Was Lou the greatest 2nd Baseman in history? No. Was he the greatest 2nd Baseman of his era? Also no. My hypothesis, however, is he may be the greatest BBWAA Hall of Fame snub in the last 30 years. He also may have been the best candidate on the 2001 ballot. That being said, the voters have always been especially tough on 2nd basemen when it comes to their first ballot. In fact, only three 2nd basemen in history have ever been inducted on their first try. See if you can name them. (I'll post the answer at the end of the article)
What I found crazy at the time (and still do) is, like Cone, he disappeared after one ballot and garnering a measly 15 votes of support.
So, let's take a look at the Hall of Fame case for Whitaker:
1. All-Star Game Jersey
2. Mixed Postseason Record
3. 71.4 WAR
4. Three Time Gold Glove Winner
6. 1,000 Runs and 1,000 RBIs
7. All-Time Double Play Record
8. Five time (consecutive) All-Star
9. Rookie of the Year Award Winner
10. Leading Off
11. Black Ink - 1, Gray ink - 31, Hall of Fame Monitor - 86, Hall of Fame Standards - 43.
13. Alan Trammell
14. Average Hall of Famer
1. All-Star Game Jersey. Great players typically come with great stories. It's part of the fabric of the game: Babe Ruth's called shot, George Brett's Pine Tar Incident, Nolan Ryan making Robin Ventura pay for charging the mound, Cal Ripken's lap around the stadium to thank fans after besting Lou Gehrig's record streak, etc, are all examples of stories that are almost too good to be true. Sometimes the stories are touching (Ruth hitting a homerun for a sick child), sometimes the stories are hysterical (Anything Yogi Berra has said or didn't say), sometimes the stories are embarrassing (Sammy Sosa's corked bat) and sometimes the stories are just rude (Marichal hitting John Roseboro in the head with a bat). Perhaps one of the strangest stories is the time Lou Whitaker forgot to bring his jersey to the 1985 All-Star game. Whitaker had left a bag in the backseat of his car with his jersey, helmet, hat, glove, and batting gloves. Fortunately, he was able to borrow a helmet from Bert Blyleven, a glove from Cal Ripken, and batting gloves from Damaso Garcia. Trouble was, no one had an extra "Lou Whitaker Jersey" or Tigers hat, so one of the clubhouse folks actually purchased a generic Tigers jersey and cap. Next, they used a black marker to color Whitaker's number "1" on the back. (Pictured above) Today, the jersey sits in one of the most prestigious museums in the country - The Smithsonian. While this moment does not help or hurt his case, it is a part of the Lou Whitaker story. George Brett isn't in the Hall because he famously went ballistic but it really adds a dimension to his story that the numbers can't convey. For Whitaker, forgetting his jersey was unforgettable.
2. Mixed postseason record. There is no denying the 1984 Detroit Tigers were dominant. There is also no denying that Whitaker was a key player on this team. While all that is true, the Tigers only made it to two postseasons during Sweet Lou's career. In his 13 post-season games, he did exactly what a leadoff hitter is supposed to do - he got on base (.350 OBP) and scored runs (13). Aside from that he did very little offensively, hitting just one solo homerun (for his one postseason RBI), stole one base, and hit a measly .206. To be fair, his best post-season series was the '84 World Series where he posted a nice .278/.409/.389 line. I view his mixed postseason record as net neutral. He accomplished the stated purpose of the leadoff hitter but was otherwise unremarkable. In the end his mixed postseason record does not help his case and may hurt it.
3. 71.4 WAR. Next we'll look at career value. Using Wins Above Replacement, there are just 6 secondbasemen with a higher WAR than Whitaker. All 6 are in the Hall of Fame. In fact, 11 of the next 16 are in the Hall. The ones that aren't are either going to be Hall of Famers (Biggio) or have a strong case themselves (Grich, Randolph, Utley, and Kent). Think about it. There are 19 Hall of Famers who played 1,000 or more games at 2B. Whitaker's Wins Above Replacement is better than all but six of them. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that Whitaker may have been the best player on the ballot when he was unceremoniously dumped. Winfield played 22 seasons and ended up with 59.4 WAR in nearly 600 more games. Puckett ended up with 48.2 WAR in his 12 seasons; though in about 600 fewer games than Whitaker. Puckett did average slightly more WAR per season (4.0) than Whitaker (3.8) but it's pretty close. Overall, Whitaker's Wins Above Replacement is possibly his best argument.
