A Guaranteed HOF Snub

On January 5, the Hall of Fame class of 2011 will be announced. It appears that Bert Blyleven will finally get the call after 14 years on the ballot. Roberto Alomar is likely to receive the necessary votes as well. There will be a long list of deserving candidates left out this year. After the announcement, there will be no shortage of analysis of the snubbery. But we know for a fact that, even before the votes are tallied, one deserving candidate will not be inducted.

The 1984 season was magical for the Detroit Tigers. They won a franchise record 104 games during the regular season. They only lost one game in the postseason on their way to the World Series championship. Lou Whitaker had an average year by his standards: a 118 park- and league-adjusted wOBA (wRC+) while only saving two runs in the field. That Tigers team was carried by his teammates Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson and Chet Lemon. Their star pitchers were Jack Morris and Cy Young and MVP winner Willie Hernandez.

Not just overshadowed on his own team, Sweet Lou also became second fiddle to another 2B in 1984. That was the year Ryne Sandberg became a star. Ryno notched a 147 wRC+ in addition to playing excellent defense — he saved 12 runs according to TotalZone. He won the National League MVP and led the Cubs to their first playoff appearance since 1945. The June 23rd game between the Cubs and Cardinals that year is even named after him. It is known simply as “The Sandberg Game.”

By 1991, the glory days of the Tigers were over. After seven straight winning seasons from 1982 to 1988, winning the World Series in 1984 and the division in 1987, the Tigers lost 186 games the previous two years. Kirk Gibson was by then more famous as a Dodger. Chet Lemon, Darrell Evans, and Willie Hernandez had retired. Jack Morris signed with his hometown Minnesota Twins in the offseason. The main attraction in Detroit was Cecil Fielder, who had become the first player since 1977 to hit 50 home runs. The only holdovers from the great 1984 season were the double-play combination, Trammell and Whitaker.

Whitaker was entering his age-34 season and coming off of a sub-par year. It looked as if he was starting the decline phase of his career. But strange things happen in baseball and Sweet Lou had a resurgence. He hit for more power than he ever had before (.489 SLG). He walked twice as much as he struck out (90/45 BB/K) and his 146 wRC+ was the highest of his career. Nineteen ninety-one marked the beginning of an offensive explosion that lasted until the end of his career.

The end of Whitaker’s career coincided with the beginning of another young second baseman’s career. Roberto Alomar was already a household name entering the 1991 season. He was an All-Star in his third Major League season and was a centerpiece of the biggest blockbuster trade of the offseason. He came from a baseball family. His father, Sandy Alomar Sr, had coached him with the San Diego Padres and Sandy Jr, his brother, had just won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1990. In 1991, Alomar had the best season of his career to that point. He went on to play in 12 consecutive All-Star games, win ten Gold Glove awards and finish in the top ten in the MVP voting five times.

2B WAR Comparison
(Click image for full size)

Baseball-Reference lists Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar as the first and third most similar players for Lou Whitaker (Alan Trammell is second). As you can see from this Fangraphs WAR graph, Whitaker compares favorably to both Sandberg and Alomar. His peak was slightly lower, but he had a longer, more productive career than either.

Whitaker’s first year on the Hall of Fame ballot was 2001. He received 2.9% of the vote, well shy of the minimum needed to remain eligible. Sandberg gained entrance into the Hall of Fame in 2005 — his third year on the ballot — with 76.2% of the writers voting for him. Alomar received 73.7% of the votes last year and is almost a lock to be inducted this year — his second year of eligibility. How is someone so similar to Sandberg and Alomar not only kept out of the Hall of Fame, but not even on the ballot anymore?

When the writers first had the opportunity to vote for Whitaker in 2001, they had just seen Barry Bonds break the single-season home-run record with 73 bombs. It was the middle of the Steroid Era in baseball and offensive performances were off the charts. This was in stark contrast to the 1980’s. During Whitaker’s prime years (1983-86) the average game saw 4.33 runs scored, compared to 4.95 the four years prior to his Hall of Fame eligibility. The voters were just not impressed with a guy who batted only .276 for his career and hit only 244 homeruns.

