July 16, 2012

HOVG Heroes: Lou Whitaker


JOHN PARENT on LOU WHITAKER

"It hurt my family more than it hurt me. I said a long time ago, if I didn't make it in my first time, don't bring my name back up."

And they haven't. Yet.

Noted baseball historian Bill James rates Lou Whitaker as the thirteenth greatest second baseman ever to play in the major leagues. For parts of 19 seasons, Whitaker took the field alongside shortstop Alan Trammell for the Detroit Tigers, forming the longest-tenured double-play combination in the game's history.

Trammell and Whitaker were thought of together more than Stockton and Malone; they even appeared together as guest stars in an episode of “Magnum P.I.”, but the while they each carved out outstanding Major League careers, I think the presence of Whitaker hurts Trammell's Hall of Fame case a bit and I think playing next to Trammell for so long overshadows Whitaker as well.

As much as you cannot mention one without the other, Whitaker's career stands on its own.

In the history of the game, there have been two -- just two -- second baseman ever to play in at least 2000 games at the position while also collecting at least 2000 hits and amassing at least 200 home runs. Those players are Lou Whitaker and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.

Sweet Lou began his career with a September call-up in 1977, a mere two years after the Tigers had used a fifth-round pick on him out of a Martinsville, Virginia high school. Whitaker started at second base, hitting second in the order, in the second game of a double-header at Boston on September 9. It was his Major League debut. In the top of the first, Whitaker lined a single off Boston starter Reggie Cleveland, and he wasted little time in adding his first Major League stolen base the same inning. By April of 1978, the Tigers had turned the everyday job over to Whitaker.

Whitaker, who had connected for only five minor league home runs before his first trip to Detroit, managed only three as a rookie in 1978, but fueled by a .361 On Base Percentage, Whitaker impressed the writers enough for them to award him with Rookie of the Year honors. That season he walked 61 times versus just 65 strikeouts. It was a sign of things to come.

In the early 1980s, the Tigers were a young, but extremely talented club. Along with Trammell and Whitaker, Detroit had brought outfielder Kirk Gibson, catcher Lance Parrish, and right hander Jack Morris up to the big leagues all within a season of one another.

A bottom-feeder for most of the 1970s, suddenly the Tigers were once again a club to be reckoned with and Whitaker was a big part of the reason why.

In 1982, playing at age-25, and already his fifth full year in the big leagues, Whitaker suddenly began to show some pop in his left handed bat. Coming into that year, Whitaker had amassed over 2000 plate appearances and had cleared the wall 12 times.

His career slugging percentage coming into 1982 was a paltry .344, or lower than the career numbers offered by guys like Luis Castillo, Juan Pierre, and Will Rhymes. That season, however, Whitaker produced his first season with more than 20 doubles.  He matched a career-best mark with eight triples, and he cleared the fence 15 times in producing a slugging percentage of .434 - nearly 100 points higher than his career average.

It wasn't an outlier season for Whitaker, however, extra-base power became his new normal.

In an era where middle infielders were often all glove and no bat, Whitaker began producing what were eye-popping numbers. If we consider the Steroid Era to have started somewhere around 1992, we'll use that as the cut-off point for Sweet Lou. In the 11 season between 1982 and 1992, Whitaker never hit fewer than 12 home runs in a season, maintained a slugging percentage of .442 during that span and produced an .802 OPS.

Let's not forget, we're talking about a period in baseball (specifically the 1980s) where we went 14 seasons between 50-home run hitters, where Fred McGriff once lead the National League by hitting 35 home runs in a season, and where Ryne Sandberg was widely considered the best offensive second baseman in the game.

It wasn’t only Trammell that stole the spotlight; Whitaker played in Sandberg’s shadow as well.

Sandberg, for what it's worth, posted an OPS of .809 during those same 11 seasons (including a MVP season and a 40-homer season), but Whitaker posted the higher OBP, higher adjusted OPS, walked far more often, and struck out far fewer times.

Unlike Sandberg and many other "elite" second basemen, Whitaker never really had that one explosive season where he piled up 8-10 WAR. His best early-career campaign was probably the 1983 season when he set a career-high in batting average and posted a slash line of .320/.380/.457/.837. In

1991, Whitaker completed his evolution as a hitter, setting a career-high in both slugging and OPS. That season, he posted twice as many walks (90) as strikeouts (45).

Whitaker's consistency was his calling card. During the course of his career, only four players worked more walks, yet Whitaker appeared no higher than seventh in walk totals in any given season.

From 1978-1995, only ten players collected more hits than Whitaker did, and all ten of them are in the Hall of Fame, yet Sweet Lou managed 200 in a season just once and more than 160 only two other times.