4. Three Time Gold Glove Winner. Whitaker's skills with the bat often overshadowed his skills with the glove. Only 10 2nd basemen have won more Gold Gloves. Three is not a remarkable total, per se, but is a very strong total. Defensive statistics are abundant but are still often met with suspicion. One thing is certain, regardless of the defensive metric you favor, Whitaker scores well. Fan of Range Factor? Whitaker's (5.4/9 Innings) is better than ANY Hall of Famer. Prefer the antiquated Fielding Percentage? Only Sandberg and Alomar are better among Hall of Famers. Perhaps you like Total Zone? Only Maz and Nellie Fox have a higher Total Zone among Hall of Famers than Lou. Prefer defensive WAR? Only 6 Hall of Fame 2nd basemen have more than Lou's 15.4, and Mazeroski is the only one that actually played baseball after 1950. Like actual things you can count? Looking for some bulk numbers? Lou has the 6th most assists of any 2nd baseman in history, the 4th most Double Plays, and the 11th most putouts. The reality is three Gold Gloves will not get you into the Hall of Fame. But one thing is clear, Lou Whitaker was one of the greatest defensive 2nd basemen in history. This is another strong piece of evidence in his case.
5. 1984. In 1984, the Detroit Tigers got off to the greatest start in baseball history, going 35-5 in their first 40 games. While they didn't clinch the division with 35 wins, it sure seemed like the race was over after those 40 games. This was one of the few times in history where the beginning of the season was far more interesting than the end. Those 40 games became legendary. No matter what else happened that season, the torrid 35-5 start was impossible to overcome. We often point to strong Septembers when placing context on a pennant race. In 1984, September was completely unimportant to the pennant race. This was all about those 40 games and like he was throughout his career, Whitaker was a catalyst getting on base nearly 2 times per game (73 times) hitting .317/.385/.427 with 31 Runs Scored. 1984 was not Whitaker's best season, but he was still the best 2nd baseman in the AL and they would not have had the historic start without him. In terms of his case, being one of the best players on a Championship Team never hurts.
6. 1,000 Runs and 1,000 RBIs. Only 210 players in Major League history have ever scored 1,000 Runs AND knocked in 1,000. Lou Whitaker is one of these 210. 91 of the 210 are currently Hall of Famers. The rest are all pretty good (Vada Pinson, Torri Hunter, etc) to great players (Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Craig Biggio, etc). However, there are only 16 2nd Basemen in history who have accomplished 1,000 Runs/1,000 RBIs: 11 are Hall of Famers, two are definite or borderline Hall of Famers (Biggio and Kent), two are a never going to be Hall of Famers (Julio Franco and 19th Century player Fred Pfeffer), and one is Lou Whitaker. On balance, not bad for a leadoff hitter. I would say this is good for his case. It isn't the type of career milestone that gets you into the Hall of Fame like the 3,000 Hits or the 300 Wins, but it's nevertheless impressive and pretty exclusive.
7. All-Time Double Play Record. When reviewing a player's case for the Hall of Fame, there are several pieces to the puzzle to consider. Did this player dominate his league or his position in his era? Did this player do something so remarkable, it's never been done before? In baseball there are certain indelible records: 511, 4,256, 2,632, 5,714, etc. It's time to add another one to the list: 879. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell turned a Major League record 879 Double Plays; the most of any Keystone Combo in baseball history. To give that a little context, among active players, Jeter and Cano are currently on top with 555. The second highest total in history appears to be Aparicio and Fox with ~598. As it is, Whitaker turned the 4th most DPs of any 2nd baseman in history. By the way, 7 of the top 10 are in the Hall. The only 3 not enshrined? Whitaker, Willie Randolph, and Frank White. But I digress. The point is, Whitaker and Trammell not only hold the DP record, it isn't even close. Holding any all-time record is impressive, sharing it with Trammell is poetic. This is a strong piece of evidence in the Hall of Fame case for Lou Whitaker.
8. Five time (consecutive) All-Star. At a glance, five All-Star selections is impressive but not exactly overwhelming evidence to support one's Hall of Fame case. However, in this case it is the consecutive that makes this an interesting piece of Whitaker's Hall of Fame case. Before we get to the consecutive portion of this discussion how does five All-Star selections measure up? It looks "ok". 18 other 2nd basemen have been selected to more than Whitaker's five and while there are many legends above him, there's also a couple of guys like Gil McDougal and Johnny Temple. During Whitaker's career he played at the same time as some other pretty great 2nd basemen and there is quite a balance of All-Star Games spread among his contemporaries (Grich & Randolph - 6, & White - 5). What does strengthen Whitaker's case is the consecutive part. In history, 15 2nd basemen, including Sweet Lou, have been selected to five or more consecutive All-Star teams. Of the remaining 14, there are 11 HOFers, 1 certain HOFer (Biggio), 1 active but building a potential HOF resume (Utley), and Bobby Richardson who retired in his prime. Five consecutive All-Star selections doesn't make him a Hall of Famer, but it's a definite positive in his case. It is also evidence that, in his prime, he was the best 2nd baseman in the AL.
