Lou Whitaker Belongs in Cooperstown

This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. It is adapted from a longer version included in The Cooperstown Casebook, published in 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Lou Whitaker
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Lou Whitaker 75.1 37.9 56.5
Avg. HOF 2B 69.4 44.4 56.9
2369 244 .276/.363/.426 117
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Lou Whitaker made baseball look easy. No less a writer than Roger Angell marveled over his “ball-bearing smoothness afield and remarkable hand-speed at bat.” But to some, the ease with which the game came to the Tigers’ longtime second baseman suggested that he lacked effort, hard work, or passion for the game, and it didn’t help that Whitaker wasn’t one for self-promotion. He let his performance do the talking, and for the better part of his 19 seasons in the majors, that performance spoke volumes. A top-of-the-lineup spark plug and an outstanding defender, he paired with Alan Trammell to form the longest-running double-play combination in history. He earned All-Star honors five times and won three Gold Gloves along the way, solid totals that nonetheless undersell his contributions.

Whitaker retired one year before Trammell did, and thus reached the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot a year earlier. Shockingly, a player hailed as a potential Hall of Famer during his career received just 2.9% in 2001, which ruled him out from further consideration by the writers and prevented his inclusion on Veterans Committee or Expansion Era Committee ballots during the remaining 14 years that he could have been on the writers’ ballot. Trammell wasn’t elected by the BBWAA either, but after spending 15 years on the ballot, he and longtime Tigers teammate Jack Morris were tabbed by the Modern Baseball Era Committee in 2018, the first living ex-players elected to the Hall by any small-committee process since 2001. Their eligibility raised Whitaker’s profile, and this year, for the first time, he’s on a committee ballot as well. That doesn’t guarantee his election, but based upon the weight of his accomplishments, the honor is long overdue.

Though he was born in Brooklyn in 1957, Whitaker grew up in Martinsville, Virginia, a rural town of about 20,000 people, in a house full of 16 family members who spanned three generations. His mother, Marion Arlene Williams, had left Brooklyn and Lou’s father behind while pregnant with Lou’s younger sister. “My daddy is a first-class New York pimp,” Whitaker said in 1979, explaining that he never knew Louis Rodman Whitaker Sr. He grew up in such poverty that his family couldn’t afford orthopedic help when his legs grew crooked, “[s]o his uncles twisted and turned them inward every day.”

Whitaker’s legs straightened out, and he developed prowess on the diamond, impressing scouts with his hands and arm strength while at Martinsville High School, where he played third base and even pitched. On the advice of former All-Star infielder Billy Jurges, then a scout, the Tigers drafted him in the fifth round in 1975. After struggling at shortstop and third base in Rookie ball, Whitaker played exclusively at the hot corner in 1976, his age-19 season. Managed by future Tigers skipper Jim Leyland, he earned Florida State League MVP honors on the strength of a .297/.376/.355 performance with 48 stolen bases. In the Instructional League that fall, he met Trammell, the team’s 1976 second-round pick, and began a conversion to second base. The tandem took groundballs together for 30 days in a row, and clicked so well that Tigers general manager Jim Campbell, who promised the pair sports coats at the end of the season, bought them three-piece suits instead.

The pair roomed together at Double-A Montgomery in 1977, where Trammell won Southern League MVP honors. Whitaker took to his new position and hit .280/.374/.356 with 38 steals. “We went out to eat together every day, we talked baseball everyday and we grew together for 19 years,” said Whitaker in 2015.

Promoted to the majors when Montgomery’s season ended, the pair debuted in the nightcap of a September 9 doubleheader against the Red Sox, the first of their 1,918 games together. They joined 1974 first-round pick Lance Parrish, a catcher who had debuted earlier that week; the trio would form the backbone of the Tigers lineup for the next nine years.

Manager Ralph Houk started the rookie double play combo on Opening Day in 1978, but spent the first quarter of the season platooning them with a more experienced, less talented tandem, Steve Dillard and Mark Wagner. By late May, the training wheels were off, and the duo played daily. Whitaker hit .285/.361/.357 for a 101 OPS+ while playing defense that was 10 runs above average en route to 3.8 WAR. He beat out the Brewers’ Paul Molitor for AL Rookie of the Year honors, while Trammell tied for fourth. The Tigers, who had gone 74-88 in 1977, and hadn’t been above .500 since 1973, won 86 games, the first of 11 straight winning seasons.