During his career, only four players (again, all of the Hall of Famers) amassed more WAR than did Whitaker, though he managed a 6+ WAR season only twice and never higher than 6.5.

In terms of his place in history, Whitaker is often overlooked. Despite his career comparing so favorably to that of Sandberg, and their careers spanned almost the exact same seasons, it was Sandberg who got all the press. While Whitaker was going to five all-star games for the AL, Sandberg had a strangle-hold on the NL squad, making 10 appearances. Despite a reputation as a solid to above-average defender, Whitaker won only three gold gloves and despite his consistent success at the plate, Sweet Lou won only four silver slugger awards. His name appeared in the MVP voting only once.

Sadly, when it came time for the BBWAA to cast their 2001 Hall of Fame ballots, Whitaker's first season of eligibility, he was left off of 500 of the 515 ballots cast. His total of just 2.9 percent of the vote meant he would drop off the ballot for future consideration.

2001 wasn't that long ago, but it was a lifetime when it comes to the advancement of how we view baseball. That year, Steve Garvey garnered 34.2% of the vote. His career OPS, as a first baseman mind you, was .775. Whitaker's was .789 at a position where offense is almost viewed as a bonus.

Unfortunately, in the seasons leading up to Whitaker's lone appearance on a Hall of Fame ballot, baseball was in the middle of the offensive explosion of the Steroid Era. In the seven seasons between 1995 and 2001, there were 27 instances of a second baseman hitting at least 20 home runs in one campaign. In the previous 15 seasons combined, there were only 17 instances and the majority of those came from Sandberg (five times) and Whitaker (four). In short, just as the writers were getting ready to consider the merits of Sweet Lou, suddenly his power numbers didn't look so great when guys like Bret Boone and Rich Aurilia are hitting 37 bombs in a year.

Many times, Hall of Fame voters talk about the eye-test. They use this term to describe how a player looked in the moment; how much he may or may not have dominated in his time or at his position. Jim Rice didn't have the raw numbers compared to other Hall of Fame outfielders, but he was dominant for a short period of time and that eventually carried him into the Hall.

Sandberg's career, take away the awards, is one of a few seasons of dominance and a host of decent to very good campaigns. Whitaker's career may not have had the peaks that Sandberg's had, but it also had fewer valleys. Sandberg played 16 seasons and accumulated 62.6 WAR according to Fangraphs. That works out to 3.91 WAR per season. Sandberg was inducted to the Hall of Fame in his third year on the ballot.

Roberto Alomar, who was inducted in his second year on the ballot after fans and writers alike were enraged that he wasn't a first-ballot guy, had exactly three seasons with more WAR than Whitaker's best campaign. Alomar played 17 seasons and amassed 68 WAR. That averages 4.0 WAR per season.

Whitaker played in 19 seasons if you count his 11-game cameo in 1977. That season he was worth -0.3 WAR. For his career, Whitaker was worth a total of 74.3 WAR and including that 11-game cup of coffee as a full season, he averaged 3.91 WAR per season.  Or the exact same total per year as Sandberg.

Remove that 1977 season and Whitaker's 18 year average was 4.14 WAR per year.

Sweet Lou wasn't the best second baseman of all-time; not by a long shot. He wasn't the most gifted fielder, though he was often very good. He wasn't a tremendous hitter, though he hit tremendously at times. He showed up every season, stayed relatively healthy and was remarkably consistent and very productive for a very long time.

Only 18 second basemen have been elected to baseball's Hall of Fame and only three in the game's history have more career home runs than Whitaker, who never hit more than 28 in a season. His total of 2369 hits would place him ahead of nine of those Hall inductees.

Only seven second basemen in history have accumulated as much WAR as Whitaker did in his career; all seven are in Cooperstown. Among those with fewer WAR are Sandberg and Alomar, Hall of Famers Nellie Fox and Joe Gordon, and future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio.

WAR may not be the be-all, tell-all stat but it does do a pretty good job of encapsulating the all around play of a given ballplayer. Going back to 1876, only 60 players, ever, at any position, have earned more career WAR than Whitaker did. Sixty. By the single most inclusive stat we have at our disposal, Whitaker was worth more wins than all but sixty players ever. Sandberg waited three years to get the Hall call. Alomar just two.

Lou Whitaker got one turn on the ballot and if not for a rules change would have never gotten another chance. Fortunately, the Veteran's Committee has an opportunity to right the wrong of the BBWAA when they can consider Whitaker for enshrinement in 2016.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Parent is the Senior Director of Human Resources for the FanSided Network. His writing appears semi-regularly at Call to the Pen, FanSided's flagship baseball site. You can reach Parent via email or through Twitter


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