The Hall of Fame Case for Lou Whitaker
On Sunday, December 8, the Modern Baseball Era committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which includes candidates whose primary contributions to baseball came between 1970-87, will vote on candidates for the 2020 induction class. Between now and then we will take a look at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness.
Next up: Lou Whitaker
The case for his induction:
Here’s a thing I didn’t know until just a few years ago: before Jack Morris and Alan Trammell were elected to the Hall of Fame in December 2017, the 1984 Tigers and the 1981 Dodgers were the only two World Series champions who do not have a player in the Hall of Fame. The 1981 Dodgers seem to be permanently out of luck, but those Bless You Boys Tigers have a chance to gain three in the space of two years. And they dang well should get that third player in Lou Whitaker.
Whitaker, infamously, received only 2.9 percent of the vote when he first appeared on the ballot in 2001, knocking him off that ballot for good after just one year. The insult was compounded when, in 2017 -- the last time the Modern Baseball Era Committee dealt with this current era -- Whitaker wasn’t even included on the dang ballot. For that you can blame the BBWAA too, as an “oversight committee” of that guild was responsible for coming up with nominees.
This despite the fact that Whitaker more than deserves induction.
Whitaker had a career WAR of 75.1, which is seventh all time for second basemen. The six men in front of him -- Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Napoleon Lajoie, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, and Charlie Gehringer -- are all Hall of Famers. Many behind him, including Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Almoar, Craig Biggio, Nellie Fox, Joe Gordon, and Bobby Doerr are Hall of Famers. The average WAR for Hall of Fame second baseman is 69.4. Lou Whitaker is above average compared to all Hall of Fame second baseman and not only has he not been elected, he was a one-and-done with the BBWAA and was literally left off the ballot when they could have given him a second chance.
Beyond WAR, Whitaker played for 19 seasons, winning the Rookie of the Year award, making five All-Star teams, winning three Gold Gloves and winning the Silver Slugger award four times. He finished his career with a line of .276/.363/.426, which translates to a 117 OPS+, which was outstanding for a second baseman of his era. Or any era. Chase Utley retired with an OPS+ of 117, for example. Heck, it’s a good OPS+ for non-second basemen too. Think Matt Stairs (117), Adrián Beltré (116), Charlie Blackmon (116), Carlton Fisk (117), Jesse Barfield (117), Pete Rose (118), Ted Simmons (118) and many, many others.
That plus, with a nod to Sandberg, he was no worse than the second best defensive second baseman of his era and was the best in his league, he was the leadoff batter on a World Series winning team and -- as a thing that Hall of Fame voters normally consider a cherry on top for candidates -- he played with the same team for his entire career.
Is there a case for Lou Whitaker for the Hall of Fame? My God, man, he’s overqualified. He should’ve been elected years and years ago.
The case against his induction:
Before we get to the actual argument, such as it is, against his induction, let’s look at why Lou Whitaker was so overlooked in the past.
During Whitaker’s career the things he did best -- get on base, hit for good power for his position, and play outstanding defense -- were not judged in the same way as they are now and, frankly, were judged pretty poorly.
- Everyone back in the 70s or 80s -- or even as late as 2001, the year he appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot -- would agree that being on base is better than making outs, but far more weight was placed on batting average back then and far too little weight was placed on walks. Whitaker batted only .276 for his career and cracked .300 in a full season only once. His on-base percentage, however, was a fantastic .363 for his career;
- Everyone back in the 70s and 80s would agree that that hitting home runs was a good thing but second baseman were not expected to hit home runs. Whitaker hit 20+ homers four times back when hitting 20 homers was an actual accomplishment. For weird reasons that make absolute no sense now, that was seen less of added value for middle infielders than it was seen as an unnecessary component of their resumes. Like French language skills for a fry cook in Tulsa;
- Everyone back in the 70s and 80s would agree that catching everything hit your way, effortlessly turning double plays and making strong steady throws all the dang time defined great second base defense, but for some reason the guys who were considered the best defensive players back then were always the guys who dove for stuff or made whatever passed for highlight reel plays of the day. With that came little acknowledgment that a great many defensive dives and slick plays are a function of players getting to balls late and having to do something fancy as opposed to making it look effortless. Heck, people still think that. If you doubt it, go read something in Hall of Fame columns about Derek Jeter making jump-throws which neglect to mention that truly good shortstops don’t need to do that.