It is hard to remember, but ten short years ago sabermetric ideas were still on the fringe of the baseball world. This was before Moneyball, before you could go online and find Lou Whitaker’s career wRC+, before most followers of baseball knew that on-base percentage was the most important offensive statistic. And Whitaker was outstanding at drawing walks. He walked almost 100 more times than he struck out in his career. His 1,197 career bases on balls are tied for 55th on the all-time list (fifth among 2B).

Sweet Lou’s other great skill was his defensive ability. This was, to some extent, evident to his contemporaries as he won three consecutive Gold Gloves from 1983 to 1985. But today’s advanced defensive metrics measure his defense as excellent throughout his career. According to TotalZone, Whitaker saved 77 runs during his 19 year career. Current Hall of Fame voters tend to overlook defensive value unless a player was an all-time great at shortstop, such as Ozzie Smith.

His ability to get on base combined with his exceptional defense allowed Whitaker to rack up value. He was worth 74.3 wins above replacement, which would rank eighth among Hall of Fame second baseman.

A special exception was made in 1985 to reinstate Ron Santo, Curt Flood, Denny McClain and a few others to the Hall of Fame ballot because they had been overlooked during their first go around. Unless another exception is made for Whitaker, he’ll have to wait until 2017 for a possible vote via the Veterans Committee. If Santo has not been inducted by then, Sweet Lou may be overshadowed once again.

Originally posted on Cut Four



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Steve
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Steve

This is just a general question, but the Lou Whitaker discussion brought it up again. How is WAR calculated for historical players prior to such defensive stats such as UZR? I understand UZR to be based in part on a player’s ability to make plays on balls that were “outside of the zone” for that position. How would we know that about Whitaker when he played in the 80s? Is WAR a reliable stat for all eras, the current one only, or neither? Maybe someone can help me out.

RC
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RC

“Whitaker was entering his age-34 season and coming off of a sub-par year. It looked as if he was starting the decline phase of his career. But strange things happen in baseball and Sweet Lou had a resurgence. He hit for more power than he ever had before (.489 SLG). He walked twice as much as he struck out (90/45 BB/K) and his 146 wRC+ was the highest of his career. Nineteen ninety-one marked the beginning of an offensive explosion that lasted until the end of his career.”

You mean, the perceived beginning of the steroid era? Yea, that should help his case…

SF 55 for life
Member
SF 55 for life

lou whitaker would not get my vote, though he is very close. If you are going to consider any second baseman for the hall of fame you have to start with Bobby Grich. Grich was a slightly better hitter, as good if not better of a fielder, and had a nearly identical WAR total with over 1,000 less PA’s. On top of that he had a much higher peak but still maintained a solid career overall.

If anyone has been overlooked it is Grich who is probably more deserving than both Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg. Not to mention a handful of current hall of famers as well.

BillyBeaneismyHero
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BillyBeaneismyHero

RC –

Your argument is far too simplistic, not to mention unproductive. Isn’t it more likely that Whitaker regressed back to the mean (offensively) after a season in which he had a rather unlucky .242 BABIP (compared to his .290 career BABIP)? If you look at his wRAA stats between 1988 and 1993, 1990 is the clear and obvious outlier.

Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

Its interesting to look at WAR and see who has over 70 WAR for their career, most of them are HOF but there are glaring omissions, such as Whitaker. I went through and came up with all the retired players with 70+ WAR who aren’t in the HOF, here they are:

Barry Bonds: 169.7*
Pete Rose: 91.4*
Ken Griffey Jr: 85.6
Jeff Bagwell: 83.9
Bill Dahlen: 80.0
Ron Santo: 79.3
Frank Thomas 79.1
Rafael Palmeiro: 75.5*
Lou Whitaker: 74.3
Sherry Magee: 74.1
Bobby Grich: 74.1
Larry Walker: 72.2
Reggie Smith: 71.8
Graig Nettles: 71.8
Edgar Martinez: 71.6
Dwight Evans: 71.4
Tim Raines: 71.0
Joe Torre: 70.8
Mark McGwire: 70.6*
Craig Biggio: 70.1

In my opinion, every single one of these players belongs in the Hall. On this ballot, Bagwell & Raines need to get in, if you do not care about steroids, McGwire should go in too.

