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Banging the Hall of Fame drum for 'Sweet Lou' Whitaker

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The Hall of Fame's greatest casualty of the "Steroid Era" might be an innocent man who didn't even play during it

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

This weekend is Hall of Fame induction weekend. It’s a wonderful tradition in Cooperstown, NY, culminating with the induction of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza, two incredibly deserving players. However, it seems to be missing something every year. More specifically, someone. That someone is Lou Whitaker.

It hurts my heart to know that Lou Whitaker is not in the Hall of Fame. Even more so, it crushes my soul to know that he only got one crack at the BBWAA vote. He earned only 2.9 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 2001. As he did not meet the 5 percent threshold to remain on the ballot for another year, his name came off the ballot, forever.

In 2011, Bill Parker of ESPN wrote an article entitled "The BBWA’s Worst Mistake." He makes a compelling case for "Sweet Lou." Parker sums it up best by stating "letting a rock-solid Hall of Famer like Whitaker fall through the cracks on the first try is the biggest mistake they've ever made."

There are several writers who want to see their "guy" inducted into the Hall of Fame. Most have legitimate cases and the most well publicized case is that of Tim Raines. When you Google "Tim Raines" and "Hall of Fame," you will return several well written articles in major mainstream outlets like USA TodayCBSSports IllustratedForbesESPN, and MLB.comIn addition, some of the most prominent baseball writers of today to include Jonah Keri (currently of Sports Illustrated) and Jay Jaffe (creator of the JAWS metric) are well known and incredibly vocal supporters of Raines well deserved spot in Cooperstown. However, nobody has really championed Lou Whitaker. I’d like to be that someone.

Whitaker made his "cup of coffee" debut in 1977. However, he really made his mark on the game in his breakout 1978 season, earning AL Rookie of the Year honors. He displayed his patience at the plate and rangy defense at second base (he led MLB in range factor that year), both of which would become his signature traits throughout his career. He continued to perform at the top tier of two-baggers and made a leap in the 1982 season by adding an element of power into his game, hitting 15 home runs. (he hit only 12 homers in his first five seasons combined). Although he failed to make the All-Star team that year, he led all MLB second baseman in WAR (5.4 bWAR). From that point on, everyone else seemed to catch on. He would make five straight All-Star teams playing for those storied Detroit Tigers teams of the 1980s, helping to capture the 1984 World Series title.

For the remainder of his career, he remained quiet, consistent, productive, and professional. He will always be remembered along with his shortstop, Alan Trammell, where he formed the longest standing (and arguably greatest) double-play combo in MLB history. But that’s just the narrative part of the story. The real problem is that Lou Whitaker was overlooked for his entire career.

Whitaker was statistically overlooked because his game wasn’t flashy. In fact, he wasn’t even elected to the AL All Star team in five of his six best statistical seasons by WAR (1979, 1982, 1989, 1991, 1992). This is even more egregious when you consider that he was 6th most valuable player among all AL position players in 1989 (5.3 bWAR) and 4th among all MLB position players in 1991 (6.7 rWAR). No, taking a walk wasn’t sexy during his playing days. And, unless your name was Ozzie Smith, defense wasn’t sexy either. Even when his defense was noticed, he was often overshadowed by Frank White, the light hitting defensive wizard for the Kansas City Royals. Between 1977-1987, Whitaker (3) and White (8) won every 2B Gold Glove award in the American League.

Furthermore, Whitaker was overshadowed by another second baseman in the National League, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg (inducted on 3rd ballot). In his ESPN piece mentioned above, Bill Parker’s most compelling argument compared Whitaker (74.9 career rWAR – 49th best all-time among position players) and Sandberg (67.5 career rWAR – 82nd best all-time). Parker elaborates:

One could argue that Sandberg's best was better than Whitaker's best, and that's probably true. Whitaker was never QUITE as good as Sandberg was in '83, and didn't have four consecutive seasons that can quite match Ryno's '89-'92. But he also didn't suffer the valleys Sandberg did in the mid-'80s, and I'd argue that "consistently good and sometimes great" can be just as valuable as "inconsistent but sometimes slightly greater."

Lastly, Whitaker was overshadowed by his own teammates. Alan Trammell was the face of the team. He was the 1984 World Series MVP and should have been the 1987 AL MVP. Trammell was incredible and between 1980-1990 he was the 5th most valuable player in baseball (59.4 rWAR).

He was overshadowed by the energetic future MVP Kirk Gibson whose iconic post-season heroics are remembered a lot more than his injuries and inconsistencies.