9. Rookie of the Year Award Winner. There have been plenty of Rookie of the Year Award Winners to miss out on fulfilling the potential of their rookie campaign. It is also hard to imagine winning an award in one's rookie season would have any bearing on making the Hall of Fame. But consider: There have been 130 ROY Winners. Of these, 96 have been retired at least 5 years. Of the 96, 14 have been inducted into the Hall of Fame or 14.6%. This is substantially higher than the less than 2% of all players who have been inducted into the HOF. Of the 34 who are either still active or haven't been retired long enough, there are five MVP winners and a 3,000 Hit Club Member (Pujols, Ichiro, Verlander, Posey, Pedroia, and Jeter). Among ROYs there are another four players who have been retired 5+ years and have strong HOF cases themselves (Rose, McGwire, Piazza, and Bagwell). All this shows is a lot of great players have won the Rookie of the Year Award. However, there are also plenty of busts in the ROY ranks (Hamelin, Cordova, Charboneau, etc). Winning a Rookie of the Year Award neither helps of hurts a Hall of Fame case, but it does indicate a greater likelihood of finding a Hall of Famer than not winning the award. For Whitaker, it is just another example of how consistent he was throughout his career - even from the beginning.
10. Leading Off. The primary job of any leadoff hitter is to get on base and Lou Whitaker got on base. Among all leadoff hitters whose career overlapped Whitaker's, only 14 have a better career OBP than Whitaker's .363. There are three Hall of Famers in the list (Boggs, Molitor, and Rickey), two eventual Hall of Famers (Biggio and Raines), and one outcast (Rose). The remaining eight are all very good and range from the speedy, Kenny Lofton, to one of the most underrated players of his era, Brian Downing. Looking at all 15, Whitaker was one of only five to post an OPS above .800. He also managed to score over 18% of the time he led off a game (11th best on this list, Lofton was the best among his contemporaries being the only one at 22%). Whitaker strukout just 11% of the time when leading off a game. Only five of his contemporaries had a better rate of not striking out (Rose, Boggs, Randolph, Butler, and Raines). As a side note, speaking strictly in terms of leadoff hitters, Rickey is clearly the best of his (or perhaps any) era, but Kenny Lofton was a LOT better than I thought. However, this is about Lou. Overall, he was one of the best leadoff hitters of his time but not THE best. His prowess as a leadoff hitter is a slight positive, but doesn't really strengthen his case.
11. Black Ink - 1, Gray ink - 31, Hall of Fame Monitor - 86, Hall of Fame Standards - 43. Two of these are in the Hall of Fame neighborhood (Hall of Fame Monitor and Standards) and two of these are complete whiffs (Black and Gray Ink). What this tells me about Lou Whitaker is he wasn't the type of player to top the league in the major hitting categories but accumulated enough stats as a middle infielder that he probably should have been given a longer look than the 15 Votes he received. Overall, this is probably the weakest part of his case.
12. Uniqueness. Lou Whitaker was very unique. There are few players in history like him. And of the ten most similar to him, four are Hall of Famers (Sandberg, Alomar, Morgan, and Larkin). In fact, he was so unique five of the ten players most similar to him aren't even 2nd basemen. His most similar, was a contemporary in the NL, Ryne Sandberg. Perhaps just as interesting is who is atop HOF Joe Morgan's similar player list: Lou Whitaker. Sometimes a player's uniqueness can be an asset. Voters will look at a great player and say, "There's never been anything like this before. Clearly he's a Hall of Famer." Sandy Koufax, for example. Or Cal Ripken Jr. I think, in Lou Whitaker's case his uniqueness worked against him. Perhaps voters said, "There's never been anything really like this before. I don't know what to do with him." What was Lou Whitaker? Imagine someone with the offensive skills of an decent hitting Outfielder (like Bryce Harper) playing 2nd base with the defensive skills of a slick fielding Shortstop (like Elvis Andrus). Overall, Whitaker's uniqueness should be an asset. There's really never been another 2nd baseman like him. Also of interest? The second most similar player in baseball history to Lou Whitaker: Alan Trammell.