Kevin L. Wiley
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Kevin L. Wiley

I’ve always thought it was completely absurd that Tim Raines isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Of the eligible players which I have had the pleasure of watching in my lifetime Raines is the most glaring ommission.

bSpittle
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Cy Young was born in 1867.

Amazing how long he extended his career playing into the 1980’s

flamefox111
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flamefox111

PL- Torre got inducted by the Veterans Committee a couple years ago, but I agree with your point.

Griggs
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Griggs

Great article Ja4ed. I agree that Whitaker should of received more consideration but IMO he does fall short. He is the ideal second baseman. A very tough out with a great eye making a lot of contact with a bunch of walks. He was also clearly better than average defensively and hit for some power and stole some bases(although most 2b at that time were better baserunners). However he didn’t do anything on an elite level. Both Sandberg and Alomar were not only ‘ideal’ but basically ‘perfect’. Both were elite defensively and both provided much more offense. Alomar was one of the best leadoff hitters of the last 25 years and Sandberg hit with more power than any 2b since Gehringer in the 30s until Kent came along. It isn’t much of a comparison when you look at the three, Whitaker falls way short of the other two.

Griggs
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Griggs

SF 55 –

Like you say, Grich is much like Whitaker and was probably slightly better during the peak years both with the glove and the bat but I place him lower because Whitaker did have a great finish to his career. Grich is easily dismissed as a candidate because his 2000 games and 6800 AB is too low for a non elite player.

Patrick
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Patrick

2nd Base is the position for baseball players that aren’t good enough to play Short Stop.

I know this is a crude over-generalization, but it’s still a logical enough assumption to suggest that 2nd base should be the least represented INF position in the Hall of Fame.

Yet the INF position that is least represented is 3rd base.

It doesn’t seem right.

Griggs
Guest
Griggs

Patrick

I agree and have come to that logical assumption myself. 2nd base is the hardest position to have a long career at simply because it is the easiest to replace. The minor leagues are filled with players that can play 2nd not so with SS and 3rd. I think I am accurate in saying it looks like we will have four each in the ~30yr period from the late 70s to late 00s(Brett, Schmidt, Boggs, Chipper, Sandberg, Alomar, Biggio, Kent). It seems even recently and I wouldn’t want to see anything resembling quotas but maybe a bit more respect for defense at 3rd would be nice(Nettles has a good case I think). I think we will see 3rd base defense factor in a bit more in the future.

Griggs
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Griggs

Just wanted to add and clarify that Nettles came just prior to that 30yr period(because his peak years were 70s years) I was referencing. I also think Santo has a fairly good case and even Evans is in that same grouping. I need to look at that post war through the 70s period a little closer than I ever have to get a better handle on these guys. I have put Nettles #1 on the guys that didn’t make it because IMO he was the best defensively post Robinson and he had a very long career but he does give a lot back because he was such a flawed hitter. I can see why these guys have caused confusion among the HOF voters.

Brad
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Brad

I wonder how many guys in the HOF have a lower WAR than 70?

david33957
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david33957

flamefox111 wrote >>> PL- Torre got inducted by the Veterans Committee a couple years ago, but I agree with your point.>>>

WHAT Hall of Fame are you referring to? Torre has NOT been inducted by the Veterans Committee at Cooperstown. Under current rules, if Torre remains retired from managing, he will become eligible for induction to the Hall of Fame as a manager in 2014, which is the next induction class in which post-1972 managers can be considered.

Crumpled Stiltskin
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Crumpled Stiltskin

You guys realize that guys who can’t play ss or 2b end up at 3b, cf and lf? Guys who can’t play 3b end up at 1b and in rf? By such logic all positions except shortstop and catcher should have low representation in the hall.

Second base is a premium defensive position. So what if some of the guys who play there can’t play another position. If you can hit and play a position well defensively that is generally populated guys who can only defend, why shouldn’t you get credit for it?

Whitaker should have been in the hall. He, Sandberg, Alomar and Biggio were all great and ridiculously similar as players. Of course, Trammell should be in as well.