Make Me a Hall-of-Famer – Chet Lemon

Chet Lemon swings for the fences

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:

A.) had a .363 OBP in a league that had a .329 OBP in that span, and
B.) was basically a league-average baserunner (so it’s not like he was a Jim Thome or Willie Stargell who would clog up the bases)

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?

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Tom Ra
Tom Ra
3 months ago

Very enjoyable read. Oh, it would have been so nice to see Lemon in Dodger blue in the 80s. Everyone always raved about what a beautiful swing Kenny Landreaux had, but he always hit .260 with no power. And it always seemed that balls fell in just out of his reach. But, there would have been an obstacle to Lemon batting leadoff: Tommy LaSorda. Tommy always wanted a speed guy in the leadoff spot. In the late 70s, he had one of the best in the game in Davey Lopes. He had a big year in 79 – 4.7 WAR,… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom Ra

I don’t disagree with you in principle that Lasorda would never have hit Lemon leadoff; I definitely agree. But that was part of the fun: you make what’s best for the individual player. It would’ve made sense, even if it’s not real. As for your thought about the “80s Dodgers,” here’s what I’d say: of the guys you name, only Valenzuela was actually on ALL incarnations of the ’80s Dodgers. In this counterfactual hypothetical, I’m hoping/imagining that Lemon would get more credit as one of the staples of the team, having begun his tenure with the team before 1980, and… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Doom,
How about making 60+ WAR guy Mark Buehrle a Hall of Famer? I know that 60 WAR is supposed to be the threshold but, I never thought he was destined for Cooperstown nor was I watching a Hall of Famer during the course of his career

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Funny you should mention that…

I just read this on Monday. I don’t have a problem either way with Buehrle in regard to Cooperstown. I’m probably biased a little too much toward peak (for example, I’d much rather see Johan Santana in the Hall than Buehrle), but I wouldn’t really have a problem with him there. I suspect there are a lot of people who would’ve said the same about Don Sutton or somebody, but that’s how careers go sometimes.

Doug
Doug
3 months ago

Notwithstanding his OBP, Lemon had too much power and not enough speed to be a leadoff hitter in the ’70s and ’80s. when stolen bases were a big deal. That’s not to say it was right for teams to place so much focus on the stolen base, just that that’s what teams did and a guy who didn’t steal bases wasn’t going to be hitting leadoff. For the seasons you mentioned (1977-87), 31.7% of AL stolen bases were courtesy of the leadoff hitter, and almost 20% of sacrifice bunts were from the 2 spot (many, no doubt, after the leadoff… Read more »

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Again, I don’t disagree that he probably wouldn’t have been used this way; the point is just that, had he been, there’s a stronger Hall of Fame argument. And, again, he wasn’t a bad baserunner or anything; essentially league-average over the 11-year span I was talking about. But, if it’s STILL a bridge too far for you to go, I’ll offer up an alternative. If we stick to that same 11-year peak span, he needs an additional 587 PAs at his usual rate of Rbat to get his number up to snuff. That’s 53 per year; or, in other terms,… Read more »

Doug
Doug
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

I get your point. But, I think the HOF argument is even stronger if the adjustments you make are ones that can actually be imagined happening (and, as you point out, more realistic changes to his batting order position still get him to the 60 WAR plateau).

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago

Interesting that Lemon didn’t get a single vote for MVP despite finishing second in WAR on the 1984 WS champs.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

An interesting note on 1984 AL MVP voting: The 1984 AL MVP race, such as it was, is often considered one of the most unusual or puzzling of all-time. It’s lumped in with the Fingers win in ’81 and the Eckersley win in ’92 as “one of those times the voters got carried away and elected a closer in the AL.” That seems to be and understandable position, and one that was oddly unique to the American League. (The NL has still never elected a closer as MVP, while the AL has had this whole bunch.) But here’s where things… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Yeah, Hernandez was unconscious – I believe w/o a blown save. The Phillies managed to trade three (3 !) 1984 MVP’s
1) Hernandez
2) Sandberhg
3) Al Sanchez – Pacific Coast League .318 26 108 w/34 SB at Phoenix in the Giants’ chain.

in 1984, Jack Morris did manage 2.5 WAR to go with his 19 Wins in 35 starts and 240 IP. I wonder if this “Make Me a Hall of Famer” exercise would have ever worked for Morris. Oooops, that’s right – he IS a Hall of Famer!!!!

