Whitaker deserves a second shot at Hall

Career of Tigers' 'Sweet Lou' looks even better with the passage of time

November 25th, 2017

Let's start this Modern Era Hall of Fame series by looking at a simple Hall of Fame birth chart. Here's a breakdown of how many Major League Hall of Famers were born by decade, beginning in 1866:
1866-75: 20
1876-85: 13
1886-95: 26
1896-1905: 30
1906-15: 16
1916-25: 20
1926-35: 17
1936-45: 22
1946-55: 19
1956-65: 12
1966-75: 10
Now, you can see the Hall of Fame is pretty heavily stacked with old-time players. There's a reason for this: Those players had many, many different opportunities for election. There were Veterans Committees and Old-Timers Committees, as well as powerful campaigns for some of those players. Things began to settle down in the 1906-15 group, and for the next five decades, an average of 19 Hall of Famers per birth decade were elected.
The 1966-75 decade is still a work in progress. You can expect Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, Jim Thome, , Vladimir Guerrero, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Mike Mussina to make it, with several others in play.
So the one 10-year period that stands out is the 1956-65 decade -- with players from the '80s and '90s. There is no rule, of course, that every decade has to have the same number of worthy Hall of Fame candidates. But in this case, I think there are numerous players born during that decade who have been overlooked. The Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot still has a couple of them -- Edgar Martinez (who has a shot) and Fred McGriff (who will need a big boost).
Yes, the 1956-65 decade appears to be under-represented. But even if Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both born during this period, are considered -- and you could throw in Mark McGwire, too -- this decade would still not have as many players as any of the decades before, going back to the beginning of baseball.
This is where the Modern Era ballot comes into play. This year's ballot has three terrific players born in that decade: Alan Trammell, Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly. Jack Morris was born just six months before the decade began, so we will include him here, too. We will get into each of their cases individually. Heck, over the next two weeks, we will have a story about each of the nine players on the ballot. But before all of that, I want to mention one player born in that lost decade who I think should have been on this ballot -- a player I hope will get his fair shot on Modern Era ballots going forward.

That player is former Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker.
To be blunt, most of us missed Whitaker's greatness while he was playing. His reputation was that of a good, but not great, player. There are reasons why. It was easy to miss Whitaker because the key stats of his time -- basically the only stats of his time -- were batting average, home runs and RBIs. Whitaker only hit .300 once over a full season (he also walked a lot, something hardly anybody even noticed back then). He never hit 30 homers in a season, and only once topped 25. Whitaker's career high in RBIs was 85.
These raw numbers -- along with the fact that there were some very good second basemen during Whitaker's era, such as Ryne Sandberg, Willie Randolph and Frank White -- made it easy to overlook just how special he really was. How special was he? Well, here's the big point: The more you look at the history of baseball, the more you understand how rare of a complete player Whitaker really was.
A player who gets on base, hits with some power, plays terrific defense, runs the bases well, is durable, and plays with intelligence and competitive fire is an uncommon combination.
But it is the essence of Whitaker's case.
Whitaker was a fifth-round Draft pick out of high school in 1975, almost as big of a pitching prospect as he was as a hitter. He played third base until he was 20 and was moved up to Double-A Montgomery. There, Whitaker was moved to second base to team up with an 18-year-old shortstop just drafted in the second round out of a high school in San Diego. Yep, that was Trammell. For the rest of their careers and lives, it would be all but impossible to think of one without thinking of the other.
Trammell, too, has been underappreciated. But he is on the Modern Era ballot now, and I think he has an excellent chance of being elected by the Modern Era Committee -- if not this year, certainly in the near future. So what about Whitaker? Their career numbers are strikingly similar (Whitaker, for instance, has four more hits than Trammell), but edge toward Whitaker (more games, doubles, triples, homers, runs, RBIs, higher on-base percentage, higher slugging percentage, etc.). They were both dazzling middle-infield defenders and superb baserunners. They were also a team, a double-play combination for the ages. It doesn't make much sense for Trammell to finally be getting his much-deserved acclaim while Whitaker continues to be overlooked and forgotten.
When you compare Whitaker with the second basemen in the Hall of Fame, his greatness is striking. Yes, his career falls short of the five players you would probably call the best: Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie and Charlie Gehringer. But there are 12 other second basemen in Cooperstown, and you could make the case that Whitaker was as good as or better than any of them -- including recent inductees Craig Biggio and Roberto Alomar.

You can look at it using advanced metrics like Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and Wins Above Average (WAA), which measure wins above an average player:
Whitaker: 74.9 WAR; 42.5 WAA
Biggio: 65.1 WAR; 28.7 WAA
Alomar: 66.8 WAR; 32.3 WAA
Sandberg: 67.5 WAR; 38.1 WAA
You can also point out that Whitaker had more homers (244) than a dozen of Hall of Fame second basemen, scored more runs (1,386) than 10 of them and had a better OPS+ (117) than 10 of them. His defense was stellar, his baserunning was stellar, and he played 2,308 games at second base for one team -- that's the most in baseball history.
Whitaker will have to wait for his chance, but maybe we can all start thinking about him again. He was on the BBWAA ballot for only one year, and he received just 15 votes. Giving Whitaker such little Hall of Fame consideration is, I believe, one of the BBWAA's most obvious errors -- and the Modern Era Committee was created to fix such mistakes.