to Stark Raving Sports for providing inspiration for this piece with their Elmer Dessens video.