13. Alan Trammell - It is impossible to talk about Lou Whitaker without mentioning Alan Trammell. Sometimes statistics tell the whole story and we are left with an obvious hit you over the head answer to whether or not someone is a Hall of Famer; even when it's a statistic that doesn't hold the same perceived value it once did. For example, Cy Young won 511 Games - obvious Hall of Famer, Mario Mendoza hit .215 - obviously not a Hall of Famer. Other times, statistics don't tell the whole story. Sometimes it is a matter of perception. People who saw Bill Mazeroski play will tell you he was one of the greatest defensive 2nd basemen of all-time. People who saw Dave Kingman play will tell you he was one of the worst defensive 1st basemen of all-time. I lived through the Whitaker-Trammell era of baseball. I saw them play along with millions of other people. It seemed every time the Tigers were on TV, an announcer would say something to the effect, "Won't it be great seeing Trammell and Whitaker go into the Hall of Fame?" or "Wouldn't it be great if these two got inducted in the same year?" Anyone I talked to back then took for granted Whitaker and Trammell were obvious future Hall of Famers. This fits into the "I know it when I see it" category made famous by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. Seeing Trammell and Whitaker play sure felt like I was watching two Hall of Famers. There are few players in history so indelibly linked that, together, they are perhaps better than they are apart. (Tinkers, Evers, and Chance come to mind) This duo were the very definition of Detroit Tigers baseball for a generation and are arguably the greatest 2B/SS combination, not just in their era, but in history. Overall, I'd say this is a plus in Whitaker's case; albeit an intangible one.
14. Average Hall of Famer. After studying Lou Whitaker's career this closely, there was an interesting trend I noticed. Something that probably helps his case more than anything I've mentioned so far. He looks average...when compared to Hall of Fame 2nd Basemen. Consider the following comparing the 19 Hall of Fame 2nd Basemen to Lou Whitaker:
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman played 18 seasons; Lou played 19
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman played 2,159 Games; Lou played 2,390
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman had 8,057 ABs; Lou had 8,570
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman scored 1,300 Runs; Lou scored 1,386
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman had 2,442 Hits; Lou had 2,369
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman hit 417 Doubles; Lou hit 420
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman had 1,080 RBIs; Lou had 1,084
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman had an OBP of .374; Lou had .363
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman had a SLG of .437; Lou had .429
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman had an OPS of .810; Lou had .789
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman had 66 Wins Above Replacement; Lou had 71.4
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman made 7 All Star Games; Lou made 5
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman's OPS+ was 121; Lou's was 117
The average Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman hit more triples (105) than Lou (65), but Lou slugged a bunch more Homeruns (244) than the average Hall of Fame 2nd baseman (149).
See, to me, the best piece of evidence in Lou Whitaker's case for the Hall of Fame is that he looks like your typical Hall of Fame 2nd Baseman. His career fits right in with the rest. In fact, he'd be right in the middle of the pack of the best in history.
When reviewing the case for Lou Whitaker, he really looks like a Hall of Famer. Is he Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle? Obviously not. But as I've said previously, the Hall hasn't been just for the Willie Mays and Mickey Mantles in a long time. What Lou Whitaker is, is one of the greatest 2nd basemen who ever played the game - be it offensively or defensively. While there are some who exceed his skills in one, there are few 2nd basemen who exceeded his prowess in both.
The reality is, Whitaker's era is sorely underrepresented in the Hall. There are only four Hall of Fame 2nd basemen who played any seasons during Whitaker's 19 year career. One is Joe Morgan, who is difficult to consider a contemporary since his best seasons came before Whitaker started playing. Another is Rod Carew who was primarily a 1st baseman by the time Lou took over 2nd in Detroit. Another is Roberto Alomar who's career began more than 10 years after Whitaker's began. The other is Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg is the only Hall of Fame 2nd baseman to have played the majority of his career in the 1980s or have played more than 5 seasons in that decade. Among Whitaker's contemporaries, I believe Sandberg was the standard in the NL both offensively and defensively. In the AL, Frank White, Willie Randolph, and Bobby Grich all could lay claim to part of these arguments and perhaps have Hall of Fame cases to be made themselves. But Whitaker looks like a no-brainer when considering his dominance with the glove and at the plate. There's really never been anyone like him and he should be in the Hall instead of the biggest BBWAA oversight in recent memory. It's clear only 15 voters got it right in 2001. Hopefully the 11 who choose the next Veteran's Committee nominees will be among the 15 who voted for Lou.
Thanks for reading,
As for the answer to the trivia question...Jackie Robinson, Joe Morgan, and Rod Carew.