I’d never heard of Vern Stephens until a couple days ago. Most people under 60 probably haven’t. He was a very good shortstop for the St. Louis Browns and Red Sox during the 1940s and 50s. A rare power-hitting middle infielder, leading the league in home runs one year and hitting 39 another. Baseball casts its legends in bronze, but merely pretty excellent guys get lost to history. He came up because, according to Baseball-Reference, he is the closest comparison by age to Francisco Lindor. Whether or not it means something, the extensive history of the game gives us a tool to look back, in hopes of learning what to see going forward.
Of course the game is constantly changing. A fan from the ‘40s that watched a game in 2017 would be blown away by pitch velocities, the size of players, the utter lack of small ball. And the minorities, of course. Why, if trends continue the way they’ve been going, we may well live in a world where baseball is just home runs, walks and strikeouts. Fielders will all be in the outfield, seven feet tall with arms to match in an effort to rob home runs. But when Stephens debuted, some things were eerily similar to now. As Stephens’ Society for American Baseball Research article puts it:
The 1940s witnessed a special group of major league shortstops, including the likes of Lou Boudreau, Phil Rizzuto, Marty Marion, Pee Wee Reese and Johnny Pesky. During his own career, Vern “Junior” Stephens was considered to be as good or better than any of his illustrious peers
The article goes on to mention that Stephens is largely remembered, by those who do remember him, as a one-dimensional slugger, overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. Which, as the article states, is an unfair evaluation. Suffice to say, he’s glossed over because of the fame and might that his peers possessed. That might happen with Lindor, who knows. He led all shortstops in WAR this year, but one wonders if his ceiling is simply lower than the other guys. Carlos Correa is probably going to make another leap into the MVP sphere. Corey Seager is there already. Manny Machado will find his way back to short sooner rather than later, and if he ends up in New York he’s going to have the engine of the national media behind him. If Tribe fans get their wish and Lindor stays in Cleveland forever, he will be at a fame disadvantage simply by virtue of his location and team resources. In the ever-growing mess of media outlets and inputs we have pouring at us in the social media age, one has to hope he won’t be forgotten in the shuffle. How you could forget that smile is beyond me, but some things defy logic.
Stephens even followed a track that people dread for Lindor. After six years with the Browns he moved to Boston, which even then was a much richer, better market. Though, unlike what could happen with Lindor, this was purely a sale by the Browns to the Red Sox. As Milwaukee Beers star Joe Cooper once put iPlayers back were treated like indentured servants. Unions, man. Who knows what could have been for Stephens if he’d been able to choose his own future.
I don’t know if calling Stephens’ career a harbinger for or teaching tool about Lindor is right, but there’s hints of what the Tribe shortstop could do, what we could expect out of him. Stephens was a 45 win player, playing 15 years for four different teams. Watching Lindor already you start thinking about enshrinement in Cooperstown, even if he’s been merely very, very good. After all, he’s only 24. Seeing a shortstop bop 32 homers and make the plays he does makes you dream, but you never know what comes in the future. After all, Stephens had a dynamic start to his career — nearly 17 WAR before he turned 25 — but once 30 hit everything went downhill from injury and, as SABR put it, being a “a considerable partier”. Lindor being such a bon vivant, it’s pretty likely he’s just high on life 24/7 and has no need of vice.
But that doesn’t mean the future doesn’t hold dark days. Fate strikes all men when they least suspect it. Even just this past year Mike Trout was felled in the midst of his greatest season. Luckily for Lindor, he lives in a time where you could probably have your arm detach from the body and just miss a season, maybe a bit of spring training the next year. If 2017 is what he does and little more, he’s a latter day Stephens, and a great player. He’d fall far short of Boudreau but he could still be called the second best shortstop in Indians history. Something a bit more legendary would be cool of course. Who knows what the future holds though.
So I had never heard of Vern Stephens until a couple days ago, and that feels too bad. Players like him, while not few and far between, certainly aren’t common. I bet there were quite a few kids in St. Louis and Boston who immitated his swing, watched his every move and hung on every word. He was a star to some, even if he was never a true great. A very good player in the midst of a host of legends. Those Similarity Scores B-Ref has are highly unscientific and little more than a snapshot. Still, it’s a neat glance into what a future could hold for Lindor. It’s hard to call a career .815 OPS, 45 wins and nearly 250 home runs from a shortstop anything short of a success really, even if you had higher hopes of the player that injected unbridled enthusiasm back into Cleveland baseball. Lindor has already made a place for himself among Indians fans, hopefully the rest of the world won’t forget him as the years wind on like they have Stephens.