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

First of all, amazing joke. Second of all, I actually decided to take a quick gander at Morris’s record, to see if I thought it really would be possible to get him there. I… kind of doubt it. Back-of-the-envelope calculations? I can get him to 50-some WAR with some adjustments. But honestly, the best way to go is to use a FIP-based WAR, like at Fangraphs. Then make a couple quick changes, like having him gradually learn how to strike batters out, instead of just magically having strikeouts appear at age-28, and you might be able to get him to… Read more »

Doug
Doug
3 months ago

Lemon had one of the more unusual defensive seasons in 1977, leading CFers in putouts and assists, and leading all OFers in range factor and total zone runs, all while committing12 errors, third highest among all OFers. WAR seems to have forgiven him the errors, with 18 rField and 2.0 dWAR. My guess is more than a few of those errors were from getting to but not cleanly fielding gappers that would have gotten past most outfielders.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug

I feel certain that your hypothesis is correct; and even if it isn’t – even if ALL those errors occurred on playable balls, it would seem to me that he certainly more-than made up for it with the extras he got to. As to the unusual-ness of the season, though… I actually don’t think that’s all that unusual. It makes sense to me that the guys who get to the most balls will commit the most errors. Since 1948 (so 72 years, so 144 league-seasons), it’s happened 21 times that the centerfielder who led the league in Range Factor also… Read more »

Doug
Doug
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Good reasoning, Doom. Makes sense.

Voomo
Voomo
3 months ago

A lot to unpack here. I’ll point one thing out right now.
In his only year on the HOF ballot, 1996, nobody was elected. Tough crowd. And Lemon received just one vote.

Here’s how the voters considered Lemon vs his WAR equivalents:

309 … 54.0 … Tony Perez
051 … 54.2 … Vada Pinson
050 … 57.6 … Joe Torre
024 … 57.9 … Bobby Bonds
001 … 55.6 … Chester Lemon

I suppose it hurt his case that WAR wasn’t yet a thing.

Doug
Doug
3 months ago
Reply to  Voomo

Perez had the 2700 hits, 500 doubles, 350 HR, 1500 RBI. Looks pretty impressive, when counting stats and basic rate stats are all you have to go by. That said, Palmeiro and Bonds’s son are the only Hall-eligible players with those stats who are not yet enshrined.

“Betcha didn’t know” Perez stat: his .328 BA at age 43 is tops among the 18 seasons since 1901 of 200+ PA by players that old or older.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Plus, there were the 7 All-Star games for Perez, compared to 9 for Torre, 4 (in two seasons) for Pinson, and 3 each for Bonds and Lemon. Beyond Perez’s counting stats, he basically had team success everywhere: 23 seasons in the big leagues, only 5 losing seasons; 5 second-place finishes; 6 postseason appearances (7, if not for the 1-4 slide to end the season for the ’79 Expos); 5 World Series appearances In an era in which there was no internet, those extra exposures to the national audience would certainly cement him in the public consciousness. Again, compare to the… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Perez may have had the greatest teammates in the history of the sport?
1B Rose
2B Morgan
3B Schmidt
RF F. Robinson
C Bench
CF Vada Pinson
LF Ken Griffey
DH George Foster
SS Concepcion, Cardenas, Bowa

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

You’re not really wrong; actually, this would make for an AMAZINGLY fun game. My first entry, for your consideration, is someone with a weaker infield/catching, but stronger outfield and MUCH stronger pitching. Here’s Mark Koenig: C Wally Schang, Gus Mancuso, 1B Lou Gehrig*, Bill Terry* (Terry as DH) 2B Charlie Gehringer*, Tony Lazzeri* 3B Travis Jackson* SS Dick Bartell (or himself) LF Mel Ott CF Earle Combs RF Babe Ruth P Carl Hubbell*, Waite Hoyt*, Herb Pennock*, Urban Shocker, Tommy Bridges, Dolf Luque, George Uhle, Dutch Ruether Lineup: Gehringer, Combs, Ruth, Gehrig, Ott, Terry, Jackson, Schang, Bartell/Koenig. Hall of Famer… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

….too many LH hitters 🙂

Mike L
Mike L
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Ruth, in particular, struggled against Lefties. in 2532 PA, .326/.459/.679 with 305 EBH.

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike L

Geeze, downright human…..only ~76 EBH/year

Doug
Doug
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Forget Schang and Mancuso. Koenig was a teammate of Gabby Hartnett and Ernie Lombardi.

And, I’d take Stan Hack as my third baseman, as Jackson was a shortstop for most of his career. Hack is the career OPS+ leader for live ball era players with ISO under .100 in 5000+ PA.

