Hey folks! Dr. Doom here. I’ve been given authorship privileges here so that Doug doesn’t have to keep doing all the hard work for me (or take the blame for my mistakes anymore) when I have an idea for a post. So thanks for putting up with my (very verbose) writing.
Welcome to the second post in this series!
So… Chet Lemon. Why Chet Lemon? There are a couple of reasons. First and foremost, Chet Lemon is in that bizarre group of Detroit Tigers whom Hall voters have never respected. He goes along with Bill Freehan, Lou Whitaker, Darrell Evans, and, until recently, Alan Trammell and Jack Morris who could be in the Hall of Fame, but have been ignored. Why this seems such a uniquely Tigers problem, I’m not sure. For the purposes of this exercise, Freehan is a catcher, which is harder to deal with; Trammell and Morris are already it; Whitaker’s already over 60 WAR and has all the qualifications in terms of narrative you could want; and Darrell Evans is too close to the borderline to make the math even remotely interesting. (Plus, in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James has already written the definitive piece on Darrell Evans and the Hall of Fame. It’s so good, in fact, that it would be impossible to write something about him without more-or-less plagiarizing it – excerpted here.)
Plus, Brendan Bingham suggested that I do him. The other suggestions in that comment might make future editions of this column. But on this particular day, he’s the one who caught my attention – and for one spectacular reason that I hope you’ll follow me for.
Chet Lemon was a very good defensive centerfielder with a long career and good power for his era – a .276 secondary average against a .273 batting average. (That means he was an above-average power-hitter; Bill James figured out that, on average, Secondary Average = Batting Average… but what research into the topic will tell you is that the ratio is nearly always so skewed by a few power hitters, that if you’re actually managing them to be the same, that means you’re ahead of the median. Hope that makes sense.)
His Run Average is also basically paradigmatic. James’ notes on Secondary Average also point out that, while Secondary Bases=Hits, it’s also true that R+RBI=Hits. You can see this on the league scale just about any year you’d like. Lemon had 1857 R+RBI alongside his 1875 hits. That means that, weirdly, Lemon’s batting average reveals to you EVERYTHING about him as a hitter. (George Brett is similar; the batting average tells you all you need to know. This is actually relatively rare, but notable in this case.)
Anyway, the thing that I want to tell you about Chet Lemon is that he was used incorrectly his entire career, and I can get him to 60 WAR with just a couple quick adjustments. Toby Harrah needed a lot more, as you can see in the last post. Just to let you know where we stand, Lemon is credited with 55.6 WAR via Baseball-Reference – just 4.4 WAR short of the total we need!
First, let’s wipe out that cup-of-coffee “rookie” year that’s costing him 0.2 WAR. It’s not much, but it helps, right? That changes us from 4.4 down to 4.2 WAR we need to find.
Next, let’s do the strike adjustment. This is the easy one. Lemon played in 94 of the White Sox 106 games, for which we’ll credit him with the corresponding 144 of 162. That alone bumps Lemon from 4.1 WAR to 6.3 – his best season ever. This shouldn’t really be a surprise: he’s 26, a typical peak season. He’s got the second-best OPS of his career (and best OPS+), and it’s not even like he’s got some ridiculous Rfield that year – he’s ranked as slightly above-average. So that takes us from 4.2 down to 2.0 WAR remaining.
In the heart of Lemon’s career, which I’m defining as the 11-year period from 1977-1987, Lemon took a total of 197 PAs from the leadoff spot. That’s almost exactly 1/30 PAs as a leadoff guy – and NEVER with the Tigers in that span. This is as a guy who:
So why didn’t he hit leadoff? Well, there are probably a lot of issues around that. But I would bet that since he had some power and didn’t steal a lot of bases, that had an impact. Plus, Sparky really liked Whitaker-Trammell in the first two spots – and maybe you agree with that! But let’s remember, this exercise isn’t “let’s do what’s best for the Tigers in the mid-80s,” it’s “Make Me a Hall-of-Famer – Chet Lemon.” In other words, what would’ve been best for Lemon would be hitting leadoff, so that’s what we’ll do. We’re going to take him from having ~3% of his PAs at leadoff, to having 80% of his PAs at leadoff! This would increase his PAs by about 10%. Doing so increases his Rbat by about 10%. Remembering that we’re upping his Rbat from 24 to 37 in 1981 (to account for the strike), we get Chet Lemon to 246 Rbat – as opposed to the 201 he had in actuality. Since, as for most players in history, the runs:wins conversion is right around 10:1, that extra 45 Rbat is worth 4.5 WAR! In other words, this adjustment has given us the whole shebang, even without the strike adjustment. With it, (and with sitting out his “rookie” year), Lemon moves to 62.5 WAR, just ahead of Mark McGwire.