All of which is to say: a second baseman with pop, patience or outstanding but unsexy defensive ability was almost guaranteed to be discounted by the biases of the era, and Whitaker’s game hit all three of those things harder than just about anyone else. He was destined to be an invisible man when he hit the ballot before people’s minds started to expand about such things.
Oh, and it didn’t help that there were six future Hall of Famers on the 2001 ballot off of which Whitaker fell: Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett were elected that year and Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage, Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven would make it in subsequently. Also on the ballot were guys on this and previous year’s Modern Baseball Era ballots such as Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Tommy John, Steve Garvey, and Don Mattingly. 2001 was not a great year to be on that ballot if you had unappreciated skills.
Like I said, none of that constitutes an argument against Whitaker’s induction as much as it explains why he was not inducted. As for arguments against him, here’s the most I can muster:
- Whitaker had a long, steady career, but did not have an identifiable peak during which anyone argued that he was the best or among the best players in the game. Outside of a few votes thrown his way in 1983, Whitaker didn’t get any MVP love;
- The only thing he ever led the league in was games played, and that was in the strike-shortened 1981 season;
- He didn’t miss too much time with injury, but he did have some bangs that cost him, with his otherwise excellent 1988 season consisting of only 115 games.
Normally that peak/black ink thing would be a big blow to a Hall of Fame case, but not so much with second baseman who, again, are not expected to be the best offensive players on your team. It can happen, though, as Whitaker’s contemporary, the Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, can attest. It helps to be The Man on a playoff team like Sandberg was in 1984. It can hurt to be one of many Men on a very deep and very balanced playoff team like Whitaker was in 1984 and 1987.
If your Hall of Fame standard is “I only want the best of the best -- the guys who we can call immortals -- in the Hall of Fame,” then sure, Lou Whitaker is probably not your man. Of course, the actual Hall of Fame’s actual standard is not and never has been that. The standard it does have -- the top 17-25 men at every defensive position are in -- then Whitaker absolutely belongs. Heck, even if you say the Hall messed up, like, 8-10 of those calls per position and thus the bar should not be so low, Whitaker still belongs.
Would I vote for him?
If you don’t know the answer to that after reading this far I can’t help you.
Will the Committee vote for him?
Umpires do makeup calls. People love good stories. For those reasons, I think Lou Whitaker has got a really good chance.
The makeup call factor is clear: everyone knows the BBWAA messed this up and almost everyone knows that Whitaker was jobbed. I think a lot of folks on that committee will look at him differently than previous voters did, both as far as looking at his whole game the way I outlined above and by looking at all that has been said about his being overlooked in the past.
As for a good story, we can’t ignore the man whose name I mentioned at the top of this post: Alan Trammell.
There has long been this notion floating around that Trammell -- himself bypassed for years and years -- and Whitaker belonged in the Hall of Fame together. They were joined at the hip in their careers, serving as the best and longest-tenured double play combination in baseball history. While neither ever won an MVP -- Trammell was robbed in 1987 -- they led the Tigers to the 1984 World Series title and the 1987 AL East crown, and served as the heart and soul of a Tigers team that finished above .500 for 11 straight years during their primes. They both retired as Tigers and never played an inning for another team. The sentimental take was that, while neither was in the Hall of Fame, history should be made right and they should be put in the Hall of Fame together, with the two of them riding across the stage at Cooperstown on a tandem bicycle to collect their plaques (I think Jay Jaffe said that bit about the tandem bike first, but if I’m wrong someone let me know).
Baseball history felt wrong without those two in the Hall of Fame. Trammell was elected in 2017 and inducted in 2018. Since then history, while better for his inclusion, has felt imbalanced. It’s time to fix that. It’s time to make baseball history right again. It’s time for Lou Whitaker to be in the Hall of Fame.
I think the Modern Baseball Era Committee will make it right on Sunday.