The end of the baseball season has passed. They are no games to watch today, nor will there be for many more days to come. We fill the time by “rosterbating,” fantasizing about what our favorite (or any) teams will do this offseason to make their squad better. There will be debates in bars, emails exchanged, and a slew of articles written on these subjects. We are forever looking forward, for that is the only place optimism lives. I however, find great joy in the past. I use the offseason to catch up on the mountain of baseball books I purchased during the season, but never got around to reading. I try to learn more about players and managers and teams and seasons that I was not around for, or was too young or careless to properly observe. I thought this would be a good thing to share (note: I also thought this would be a good excuse to start writing more). So I’m starting a little project called Lost Seasons. I’m not sure where it will lead, but I’m excited to find out.
When one is in the position of a famous person, their fame can hinge either on a single event, or a series of them. Barry Bonds is famous for, well, a lot of things, but his fame is certainly spanning. He was one of the league’s very best for a good number of years. Roger Maris, on the other hand, is remembered for only one thing, really. Sure, he was an above-average player for a number of seasons, but had he hit only 50 home runs in 1961, we’d certainly remember Roger Maris very differently. Both Bonds and Maris are famous in their own right, but for drastically different reasons. But that’s kind of how fame works. In many cases, one is either known for one thing, or a whole lot of things. Vanilla Ice vs. Johnny Cash. Kim Kardashian vs. Audrey Hepburn. Andy Warhol vs. Mr. Brainwash. In baseball, we celebrate the legends. But there is joy to be found in the one-hit wonders.
Fred Lynn gets a bad rap as a one-hit wonder. His 1975 rookie season is one of lore, and rightfully so. Since Lynn, only one other player has won the MVP, Rookie of the Year, and a Gold Glove in the same season – Ichiro. But this wasn’t Lynn’s only accomplishment. Though his career was marred by injury and inconsistency, he certainly had his moments. His rookie campaign was one of those moments. 1979 was another. He may have caught the most attention in 1975, but in 1979, Fred Lynn was the best hitter in baseball.
After his breakout season in 1975, Lynn fell a bit on hard times. His 1976 season began with an extended holdout (he had made only $38,000 – $20,000 of which was a signing bonus – the previous year). While Lynn’s contract dispute loomed, the Red Sox had a disappointing season all together, finishing third in the AL East. Lynn would play just 132 games that year, see his batting average drop 16 points and his home run total decrease by over half. He would, however, end his eight-month contract negotiations with Boston, signing a five-year deal in the beginning of August. He would see his rookie salary more than quintuple over those five years.
Due to lingering issues with an ankle injury, 1977 would see Lynn put up career lows in games played, batting average, and slugging percentage. He would improve in 1978, even cracking the top 25 of MVP voting, but still was not near his stellar production of 1975. He would make his fourth straight All-Star game in 1978, as well as earn his second Gold Glove. However, the Boston fans still let Lynn know on a consistent basis about his disappointing follow-up to such a promising rookie season. It appears as if the pressure may have been getting to Lynn as well, as the usually subdued outfielder was ejected from a game on May 26 for bumping an umpire while disagreeing with a third strike call. The incident would lead to a three-day suspension and a $200 fine. The tension was mounting. Lynn himself told Sports Illustrated "It's as if I no longer know exactly what my capabilities are." The 1978 Red Sox season ended in a one-game playoff loss to the Yankees .
In an effort to improve his stamina and strength, Lynn began an intense workout regimen prior to the 1979 season. He added quite a bit of bulk to his frame. He also made corrections to his swing, going back to a more upward plane. The results would manifest themselves.
By the end of May, Lynn would bat .310, have a .401 OBP, slug .610 and amass 14 home runs. As good of a start as that was, he would pick it up in June and July, hitting at a .351/.433/.638 clip for the two months with 12 more homers. By the season’s end, Lynn would end up with a .333/.423/.637 slash line, leading the AL in all three categories. He would also have a career-high 39 home runs while earning yet another All-Star appearance and Gold Glove. He would surpass the league average OPS by .316. His slugging percentage and OPS in 1979 would be the highest in the AL in the 1970s, while his OBP would rank fourth in that decade. The Red Sox would finish 3rd in the American League East that season, behind the Orioles and Brewers.
Lynn would end the year with an 8.9 rWAR, the highest in the majors. But, surprisingly, he would not finish first in the AL MVP voting. Or second. Or third. By some strange turn of events, the ALs best hitter would end up fourth in MVP voting, losing to the Angels’ Don Baylor. Ken Singleton and George Brett, the second- and third-place finishers, respectively, would also put up better numbers than Baylor. BBWAA writers certainly didn’t work with the transparency they do today, so it’s hard to say exactly why Baylor won, but it most likely had to do with his RBI total. Lynn outslugged Baylor by more than 100 points, and ended the year with more home runs, but Baylor had the edge in RBI 139 to 122, (Baylor also had 20 more stolen bases). It seems that since Baylor had more RBI, even though he was bested by Lynn in every other hitting statistic, the voters viewed him as most valuable. These types of situations, of course, would be a cornerstone for the argument against RBI for the statistical community in the decades to follow. Baylor’s RBI total was, of course, a byproduct of circumstance. Baylor would bat fourth in the Angels lineup, where the 1-3 hitters had a combined .354 on-base percentage. Lynn would bat third for Boston, with the 1-2 hitters combining for a .317 OBP in front of him. Baylor would end up with 258 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, compared to Lynn’s 166. Lynn would actually end up hitting 18 points better than Baylor with runners in scoring position. Baylor was also helped by the fact that his team won the division that season, while Lynn’s team finished third in theirs. California had 88 wins. Boston had 91. The 1979 AL MVP could have just as easily gone to Singleton or Brett as well, but Lynn’s snub seems especially egregious, considering what we know now about player impact on team wins.
The 1970s is not without its head-scratching MVP voting (the 1970 and ’76 seasons come to mind). Fans and voters thought differently then. But perhaps, if Lynn had gotten his due in 1979, he would have been remembered more for that fantastic season, and not just his dynamic debut. Lynn would put up a handful of serviceable seasons after that, most with California and a few with Baltimore, but he would not even sniff the year he had in 1979. When he became eligible, he would never finish with more than 6% of the Hall of Fame vote. But this isn’t a story about a wasted talent or even an MVP snub really. Fred Lynn’s career could have gone an infinite amount of ways – some better, many worse. Let us not focus on what wasn’t. Let us focus on the fact that for one season in Boston, a good player played out of his mind and became a really great player. We love the legends, but sometimes the one- (or two-) hit wonders are pretty cool, too.