For the narrative section, this will go quickly, I think. In our alternate history, instead of trading him to bottom-dwellers, the team that drafted him – the Oakland A’s – decide to develop Lemon on their own. Following a World Series win in ’75, they bring him up the next year for a full season, moving on from CF Bill North. It’s time for a rebuild, after all. Still, each of Lemon’s first three seasons, the team gets worse, culminating in a 100-loss campaign in 1978. It’s time for another rebuild. Fortunately for the A’s, they already have their leadoff hitter of the future – a young buck named Rickey Henderson, who’s like Chet Lemon 2.0. So they have no problem whatsoever dealing Lemon to a team flailing without a centerfielder. In fact, they’d just made due for the second half of ’78 with a different A’s castoff. And now, for the second time in their careers, a California team replaces Bill North with Chet Lemon, who becomes the new starting centerfielder for the LA Dodgers.
The Dodgers go on to an absolutely dominant decade. With Lemon manning the middle of the outfield for the entirety of the decade (real life choices: 1979 Derrel Thomas, 1980 Rudy Law, rest of the decade Ken Landreaux), the Dodgers see some changes. They still struggle in ’79, but they actually win the NL West in 1980 (real life: lost a game 163 to Houston) and defeat the Phillies (why not? This is make-believe) to win the pennant. They’re back again in ’81 (which, again, was not a strike year in our counter-factual). They narrowly defeat Cincinnati for the NL West crown (a 4-win upgrade over Landreaux will do that for you), and win the Series. They still fall a game shy of the Braves in ’82 (Landreaux wasn’t any worse than Lemon that year, as it turns out), but a division championship in ’85 and a World Series victory in ’88 make up for a lot of lost time. Lemon is, by ’88, no longer a leadoff hitter, but is still a leader of the Dodgers, having been there for all their success in their most fruitful decade since the ’50s. A beloved figure in Hollywood, Lemon is nearly able to complete a storybook final season, helping the Dodgers within four of the division-winning Reds, but not quite starting off the ’90s with a bang.
Following his blood illness that ended his Major League career (real life: Lemon entered Spring Training 1991 with the Tigers; a blood disorder, polycythemia vera, nearly took his life), Lemon was even more embraced by Hollywoodland. Briefly, when his illness was at its worst and with pressure from (and on) the media considerable, he was considered for early induction into the Hall of Fame. He rallied, though, and sailed into the Hall of Fame, remembered with Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, and Tim Raines as one of the best leadoff men of the greatest era for leadoff men in history – the 1980s. As the only prominent BBWAA player new to the ballot in 1996 (top new player was Bob Boone, receiving 7% of the vote), he sailed into induction into the Hall of Fame as the BBWAA’s only inductee that year, a strong, up-the-middle defender and a great all-around hitter on the best franchise of the ’80s, the LA Dodgers.
The only major change to consider to his playing record? Lemon, for his career, scored runs relative to batting in runs at a ratio of roughly 2.25:1. Keeping constant the idea that (R+RBI)~H, we will credit him instead with 1413 R and only 628 RBI in his career (he has 1857 R+RBI in real life; we’ll up that by 10% to 2043; then we make the ratio 2.25:1 for R:RBI – his real-life ratio as a leadoff hitter, and not that strange; Henderson sported a 2.06:1 ratio). Those 1413 runs would, to this day, rank 93rd all-time – and at the time of his retirement following the 1990 season, he would’ve ranked #59 – yet another thing lauded among his many Hall of Fame credentials as a star on a big-time, successful team. Over 50 of the people who ranked ahead of him on the runs leaderboard at the time of his (imaginary) induction are in the Hall.
So, what do you think? Chet Lemon for the Hall of Fame… it’s not too hard to imagine, is it?