The Hall of Fame case for Lou Whitaker

Lou Whitaker

Next month, baseball will gather for the annual winter meetings. Fittingly, those meetings will take place in San Diego, where Lou Whitaker led off the 1984 World Series with a double in the gap and scored a moment later on a single by Alan Trammell. No, Sweet Lou won’t be at the winter meetings representing the Tigers, but his name will be prominent as the Baseball Hall of Fame veterans committee weighs his merits as an inductee.

Trammell was inducted two years ago, along with pitcher Jack Morris, who, in part thanks to Lou’s leadoff double, won that first game of the World Series in San Diego 35 years ago. Even before his teammates were anointed as baseball legends, Whitaker’s name has been near the top of the list as one of the most deserving candidates for enshrinement. Now, as one of the ten players up for consideration by a special committee of 16 voters, Whitaker’s chances seem promising.

I probably watched Whitaker play more than 1,500 of his 2,390 games. I was ten years old when he and Trammell became the starting double play combo in Detroit, 16 when they won the World Series in ’84, and 27 years old when I watched the pair play their final game together at Tiger Stadium. I know how good he was, and I know how small a difference there was between Lou and Tram. Though the two have differences, their impact on the field was almost identical. I support Lou’s election to the Hall of Fame. I’ve written thousands of words in support of Trammell, Morris, and Whitaker. I’ve argued their merits and, frankly was a bit surprised the committee elected Trammell and Morris together. It shows an evolution of thinking by the committee, or maybe it shows a willingness to go against the decisions of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

But what I think doesn’t matter. The 16 men on that committee are the decision makers. For their sake, it’s an appropriate time to examine Whitaker’s credentials, so here I go.

Career Value

There are several ways to measure worthiness for the Hall of Fame. One of them is career value, where longevity is rewarded. Whitaker had one of the longest careers by a second baseman. Only three men played more games at second base:

1. Eddie Collins 2650
2. Joe Morgan 2527
3. Roberto Alomar 2320
4. Lou Whitaker 2308
5. Nellie Fox 2295

Collins, Morgan, Alomar, and Fox are all in the Hall of Fame. But longevity is only one way to look at career value. Effectiveness is another. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is the current gold standard of advanced statistical measurement. A season of 4-WAR is considered All-Star caliber. Whitaker rates among the leaders in All-Star caliber seasons, according to WAR:

1. Eddie Collins 16
2. Charlie Gehringer 12
3. Lou Whitaker 10
3. Willie Randolph 10
3. Joe Morgan 10

Only Randolph is not in the Hall of Fame, but his career statistics are not quite the measure of Sweet Lou. Clearly, based on impact seasons (measured by All-Star quality years), Whitaker is among the best second basemen to play the game. He has the same number of 4-WAR seasons as Joe Morgan. By this standard, we see that Whitaker was not merely “taking up space” and accumulating career stats, he was playing at a high level for many years. Here are the top ten second basemen ranked by Career WAR, through the end of the 2019 season:

1. Rogers Hornsby 127.0
2. Eddie Collins 124.0
3. Nap Lajoie 107.4
4. Joe Morgan 100.6
5. Charlie Gehringer 80.7
6. Lou Whitaker 75.1
7. Bobby Grich 71.1
8. Frankie Frisch 70.4
9. Robinson Cano 69.6
10. Ryne Sandberg 68.0

Sweet Lou rates just behind Charlie Gehringer, another great Detroit second baseman, in career Wins Above Replacement. Seven of the ten players on the above list are in the Hall of Fame: only Whitaker, the interminably underrated Bobby Grich, and the as-yet-eligible Robinson Cano are not.

So there you have it: Whitaker rates in the top handful of second basemen in terms of games played, All-Star quality seasons, and he ranks sixth in career Wins Above Replacement. He measures up well no matter how you look at career value, and notably ranks ahead of several players at his position who are already enshrined, for example Ryne Sandberg, Craig Biggio, and Billy Herman.