Near the tail end of his career, Whitaker was overshadowed by "Big Daddy" Cecil Fielder and the resurgence of the long ball. Fielder hit 51 HRs in 1990 and 44 HRs in 1991. It’s not surprising to say that Whitaker was a better baserunner and defender than Fielder during those years. But, I’m sure it would surprise many to know that Whitaker actually had a better offensive season in 1991 than Fielder did. Whitaker posted a wRC+ of 141 that season, or 41% better than league average, to Fielder’s wRC+ of 135. Fielder would go on to win the Silver Slugger at first base and finish second in AL MVP voting. Yet Whitaker didn’t make the All-Star team, didn’t win a Silver Slugger award (won by a deserving Julio Franco with a wRC+ of 146), and didn’t win a Gold Glove (Roberto Alomar would win it that year despite posting a -0.1 Defensive WAR to Whitaker’s +1.4). He just went about his business as he did throughout his career: quiet, consistent, productive, and professional.

Perhaps those reasons above are why 500 of the 515 BBWAA writers overlooked him on the 2001 Hall of Fame ballot. But maybe the year 2001 itself was the reason he was overlooked. In 2001, the "moneyball" revolution hadn’t happened yet, which would finally highlight the importance of drawing a walk. Furthermore, there was almost no way to evaluate defense outside of the "eye test," leaving a lot to desire in the currently evolving world of defensive metrics.

But the circumstances surrounding on-base-percentage and defense weren’t, in my opinion, the driving force behind "the BBWAA’s greatest mistake." In the early 2000’s, baseball was in the height of the "Steroid Era." As Hall of Fame voting takes place in January, the most recent completed season prior to Lou Whitaker’s vote was 2000. The year 2000 had the highest average runs scored per game (5.14) and league average OPS (0.782) since 1930.

Even though Whitaker’s career offensive numbers were 18 percent better than league average (wRC+ 118) during his era, they looked pedestrian when compared to the video game numbers produced in the year 2000. For example, in 2000, Tony Batista was considered a league average hitter (100 wRC+), producing a stat line of a .263 batting average, 41 home runs, 96 runs scored, and 114 RBI. For his career, Lou Whitaker never hit more than 28 homers in a season (45 players did in 2000), scored more than 110 runs (20 players did in 2000), had more than 85 RBI (81 players did in 2000), nor had a batting average higher than .320 (24 players did in 2000). Although Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa are currently kept out of Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame's greatest casualty of the "Steroid Era" might be an innocent man who didn't even play during it.

With that, I'd like to provide a few tables worth of statistical evidence to support Lou Whitaker's argument for the Hall of Fame. No, WAR is not a perfect statistic. But, it is a good statistic to measure all the aspects of the game and compare players who played in different eras. I'm presenting career WAR, career WAR normalized per 600 plate appearances, and the percent of the BBWAA vote each player received. The first table is going to highlight all of the position players from 2001 to present (pitchers and Veterans Committees selections excluded) who received a greater percentage of the first time vote than Whitaker without meeting the five percent threshold to stay on the ballot.

Player rWAR Years on Ballot % Vote Career PA WAR/600 PA Year off ballot
Lou Whitaker 74.9 1 2.9% 9967 4.51 2001
Carlos Delgado 44.3 1 3.8% 8657 3.07 2015
Kenny Lofton 68.2 1 3.2% 9235 4.43 2013
Andres Galarraga 31.5 1 4.1% 8916 2.12 2010
Mark Grace 46.1 1 4.1% 9290 2.98 2009
Will Clark 56.2 1 4.4% 8283 4.07 2006
Joe Carter 19.3 1 3.8% 9154 1.27 2004

With the exception of Kenny Lofton, no player comes close on this list to the career production or efficiency of Lou Whitaker. The next table will highlight the players who earned enough of the vote to remain on for subsequent Hall of Fame elections.