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Stan Hack (and Eddie Yost) has been overlooked forever

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Great catch(es), Doug! Point is, Mark Koenig is going to be tough to beat.

In a happy coincidence, over at Bill James’ website. Someone just pointed out that Dick Schofield had a bunch of Hall of Fame teammates. Rogers Hornsby and Frankie Frisch (with a wink and a nudge) were also mentioned as having bunches of Hall of Fame teammates.

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

the 1927 (’28?) Giants had a ton of Hall of Famers as well as the ’27 and ’28 A’s…. I imagine somebody had to play for both teams? But, there wasn’t a lot of inter-league trading going on in those days

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

I got to Koenig hoping there was overlap with ALL of the ’20s Yankees and A’s, as well as the ’30s Giants. I was thinking that might be a fruitful time period and situation.

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Tris Speaker was teammates of the following at some point in his career:

2B Collins
SS Sewell
CF Cobb; Hooper
RF Ruth
1B Foxx
LF Simmons; Goslin; Sam Rice
C Cochrane
3B Larry Gardner
P Grove, Mays, Coveleski, Wood

Doug
Doug
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Jim Kaat didn’t play on many great teams (he went to the post-season only 4 times in a 25 year career), but has a nice collection of HoF and HoVG teammates:
SP – Bert Blyleven, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter
RP – Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter
C – Thurman Munson, Gene Tenace
1B – Harmon Killebrew, Pete Rose
2B – Rod Carew
3B – Mike Schmidt, Ron Santo
SS – Ozzie Smith
LF – Dave Winfield, Bob Allison
CF – Chet Lemon
RF – Reggie Jackson, Tony Oliva
DH – Dick Allen

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug

I didn’t actually make the teams, but I find it incredibly odd that Nolan Ryan and Tommy John, players of roughly the same age who pitched for roughly the same number of franchises over roughly the same number of seasons, would be worse at… I think every position, relative to Jim Kaat. Seems like some random variation in there would’ve made their teams all about equal. Ballparking it (and without any serious study of the issue), I think Ryan’s team would be the worst of the bunch – but he makes up for it in comparison to the other two… Read more »

Doug
Doug
3 months ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Another amusing diversion with long career players is determining their “career span”, the range of seasons covered by a player’s teammates or opponents. For the three you mentioned, I think it’s: Kaat – 68 years from Ted Williams or Early Wynn (1939) to Julio Franco (2007) John – 73 years from Early Wynn (1939) to Omar Vizquel or Jamie Moyer (2012)* Ryan – 62 years from Bob Friend (1951) to Darren Oliver (2013)** * Did not appear in a game with any of them, but was teammate of Wynn and was on the same dugout lineup card as Vizquel and… Read more »

CursedClevelander
CursedClevelander
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

I wonder what kind of team Kenny Lofton would have. He gets, roughly chronologically: Starters: Curt Schilling, Jack Morris!, Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, C.C. Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, Mark Buerhle, Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown Closers: Jose Mesa, Mark Wohlers, Mike Jackson, Keith Foulke, Robb Nen, Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Eric Gagne, Rafael Betancourt C: Sandy Alomar Jr., Jorge Posada, Victor Martinez 1B/DH: Jeff Bagwell, Fred McGriff, Richie Sexson, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Eddie Murray, Ryan Howard, Travis Hafner, Mark Teixeira, Jason Giambi 2B: Craig Biggio, Roberto Alomar, Carlos Baerga, Jeff Kent, Chase Utley,… Read more »

Doug
Editor
3 months ago

Shoutout to Lofton’s Pirate teammate Jason Kendall, who I think is too often overlooked.
– 9 seasons catching 140+ games, two more seasons than any other catcher
– one of 5 players to catch 2000 games
– one of 8 catchers with 1000 runs and 2000 hits
– career .366 OBP ranks 6th among 33 players with 1500 games caught

CursedClevelander
CursedClevelander
3 months ago
Reply to  Doug

That’s true, Kendall is definitely overlooked – it’s a shame that injury took away his speed, because before that he was also stealing bases like no other catcher in history.

Gary Bateman
Gary Bateman
3 months ago
Reply to  Paul E

Actually Perez played with Barry Larkin and Carl Yastrzemski, which would be an upgrade from the shortstop trio and the older Griffey. Another possibility is Andre Dawson instead of Pinson.

Paul E
Paul E
3 months ago
Reply to  Gary Bateman

GB,
Great point(s). All are an upgrade