Whitaker improved to .286/.395/.378 for a 108 OPS+ in 1979, stealing 20 bases (a mark that would stand as a career high) in 30 attempts, and again played strong defense en route to 4.5 WAR. He struggled the following season, hitting .233/.331/.283, as manager Sparky Anderson, who had taken the reins in mid-June 1979, moved him from the number two spot to leadoff to offset the loss of speedster Ron LeFlore in free agency. The experiment was abandoned in early June. Whitaker couldn’t salvage his season after being dropped to the ninth spot, but did rebound (.263/.340/.373) in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

In his first four full seasons, Whitaker had totaled just 12 home runs, but his power emerged in 1982, when hitting coach Gates Brown taught him to pull the ball more often, and he took to the leadoff spot using a more aggressive approach than he had tried before. He led off the Tigers’ half of the first inning with a home run four times, and set career highs with 15 homers and 22 doubles en route to a .286/.341/.434 showing and 5.4 WAR. After the season, he signed a five-year, $3 million extension, giving him the second-highest average annual salary of any second baseman besides Bobby Grich ($800,000 per year).

At age 26, Whitaker put together a career year in 1983, hitting .320/.380/.457 for a 133 OPS+ with 12 homers and 17 steals; his 206 hits ranked third in the league, his 40 doubles seventh, his 6.7 WAR fifth. He made his first All-Star team and won his first of three straight Gold Gloves. Though his overall numbers took a step back in 1984 (4.3 WAR, 112 OPS+), he and the Tigers stormed to a 35-5 start en route to a 104-win season and their first world championship since 1968. While Trammell earned World Series MVP honors against the Padres, Whitaker hit .278/.409/.389 and scored six runs in the five games, three of them in the opening frame as the Tigers struck first.

The champagne had barely dried when, 10 days into spring training in 1985, Anderson temporarily broke up his double play combo by moving Whitaker back to third base to accommodate rookie Chris Pittaro, a switch-hitting 23-year-old who had spent the previous year in Double-A. Whitaker gave his blessing to the change, but reversed his decision a week later; while Pittaro got off to a hot start at third base in April, by June he was in the minors, more or less for good. Spring training aside, Whitaker never played a defensive inning anywhere but second base in his entire major league career.

Though not quite as valuable as Trammell, whose defense at that stage was stronger, Whitaker was remarkably consistent from 1984-87, hitting a combined .275/.350/.432 for a 113 OPS+ while averaging 18 homers, 10 steals, and 4.2 WAR per year, ranging from 3.6 to 4.5 annually. He was elected to start three All-Star Games (1984-86) and made the fourth as a reserve. The 1985 game produced one of the funniest moments of his career. After Whitaker left a bag containing equipment and at least part of his uniform in his car, he had to scramble, borrowing a glove from Cal Ripken Jr., finding an Indians batting helmet, and resorting to a mesh-back adjustable Tigers cap and generic replica jersey from a souvenir stand at the Metrodome. A clubhouse attendant hastily stenciled his number 1 on the back of the ill-fitting jersey, which wound up in the Smithsonian.

In 1987, the Tigers won 98 games and — thanks to an 0-7 skid by the Blue Jays to end the season, the last three losses at the hands of Detroit — another AL East title. Alas, they were steamrolled by the 85-win Twins in the ALCS, losing four games to one. Whitaker went 3-for-17, his solo homer off Bert Blyleven in a Game 2 loss going for naught. His fine 1988 season (.275/.376/.419 for a 127 OPS+, his highest since 1983) ended in early September, when he tore cartilage in his right knee while dancing with his wife at a party. “We were doing a fast dance and I did the splits,” he said. “The first time, nothing happened. The second time I went down, I heard it pop.”⁠ The Tigers, clinging to first place but already skidding in the absence of an injured Trammell, went 13-14 the rest of the way, and finished second behind the Red Sox by one game.

It was an embarrassing end to the season, and over the winter, Whitaker drew criticism for his declining batting averages and the perception of his work ethic. His critics did have a point in that his once-adequate performance against left-handers had dipped from .261/.339/.342 for 1977-83 to .224/.297/.315 from 1984-88. But in a March 1989 article in the Toledo Blade, Anderson defended Whitaker when asked if he would accomplish more if he had the habits and hustle of Trammell. “Nobody will ever know for sure,” said the manager. “Change him and he might not be as good. Everything looks so easy when he does it. He’s got the most talent on the club. The most talent.”⁠

Whitaker chafed at having to wait for a contract extension after the team signed Trammell to a three-year extension that winter; he still had one more year under his current deal. He also took umbrage at the “Sweet Lou” nickname, telling reporters, “Winners don’t smile, man. There’s a time to have fun, there’s a time to be serious. Guys that say I’m distant or aloof, that’s a real compliment. They don’t need to see me laughing.”