Player rWAR Years on Ballot % Vote Career PA WAR/600 PA Year off ballot
Lou Whitaker 74.9 1 2.9% 9967 4.51 2001
Jeff Bagwell 79.6 6 71.6% 9431 5.06 Active
Tim Raines 69.1 9 69.8% 10,359 4.00 Active
Barry Bonds 162.4 4 44.3% 12,606 7.73 Active
Edgar Martinez 68.3 7 43.4% 8674 4.72 Active
Fred McGriff 52.4 7 23.9% 10,174 3.09 Active
Larry Walker 72.6 6 22.9% 8030 5.42 Active
Jeff Kent 55.2 3 16.6% 9537 3.47 Active
Sammy Sosa 58.4 4 12.5% 9896 3.54 Active
Gary Sheffield 60.3 2 11.7% 10,947 3.31 Active
Alan Trammell 70.4 15 40.9% 9376 4.51 2016
Mark McGwire 62.0 10 23.7% 7660 4.86 2016
Nomar Garciaparra 44.2 2 5.5% 6116 4.34 2016
Don Mattingly 42.2 15 28.2% 7722 3.28 2015
Rafael Palmeiro 71.6 4 12.6% 12,046 3.57 2014
Dale Murphy 46.2 15 23.2% 9041 3.07 2013
Bernie Williams 49.5 2 9.6% 9053 3.28 2013
Juan Gonzalez 38.5 2 5.2% 7155 3.23 2012
Dave Parker 39.9 15 24.5% 10,184 2.35 2011
Harold Baines 38.5 5 6.1% 11,092 2.08 2011
Dave Concepcion 39.5 15 16.9% 9641 2.46 2011
Albert Belle 39.9 2 7.7% 6676 3.59 2007
Willie McGee 34.0 2 5.0% 8188 2.49 2006
Keith Hernandez 60.0 9 10.8% 8553 4.21 2004

This list shows that the recent Hall of Fame hopefuls who match up to Whitaker are Jeff Bagwell (induction is in his sights for 2017), Barry Bonds (his results are not keeping him out of the HoF), Mark McGwire (Injuries, PED pioneer), Rafael Palmeiro (admitted PED use) and Alan Trammell (who, ironically, has the same exact WAR/600 PA as his double-play partner down to the second decimal). The last table will show every Hall of Fame inductee from 2001 to present along with the aforementioned statistics and their internal rank among the 20 individuals (19 inductees and Whitaker).

Player rWAR Rank Years until Induction % Vote Career PA WAR/600 PA Rank Year Inducted
Lou Whitaker 74.9 7 N/A 2.9% 9967 4.51 6 N/A
Ken Griffey Jr. 84.6 4 1 99.3% 11,304 4.49 7 2016
Mike Piazza 59.4 18 4 83.0% 7745 4.60 5 2016
Craig Biggio 65.1 15 3 82.7% 12,504 3.12 19 2015
Frank Thomas 73.7 8 1 83.7% 10,075 4.39 9 2014
Barry Larkin 70.2 9 3 86.5% 9075 4.64 4 2012
Roberto Alomar 66.8 14 2 90.0% 10,400 3.85 14 2011
Andre Dawson 64.5 16 9 77.9% 10,769 3.59 16 2010
Rickey Henderson 110.8 1 1 94.8% 13,346 4.98 2 2009
Jim Rice 47.4 20 15 76.5% 9059 3.14 18 2009
Tony Gwynn 68.8 11 1 97.6% 10,232 4.03 12 2007
Cal Ripken Jr. 95.5 2 1 98.5% 12,883 4.45 8 2007
Wade Boggs 91.1 3 1 91.9% 10,740 5.09 1 2005
Ryne Sandberg 67.5 13 3 76.2% 9282 4.36 10 2005
Paul Molitor 75.4 6 1 85.2% 12,167 3.72 15 2004
Gary Carter 69.9 10 6 78.0% 9019 4.65 3 2003
Eddie Murray 68.3 12 1 85.3% 12,817 3.20 17 2003
Ozzie Smith 76.5 5 1 91.7% 10,778 4.26 11 2002
Dave Winfield 63.8 17 1 84.5% 12,358 3.10 20 2001
Kirby Puckett 50.9 19 1 82.1% 7831 3.90 13 2001

Clearly, this is the class that Lou Whitaker belongs to. He doesn't just hit the bottom of the barrel either. Based on WAR, If Lou Whitaker were inducted into the Hall of Fame among his contemporaries, he would have been in the top third of both total career WAR and WAR efficiency. But he wasn't elected to the Hall of Fame. Nor was he even given a second chance.

Lou Whitaker does have a last ditch effort to arrive in Cooperstown: The Veterans Committee. The rules of the Veterans Committee are difficult to interpret and the system has been called flawed, to say the least. As Lou Whitaker belongs to the "Expansion Era" the committee holds a vote for his class every three years. If my math is right, the next vote for this era will be in December 2016. My hope is that justice will be served.

So I bang the drum for "Sweet Lou." And you should too. Bang it low and slow and together. Just like every at bat at old Tiger Stadium: "LOUUUUUUUUUU," "LOUUUUUUUUUU," "LOUUUUUUUUUU."

Editor's note: Please welcome Christopher to the BYB staff!