The Tigers have had a rich history of center fielders who played excellent defense, but no outfield anchor was more well-rounded than Chet Lemon. Lemon spent nine seasons patrolling the outfield of Tigers Stadium while hitting for a 117 OPS+, the highest figure since a guy named Cobb was on the team. He was a key member of the 1984 World Series champions and the 1987 team that won the AL East, and now rounds out the top 30 of out countdown.
*Played for the Chicago White Sox from 1975 to 1981.
Chester Earl Lemon was born on February 12th, 1955 in Jackson, Mississippi. He moved to California during his childhood and played at Fremont High School, a Los Angeles powerhouse that regularly churned out big league talent during that era. He was drafted by the Oakland Athletics in the first round of the 1972 amateur draft. In 1975, Lemon was traded to the Chicago White Sox. He made his big league debut later that season as a third baseman, hitting .257/.297/.314 in 38 plate appearances.
While Lemon had impressed the White Sox with his speed, bat, and arm strength, they were skeptical about his ability to play third base at the major league level. He had 126 errors in just over 350 games in the infield in the minors, and was converted to the outfield in Spring Training of 1976. The move didn't pay off early on, as Lemon struggled his way to a -0.1 WAR season in 132 games that year, including seven runs below average defensively.
Things would turn around swiftly for Lemon, however. He hit .273/.343/.459 with 19 home runs and 99 runs scored in 1977 and made a pair of All-Star teams in 1978 and '79. Lemon was worth at least 3.9 WAR in every season from 1977 to 1981, including two seasons of 5+ WAR. The 1981 season was Lemon's most productive year offensively, though a strike shortened his playing time to just 94 games. He hit .302/.384/.491 and led the league with 13 hit-by-pitches, a stat that would become one of Lemon's calling cards throughout his career.
After the 1981 season, the White Sox traded Lemon to the Tigers for outfielder Steve Kemp. The two put up similar numbers in 1982, though Kemp played in 35 more games. Originally slated to be the Tigers' leadoff hitter, he was moved down in the order later in the season. He primarily hit fifth in 1983, slugging a career high 24 home runs at the expense of a .255 batting average, the second-worst average of his career at the time. Despite the poor average, he still got on base at a 35% clip and accumulated 5.6 WAR.
Lemon's best season came in 1984. He hit .287/.357/.495 with 20 home runs and 76 RBI and put up a career best 6.2 WAR in 141 games. He was one of three Tigers to start in the All-Star game that year. His performance in the ALCS against the Kansas City Royals was largely forgettable -- he went hitless in 13 at-bats -- but fans still remember a spectacular over-the-shoudler catch Lemon made in Game 3 of the World Series despite there being no video of said catch online.
Lemon's production declined slightly over the next four seasons, but he still put up at least 3.0 WAR from 1985 to 1987 before his defensive numbers slumped in 1988. He also remained very durable, playing at least 140 games in three of those four seasons, and was one of the more popular players on the team, leading to amazing promos like this one.
After a severe drop in his numbers in 1989 and 1990, the Tigers released Lemon during Spring Training of 1991. He was found to have polycythemia vera, a rare blood condition that typically doesn't affect people until older age. He spent a few months in the hospital, but was able to make a full recovery and went on to coach high school baseball after his retirement.
Lemon is widely considered to be the best center fielder the Tigers have seen since Ty Cobb, and the numbers support this claim. He ranks second to Cobb in WAR and is first in Tigers' history with just under 4.0 defensive WAR in his career. As mentioned above, Lemon's batting stance led him to get hit by pitches very often. He led the American League four times during his career and is tied for second in franchise history with 87 hit by pitches.