Whitaker’s 1989 bounce back traded batting average for power; he set career highs of 28 homers and 85 RBI while hitting .251/.361/.462 with 5.3 WAR. In mid-season, he finally signed a three-year, $6 million extension. His season was a bright spot amid dreadful years by Trammell, Morris and others that led to the Tigers’ worst record (59-103) since 1975. After a solid 1990 performance (107 OPS+, +10 defense, 3.8 WAR), he followed with one of his best seasons on both sides of the ball, hitting .279/.391/.489 with 23 homers for a career-best 141 OPS+ and strong glovework (+11 runs) en route to 6.7 WAR, tying his career high, and fourth-best in the AL — strong work for a 34-year-old.

Though his defense would quickly decline, Whitaker maintained that power even amid dwindling playing time over his final four seasons. Helped by a reduced workload against lefties (accounting for 10-20% of his PA instead of his typical 30-35%), he hit a combined .289/.389/.475 for a 131 OPS+ from 1992-95, averaging 14 homers in 419 plate appearances and reaching milestones that cued talk of Cooperstown. “When discussing possible Hall of Famers, don’t forget Tiger second baseman Lou Whitaker,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Tim Kurjian in 1992. “He recently became the only second baseman other than Joe Morgan to play 2,000 games, hit 200 homers and collect 2,000 hits.”

“If history is any gauge, Lou Whitaker will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame one day,” wrote the AP’s Harry Atkins in 1993, as Whitaker approached 1,000 RBI. “I don’t think about baseball history,” said Whitaker. “I’ve never been to a library or bought a book on baseball history.”

At the end of the 1992 season, Whitaker and Trammell both reached free agency for the first time, but new owner Mike Illich ensured they remained in Detroit. The Braves and Orioles courted Whitaker, but the Tigers ultimately retained him with a three-year, $10 million deal. By mid-1994, he suggested that he would retire upon completing his contract in 1995.

Though Whitaker was the first Tiger to officially report to spring training upon the settlement of the players’ strike, a shoulder strain prevented him from playing until May 12, his 38th birthday. While he hit a robust .293/.372/.518 in 285 PA, he played sparingly as the season dwindled, starting just eight times apiece at second base and DH after August 12; similarly, Trammell rode the pine frequently, and Anderson looked to the end of the line, either via retirement or firing. In September, Whitaker and Trammell played their 1,915th game together, breaking the AL record held by George Brett and Frank White, trailing only the Cubs’ Ron Santo and Billy Williams (2,015, since broken by Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio with 2,029).

With the team closing the season on the road, and with minds not made up about retirement, Trammell asked Tigers management not to hold any special ceremonies to honor the combo for their September 23 Tiger Stadium farewell. Though heartily received by the sparse crowd of 14,083, the team found themselves on the wrong end of a 13-1 blowout by the Orioles. Starter Mike Mussina, who cruised along, instructed catcher Chris Hoiles to tell the pair to look for nothing but fastballs. “I was trying,” Mussina said, smiling, “to throw them as skillfully as I could down the middle.” Both players made outs, however. After sitting for a week, they made one-inning cameos in Baltimore on the season’s final day. Whitaker mulled signing elsewhere, but retired, while Trammell returned for one final year.

Via excellent health and prolonged productivity, Whitaker ranks high on several leaderboards specific to second basemen. His 2,308 games at the position rank fourth, behind Eddie Collins (2,650), Joe Morgan (2,527), and relative newcomer Roberto Alomar (2,320). Of the top 16, 11 are in the Hall, with Willie Randolph (2,152), Frank White (2,151), Robinson Canó (2,124), and Jeff Kent (2,034) the other outsiders. Among players who spent the majority of their careers at second base, Whitaker’s 2,369 hits ranks 14th, more than any of them outside the Hall besides Canó (2,570) and Kent (2,461). His 239 homers while playing second (the strict split, not counting his homers as DH or pinch-hitting), are ninth, with Kent (351) first.

He’s not quite as high-ranking in rate stats, but still impressive. Using a 7,000 plate appearance minimum, Whitaker’s .363 on-base percentage ranks 15th, and his .426 slugging percentage 19th. His 117 OPS+ is in a virtual tie with Chase Utley for 11th, with Larry Doyle, Grich, the still-active Canó (all 125) and Kent (123) the only outsiders ahead of him.

