The case for and against Whitaker for HOF

December 4th, 2019

DETROIT -- was barely on the Hall of Fame ballot long enough to enjoy a healthy debate when Baseball Writers' Association of America writers considered him in 2001.

He has enjoyed a much deeper discussion over the past couple years, and chatter surfaced again when the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Whitaker was one of 10 candidates under consideration for induction as part of the 2020 Modern Baseball Era ballot. The Tigers' legendary second baseman joins Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Marvin Miller, Thurman Munson, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker and Ted Simmons on the list of Hall hopefuls.

Once the Modern Era Committee elected Alan Trammell and Jack Morris to the Hall in 2017, Whitaker was always expected to be the next for consideration. He barely missed out on being included on the ballot back then, and he has been argued since as one of the best players in history not in Cooperstown.

It’s an incredible rise for someone who received votes on just 2.9 percent of ballots in 2001. But will it be enough to make Whitaker the third player from the 1984 World Series champion Tigers to be inducted? Find out on Sunday, when the results will be announced from the Winter Meetings in San Diego on MLB Network at 8 p.m. ET.

Here’s a look at both sides of the argument:


• Baseball historian and author Bill James, who helped usher in the era of modern statistics, ranked Whitaker in last year’s Bill James Handbook as the second-best player not in the Hall of Fame based on Win Shares and Wins Above Replacement, trailing only turn-of-the-century star Bill Dahlen. In terms of Win Shares, Whitaker is better than 139 players already in the Hall. James also ranked Whitaker as the 13th-best second baseman of all time.

• Whitaker was one of the most dynamic offensive second basemen not just of his era, but all time. His weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 118 ranks 21st all-time among second basemen with at least 5,000 career plate appearances, and he ranks in the top 12 at his position in home runs and runs scored.

• Whitaker played second base for his entire 19-year Major League career. His 2,308 games at second rank fourth all time behind Hall of Famers Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan and Roberto Alomar. Whitaker played no other defensive position in his big league career despite converting from third base in the Minor Leagues, and he made just 22 starts at designated hitter.

• According to Baseball Reference, his 75.1 career WAR ranked fifth all time among players who spent at least 75 percent of their career at second base, ahead of Hall of Famers Ryne Sandberg (68.0), Alomar (67.1), Nellie Fox (49.0) and many more.

• Whitaker was also a standout defender. Though he played in an era before advanced defensive metrics, he led American League second basemen in Range Factor per Nine Innings three times, including his rookie year of 1978 and his age-36 season of '93. His 16.3 defensive WAR ranks 95th all time regardless of position. His 1,527 double plays turned are fourth most by any second baseman in Major League history.

• Whitaker’s peak years put him at the top of his position. He was an All-Star for five consecutive years from (1983-87), his age-26 through age-30 seasons. He won three Gold Gloves and four Silver Sluggers in that stretch and was a Top 10 finisher in AL MVP Award voting in '83. The Tigers won two AL East titles and a World Series crown in that span.


• Though Whitaker’s peak years were elite among his peers, they weren’t elite for the league as a whole, or for his position all time. He never finished in the top five in MVP voting, and he placed in the top 10 only once. Whitaker was the AL Player of the Month and Player of the Week only once each, both in June 1983. His seven best WAR seasons added up to 37.9, below the 44.4 average of the 20 second basemen in the Hall of Fame.

• While Whitaker’s 1984 Tigers have been argued as one of the most dominant single-season clubs of their era, he appeared in just two postseasons over his 19-year career. His playoff numbers weren’t great: He hit a combined .204 (10-for-49) with a two doubles, a solo home run, 11 walks and 10 strikeouts.

• Some of Whitaker’s offensive stats belong in the camp of good, but not great, such as his 117 OPS+ (31st all-time among second basemen) and his .789 career OPS (39th). His .276 career batting average includes only one season over .300 with more than 400 plate appearances (that was 1983).

• Though Whitaker was still a second baseman at age 38, he struggled with durability in his post-peak years. His last season with at least 140 games played was his age-32 season in 1989, when he played 148.