How long are baseball players' careers?

By: Julien Assouline | Documentation

Every year, hundreds of minor league baseball players try to make the big leads. Every year, hundreds of baseball players leave the game. The vast majority leave because they can’t find a team that will sign them.

Yet, we often think about the ones who stick around. We think of the David Ortiz and Derek Jeter's of the world. The ones who had long illustrious careers. The ones who, for the most part, left the game on their own terms. But, these players are the one percent of the one percent. The vast majority of players only get one shot, often just a few games in the big leagues and then it’s over.

This is the career length of every baseball player, from 1950 to 2013.

Only one player had a career length of 27 years, the longest career in baseball history. That belongs to Nolan Ryan.

Tommy John had the second longest career in baseball history, with 26 years played in the majors.

On a median basis, a baseball players career spans four years.

1,751 players had a one year career. This is the most common experience when entering the big leagues.

We often think about players who had a long career, but the majority of baseball players career is quite short. Even the median can be misleading, or not show the full story. The majority of players enter the league for one or two years.

Players such as Nolan Ryan and Tommy John are complete outliers. They are both the only players who achieved their career length, from 1950 to 2013. Tommy John’s is particularly impressive, though, considering that he suffered from the first ever Tommy John Surgery which was later named after him.

Many players who were categorized as having a one year career also didn’t always play that many games. Some, in fact, didn’t play any games at all. Teams will call up players at times because they don’t have enough players on the bench or in the bullpen. So, they will call a player up for one game and then send them back down to the minors.

This, unfortunately, is the sad reality. Even some players who get called up don’t always get much of a shot at the big leagues. There can be a number of reasons for this, but most prominent, is that they simply didn’t perform well in the minor leagues, or weren’t a top prospect.

It can be difficult to realize that the role or the career of a baseball player is temporary. It is also hard to maintain. The second a baseball player starts to underperform his career can be in jeopardy, which is why players such as Nolan Ryan or even David Ortiz are a dime a dozen.


The web scraping, cleaning, and analysis was all done in Python.

I used D3.js to create the charts, and Scrollama to build the scroller. I used a mixture of HTML, CSS, Bootstrap, and stickyfill to build the page layout.

All data was from Baseball-Reference