Still, on the traditional front, Whitaker’s resumé feels a bit light. Beyond the Rookie of the Year award, his three Gold Gloves, and five All-Star selections is a lack of black ink and meager postseason numbers (two playoff teams and a .204/.350/.306 line in 61 PA). His modest 92 on the Hall of Fame Monitor, a metric where a score of 100 represents “a good possibility” for election, foreshadowed his uphill battle.

The advanced metrics approximate Whitaker’s standing in rate stats: 12th among second basemen in batting runs (209), seventh in baserunning and double play avoidance runs (48), 15th in fielding runs (77). It’s the combination of offense and defense that’s his true selling point. He’s the only second baseman besides Jackie Robinson who’s at least 200 runs above average at bat, 50 above average in the field, and 25 above average on the bases, and one of just 11 such players at any position:

Damn Good at Everything
Player Years Rbat Rfield Rbase+DP WAR
Barry Bonds 1986-2007 1129 175 50 162.8
Willie Mays 1951-1973 809 185 69 156.4
Hank Aaron 1954-1976 877 98 33 143.0
Honus Wagner 1897-1917 637 85 34 130.8
Rickey Henderson 1979-2003 555 65 148 111.2
Roberto Clemente 1955-1972 376 205 31 94.5
Al Kaline 1953-1974 471 153 26 92.8
Lou Whitaker 1977-1995 209 77 48 75.1
Larry Walker 1989-2005 420 94 50 72.7
Jackie Robinson 1947-1956 261 81 35 61.4
J.D. Drew 1998-2011 208 69 26 44.9
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Players at least 200 runs above average in batting, 50 above average in fielding, and 25 above average in baserunning and double play avoidance.

For as well-rounded a player as Whitaker was, it’s fair to suggest that he got a raw deal in terms of recognition. Just one of his top five seasons in terms of WAR (4.7 or more), and two of his top seven (4.5 or more), resulted in All-Star selections. Ten times he ranked either first or second among AL second basemen in WAR, but five of those times, he didn’t make the All-Star team. For example, he missed out on being selected during his 5.4 WAR 1983, while Grich and Frank White (3.7) played for the AL; likewise during his 5.3 WAR 1989, when Julio Franco (5.3) and Steve Sax (4.4) played, and during his 6.8 WAR 1991, when Alomar (4.6) played the whole game and Franco (6.2) rode the pine. While WAR didn’t exist at the time, we can now see how glaring some of those omissions were.

Whitaker’s career WAR is the seventh-highest of any position player outside the Hall, and second among those up for a vote this year:

Top Position Player bWAR, Non-Hall of Famers
Rk Player Years From To WAR
1 Barry Bonds* 1986-2007 1986 2007 162.8
2 Alex Rodriguez+ 1994-2016 1994 2016 117.8
3 Albert Pujols+ 2001-2019 2001 2019 100.3
4 Adrian Beltre+ 1998-2018 1998 2018 95.6
5 Pete Rose 1963-1986 1963 1986 79.7
6 Bill Dahlen 1891-1911 1891 1911 75.4
7 Lou Whitaker** 1977-1995 1977 1995 75.1
8 Larry Walker* 1989-2005 1989 2005 72.7
9 Mike Trout+ 2011-2019 2011 2019 72.5
10 Derek Jeter* 1995-2014 1995 2014 72.4
11 Rafael Palmeiro 1986-2005 1986 2005 71.9
12 Bobby Grich 1970-1986 1970 1986 71.1
13 Scott Rolen* 1996-2012 1996 2012 70.2
14 Miguel Cabrera+ 2003-2019 2003 2019 69.6
15 Robinson Canó+ 2005-2019 2005 2019 69.6
16 Carlos Beltran+ 1998-2017 1998 2017 69.6
17 Manny Ramirez* 1993-2011 1993 2011 69.4
18 Kenny Lofton 1991-2007 1991 2007 68.3
19 Graig Nettles 1967-1988 1967 1988 68.0
20 Dwight Evans** 1972-1991 1972 1991 67.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = active or not yet eligible. * = on BBWAA ballot. ** = on Modern Baseball ballot.