Peak Value

With peak value, we’re asking: “How dominant was this player when he was at his best?” There are a few ways to answer that question. Sticking to Wins Above Replacement, let’s look at how Whitaker matches up against the all-time great players at second base. First, here’s a list of second basemen ranked by their seven best seasons:

1. Rogers Hornsby 73.5
2. Eddie Collins 64.2
3. Nap Lajoie 60.4
4. Joe Morgan 59.3
5. Jackie Robinson 52.0
6. Charlie Gehringer 50.5
7. Robinson Cano 50.5
8. Rod Carew 49.8
9. Chase Utley 49.3
10. Ryne Sandberg 47.1
11. Bobby Grich 46.4
12. Joe Gordon 45.8
13. Frankie Frisch 44.4
14. Roberto Alomar 42.9
15. Dustin Pedroia 42.4
16. Craig Biggio 41.8
17. Ian Kinsler 40.4
18. Ben Zobrist 40.4
19. Chuck Knoblauch 38.6
20. Lou Whitaker 37.9
21. Joe Altuve 36.9
22. Nellie Fox 36.8
23. Bobby Doerr 36.4
24. Willie Randolph 36.3
25. Cupid Childs 35.8

As we can see, Whitaker does not rate as well by this criteria of peak value. He is 20th among second basemen, which is still impressive for all-time, but he’s lumped in with Chuck Knoblauch, Randolph again, and current player Ben Zobrist. None of those second basemen feel like Hall of Famers.

But of the players in the #15-25 range in WAR7, Whitaker had by far the most productive career. He may not have distinguished himself as a dominant second baseman at his peak, but he was better than Hall of Famers Bobby Doerr, Billy Herman (#29), and Tony Lazzeri (#30). And none of those players had as many good season or played nearly as many games as Sweet Lou.

Here’s another way to measure peak value. The chart below lists Hall of Fame second basemen based on their five best consecutive seasons, with Whitaker added for comparison:

1. Rogers Hornsby 49.9
2. Joe Morgan 47.8
3. Eddie Collins 44.5
4. Nap Lajoie 41.8
5. Charlie Gehringer 38.2
6. Joe Gordon 33.6
7. Rod Carew 32.9
8. Ryne Sandberg 32.7
9. Frankie Frisch 32.4
10. Roberto Alomar 27.5
11. Craig Biggio 27.5
12. Bobby Doerr 27.5
13. Billy Herman 27.0
14. Lou Whitaker 25.5
15. Tony Lazzeri 25.4
16. Nellie Fox 23.9
17. Red Schoendienst 22.7
18. Johnny Evers 22.4
19. Bill Mazeroski 17.6

Again, Whitaker does not rate among the top ten in peak value, but he does slot in nicely among the rank-and-file Hall of Fame second basemen. He’s not far off the five-year peak of Craig Biggio, and he’s basically on par with Lazzeri. He rates ahead of five Hall of Fame second basemen based on five-year peak WAR, although admittedly they are not the elite Hall of Famers at the position.

Summary of Lou Whitaker’s Hall of Fame candidacy

For career value, Lou Whitaker rates among the five to ten greatest second basemen to ever play the game. He ranks sixth all-time in Wins Above Replacement at his position, ahead of 2/3 of the second basemen in Cooperstown.

In terms of peak value, Whitaker is not as strong a candidate. His strength was not high-level MVP caliber seasons, instead his career was filled with several All-Star quality years. He had ten of those, a figure surpassed by only two other second basemen (three if you count Hornsby’s seasons at shortstop).

There are the traditional factors too. Whitaker is one of the most versatile second basemen in history. Consider this:

Among players who appeared as mostly second basemen, only Lou Whitaker, Joe Morgan, and Roberto Alomar have had at least 2,000 hits, 1,000 runs batted in, 200 home runs, and 1,000 walks.

Whitaker, Morgan, Alomar, Ryne Sandberg, and Robby Cano are the only five second basemen to win multiple Gold Gloves and also have 2,000 hits, 1,000 RBIs, and 200 homers.

Sweet Lou was not only a pesky offensive player, with a quick bat, unusual power for his size, and great strike zone awareness, he was also one of the elite defensive players at his position in baseball history.

If we expand the field to look at position players, Whitaker’s career Wins Above Replacement ranks 49th all-time, nestled between Johnny Bench and Luke Appling, and 14 spots ahead of longtime double play partner Trammell. Sweet Lou’s career WAR rates ahead of contemporaries Alomar, Barry Larkin, Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn, and Sandberg.

Now that the Hall of Fame has cracked the seal on players from the 1980s (finally electing Trammell, Morris, and adding others previously like Raines Andre Dawson, and Jim Rice), it appears Cooperstown’s ranks will soon welcome more stars from that era. Sweet Lou Whitaker, based on his sustained excellence, his offensive versatility and role as a leadoff man for a championship team, his part in baseball’s longest-running double play duo, and his Gold Glove defense, deserves his plaque on the wall.