Editor’s note: I’m honored to feature a guest post from Cyril Morong. An economics professor at San Antonio College and a sabermetrician, Cyril runs the superb Cybermetrics baseball blog. Today, he focuses on an eternally underrated ballplayer.
Chet Lemon, centerfielder for the White Sox in the late 1970s and for the Tigers in the 1980s, is one of the most underrated players of all time.
But underrated by whom and by how much? I recently tried to estimate this. More on that later. The baseball writers, by voting for Most Valuable Player and for the Hall of Fame, create a rating for players. And this shows us how poorly Lemon was rated.
He has the highest career Wins Above Replacement of any position player to never get any votes for MVP. Dan Hirsch compiled these numbers. Here are the top five:
- Chet Lemon 55.3
- Jason Kendall 41.5
- Ron Fairly 35.2
- Frank White 34.7
- Jeff Cirillo 34.4
Lemon has a pretty big lead of the next player, Kendall. This is despite four top 10 finishes in WAR including 1984, when his Tigers came in first place in the AL East.
To see the explanation of my work on estimating “underratedness” by correlating career MVP shares with career WAR, go here.
I ranked players by how far above or below the trend they were. If a player got more MVP shares than his WAR predicted, he was considered overrated. If he got less, he was underrated. To see the complete list, go here.
Lemon is the 13th most underrated player out of 810 going back to 1931 when the baseball writers first had their MVP award. That is, his actual MVP shares were much lower than expected, given the overall voting patterns.
He is 142nd all-time in career WAR among position players and he received just one vote for the Hall of Fame in 1996. That gave him less than 5 percent in his first year of eligibility, so he dropped off the ballot after that.
I also compared WAR to first year Hall of Fame vote percentage for all position players since 1966. Before 1960, players sometimes received votes while they were still playing or before they had been retired for five years. For players who retired after 1960, this generally was not a problem. Further explanation of this research can be found here.
Lemon was the 26th most underrated out of 430 players. Again, I ranked players by how far above or below the trend they were. Lemon’s vote percentage was far below what we would expect given the relationship that it has with WAR. . To see the complete list, go here.
So in both MVP voting and Hall of Fame voting, Lemon did very poorly for a player of his caliber. I have not done much prior analysis of MVP voting, but I have so for the Hall of Fame. Lemon’s poor showing there is not a big surprise.
My research indicates that milestones like 3,000 hits and 500 HRs matter along with all-star appearances and Gold Glove awards (there are other factors, too.)
Lemon won no Gold Glove awards (despite finishing in the top 10 in defensive WAR three times) and was only named to the all-star team 3 times. According to Lemon’s SABR biography, his career was cut short by a blood disorder, polycythemia vera.
So he was done at age 35. He still played in 1,988 games. But he did not even reach 2,000 hits. He had a good OBP for his era, .355. The league average was.328. Back then, however, OBP was not widely seen as being important.
He also got a good bit of that OBP from getting hit by 151 pitches. He led the league four times and was in the top 5 five other times. Not counting his HBPs, his OBP was .342. Still good for his era, but not something MVP voters would notice. And voters probably did not get wowed by HBPs.
He had good power, hitting 215 HRs and 396 2Bs. The average player would have had 177 & 315. Voters back then probably were not aware of how valuable it was to be well above average in both power and getting on base. His solid but unimpressive .273 career batting average probably did not impress many. He also only stole 58 bases in his career.
Lemon is one of only five outfielders to record 500+ putouts in a season (along with Taylor Douthit, Richie Ashburn, Dwayne Murphy and Dom DiMaggio). Lemon finished in the top 5 in OF putouts 7 times.
It seems like at least one writer should have noticed him catching all those balls, getting on base frequently and hitting for power for some pretty good teams. When he first came to the White Sox in a trade at the end of the 1975 season at the age of 20, he played 3B. I remember seeing an enthusiastic, hustling player who would add a spark to the White Sox. He seemed like a fan favorite. One banner often held up in the stands of old Comiskey Park in Chicago said “Chet’s no lemon.”
Too bad some voters didn’t see it that way. Lemon clearly deserves more recognition that he got.