Yowzah. Whitaker’s career WAR is seventh among all second basemen, behind six Hall of Famers but a healthy 6.3 WAR above the average honoree. Less robust is his 37.9 peak score, which ranks 20th, below 12 of 20 enshrined second-sackers and a substantial 6.5 wins below the standard. While very consistent, with 11 of his 18 full seasons worth between 3.5 and 4.7 WAR — somewhere between an above-average regular and an All-Star — he had just four seasons more valuable than those, and only three that cracked the AL top 10.

Taken together — the point of my system, after all — Whitaker’s 56.5 JAWS is a mere 0.4 below the standard, a negligible amount in this context, and still good for 13th, behind nine Hall of Famers, Canó, Utley, and Grich. He outranks five of the six second basemen to enter Cooperstown since his retirement: Alomar (55.0, 14th), Biggio (53.7, 15th), Joe Gordon (51.5, 16th), Nellie Fox (42.9, 23rd), and Bill Mazeroski (31.2, 51st), and is less than a point behind the sixth, Ryne Sandberg (57.5, ninth). Whitaker may lack Biggio’s 3,000 hits, Sandberg’s MVP award, the defensive reputations of Gordon, Mazeroski, and Fox (all of whom outrank him in fielding runs) or Alomar (who does not). Nonetheless, he’s a very solid Hall of Fame candidate because he did so many things so well.

Unfortunately, the BBWAA voters didn’t see it that way. Eligible on the 2001 ballot, Whitaker was lost behind other first-timers including 3,000 hit club member Dave Winfield, 10-time All-Star Kirby Puckett (whose career had been cut short by glaucoma), former teammates Parrish and Kirk Gibson, and former AL MVP Don Mattingly. In a record-setting haul of ballots (515) of just middling generosity (6.33 names per ballot), Winfield (84.5%) and Puckett (82.1%) sailed through, while holdovers Gary Carter (64.9%), Jim Rice (57.9%), Bruce Sutter (47.6%), and Goose Gossage (44.3%) made progress towards their own plaques. While Whitaker outpolled his ex-teammates, his 2.9% wasn’t even enough to remain on the ballot.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark, whose seven-man ballot included Winfield, Puckett, Carter, Sutter, Gossage, Morris and Dale Murphy, left Whitaker off, noting, “His career numbers look attractive by second-base standards. But it’s hard to remember any period when Whitaker was looked upon as the greatest second baseman of his era. ‘Just’ a very good player. There’s no shame in that.”⁠ All six of Stark’s ESPN’s colleagues with a vote — Jim Caple, Peter Gammons, Bob Klapisch, Tim Kurkjian, Sean McAdam, and Phil Rogers — bypassed him as well.⁠

The Detroit News’ Lynn Henning, whose coverage of the Tigers extends back to when Whitaker was drafted, said in 2017, “It wasn’t that people didn’t appreciate him, but if ever I’ve seen a case where every voter figured, ‘Someone else will put him on, I’ve got other fish to fry,’ that was it — a perfect storm. I’ve never seen anything so utterly flukish in Hall of Fame voting.” To Henning, the lack of a boost from television exposure or analytics — two things that would have played in his favor in a later era — hurt him as well.

Whitaker’s exclusion cast him into a baseball purgatory, as he could not be considered by the Veterans Committee or its successors until his BBWAA eligibility period expired in 2015. Though considered for inclusion on the 2018 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, he missed the final cut, but his absence didn’t go unnoticed, particularly as his former teammates made the ballot on their first try. Said BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O’Connell, a member of the 11-person Historical Overview Committee that assembled the ballot:

“There was no decision not to include Lou Whitaker…. His career was discussed along with many others, but he did not get sufficient support to make the ballot. There were quite a few other players from that era who might have been worthy of inclusion, but we were limited to 10. This does not mean Whitaker or anyone else who did not make the ballot will be excluded forever.”

Upon being elected, Trammell said, “It’s never going to change that Lou and I are going to be linked forever, as we should. My dream now is, at least in two more years, that Lou gets on the ballot and at some point and time he makes it.”

The first part of Trammell’s dream as come true. At last, Whitaker is on the ballot, no small triumph given that the likes of Grich (who also failed to receive 5% in his only appearance) and Keith Hernandez (who lasted nine years but only twice broke 10%) are absent, and that Modern Baseball ballot-mate Dwight Evans (who lasted three turns) has been waiting since 1999 for another chance. Whitaker belongs in the Hall of Fame, but while his appearance on this ballot doesn’t guarantee his election, he’s finally, rightfully in the conversation again.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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The Duke
3 years ago

I think the Trammel narrative will help enormously now because everyone loves a good story like Tinker to Evans to Chance