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Switch Hitting, Righthanded Throwing Second Baseman
Seasons With Braves: 1988-1997
Stats With Braves: .248/.319/.327, 32 HR, 263 RBI, 339 RS
Let’s get this out of the way from the beginning: Mark Lemke could not hit. His best season he hit .294/.363/.363, which yields an OPS+ of 89. That year, his OBP was above the league, the only time that happened in his career. He wasn’t that bad at the on-base side in general, but his slugging percentages are anywhere from 70 to 120 points below the league.
In the minors, it looked like Lemmer would be a two-way player. Drafted out of a Utica, NY high school in the 27th round of the 1983 draft, he put up some pretty good numbers in the low minors. He wasn’t quite as good in Greenville and Richmond, but was good enough that there was no reason to think he couldn’t contribute on the major league level. He hit 63 career homers in the minor leagues, 20 at Durham in 1987. He just never hit at the major league level.
He got his first callup in 1988, and another brief callup in 1989. In 1990, he stuck, splitting time between second and third. By this point, it was pretty clear that if he wanted to have a career it would have to be at second and based on his glove.
His glove was special. It’s absurd that Lemke never won a gold glove; he was the best second baseman I’ve ever seen, which is why he’s on this list. He had terrific range, one of the best throwing arms at the position, turned the double play with the best of them, and almost never made an error. In Win Shares, Bill James gives A+ ratings to only five postwar second basemen. Lemke is in that group. He was like an order of magnitude better than the rest of the league, but they decided to give four gold gloves in a row to Craig Biggio instead. One year they gave it to Robby Thompson. If you can explain that as anything but winning it with your bat, be my guest.
Anyway, in 1991 Lemke was a key to the renaissance. He or Belliard was almost always on the field, and late with a lead usually both of them were. With Pendleton and Bream, the Braves had three or four top defensive players on the infield at all times, and the pitching staff, Glavine in particular, got a huge break on balls in play. With a lead late, you were in great shape; anything on the ground was probably an out. Basically, Bobby platooned at both infield positions, Lemmer with Jeff Treadway and Belliard with Jeff Blauser. Lemke was a better hitter righthanded, so it made a certain amount of sense that he’d be a righthanded platoon player; he maybe should have ditched the switch-hitting, or better yet never taken it up.
He usually got on the field sooner or later; he had just 269 AB in 1991 but played in 136 games, 110 at second base. He’s well known for his heroics in the 1991 World Series, where he probably would have been the MVP if the Braves had pulled it out. He played well in the 1992 and 1996 NLCS as well, but his overall postseason batting line isn’t much better than his regular season line.
In 1992, he was more or less the regular second baseman, Treadway relegated to spot duty and pinch-hitting. From 1993 to 1996 he was in the lineup every day when healthy and should have been winning the Gold Glove, but I’ve talked about that already. In 1997 he missed a lot of time with injuries and was eventually shut down; also his hitting had gotten even worse. Tony Graffanino took most of his playing time. Lemmer left the Braves as a free agent for a brief, depressing stint with the Red Sox. After 31 games he hung up his spikes: he was born to be a Brave.