A lot of science goes into choosing Hall of Famers. Most of the voters in the BBWAA are very thoughtful about their ballot and most of them are on the money with their selections. However, no one can deny that there is a certain amount of serendipity involved in the selection process. If we look at second base for instance we have to ask ourselves if Bill Mazeroski would have been selected by the Veterans Committee if he had not hit the walk off home run that won the 1960 World Series.
Most of the players in the Hall of Fame have some kind of magical moment or a calling card they are known for. The irony is that the rules discourage voters for placing a vote on the basis of a single accomplishment. For instance, pitcher Rube Marquard won the most consecutive games without a loss and had a Broadway play based on the accomplishment. The fame went a long way in getting him inducted to the Hall of Fame. The rest of his career lacked the punch necessary to get him in. The Veterans Committee overlooked that.
This brings us to Lou Whitaker. His teammate, Alan Trammel, just got in through the new version of the Veterans Committee. He and Whitaker were similar in that they did not have many signature moments. The Tigers were good throughout the 1980s, but they were rarely ever great. When they were great that greatness was usually attributed to someone else.
1981: 60-49 (2nd)
1983: 92-70 (2nd)
1984: 104-58 (World Champions)
1987: 98-64 (Lost in ALCS)
Had they done this in the 1990s or the 2000s they likely would have had four playoff appearances. The Tigers had quite a bit of talent in 1984. Jack Morris and Trammel are in the Hall of Fame this season and players like Lance Parrish, Darrell Evans, and Kirk Gibson have been sniffing around it. Willie Hernandez was the MVP in the AL that season as a closer. The makeup of the team remain unchanged throughout the period for the most part, but a little here and a little there can make a big difference.
For all of their grandstanding, some in the BBWAA just don’t look beyond the glitz and glamour and simply soak in the numbers. Whitaker doesn’t have a nickname or a signature moment to hang his hat on. He was never the best player in the league and never led in a traditional statistical category. That obviously isn’t going to change, so maybe we need to look into getting him a nickname. First, let’s take a look at the index scores for him and Willie Randolph.
At first blush, both of these guys belong in, but there is really no excuse for Whitaker to be out. Randolph admittedly takes a little more imagination because much of his value (as we will see) is with the glove. However, Whitaker’s career numbers in the traditional categories are just as impressive as his numbers above. Usually those are well hidden, but they aren’t in Whitaker’s case
None of those numbers are overwhelming, but they are strong numbers. Additionally, he was the Rookie of the Year in 1978, he won four Gold Glove Awards, and three Silver Slugger awards. None of those things mean anything, but they do demonstrate that he was well regarded by the writers when he played. He bested Randolph in every category and won more Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger awards than Randolph as well. As we will see, that reputation was not deserved.
Here we see a little glimpse into why both of these players are on the outside looking in. Both were good players for a very long time, but neither was great. Bill James called this the black ink test. How many times does a player lead the league in a statistical category? Neither player littered the encyclopedia with black ink. They were simply good players throughout their career. Whitaker did not quite approach Bobby Grich’s index score, but he comes pretty darn close. He is also superior to a player or two that is already in the Hall of Fame.
It’s been said often, but it bears repeating: players that are good with the bat and the glove often get overlooked in favor of someone that is great in one facet or the other. Sadly, if someone is not the best at something they get overlooked. Their value is overlooked. People focus on superlatives and deplorables. Watch any good team long enough and you’ll realize that average players have value. Often, those players are the difference makers. Replace a below average or bad player with an average one and you’ll see more improvement then going average to above average or good to very good.
Hall of Fame Index
Whitaker is clearly a Hall of Famer. There really is no excuse for him not being in. Randolph exists in what we might call the borderline zone. It largely depends on your personal philosophy on what the Hall of Fame should be about. He and Jeff Kent have similar Hall of Fame cases. Randolph was a superlative defender while Kent was the better hitter. If you think the Hall of Fame is a museum that should celebrate the history of the game then both should be in. If you think it is a place for only the very best then neither should be in. Either way, we should table this until we look at the offensive and defensive numbers.
No one really disputes the fact that Whitaker was the better hitter, but offensive winning percentage might really tell the tale better than the other categories. A team of Whitakers would win 96 games a year and that is assuming he is stone cold average with the glove. Randolph would win 87 games. Obviously, that’s not great, but when we consider the whole package it might come off looking a little better.
We have to keep in mind that these numbers are a comparison with the whole MLB universe. Your second basemen is usually not expected to be one of your better hitters. So, when you have someone that is above average that actually means they are usually better when compared to the average second basemen. This will come out better when we look at the fielding numbers.
Whitaker was a good fielder by every available metric. Randolph was a great one. It is unfortunate that he never got credit for that defense while he played. We could go into depth about how the Gold Glove awards are selected, but suffice it to say, it is a less than scientific process. That might be costing Randolph with the traditional crowd who don’t look too deeply into a player’s resume. Both players demonstrated they were at least above average with the bat, on the bases, and with the glove. That combination should be enough for them to get in.
Randolph is borderline, so anyone that says no on him can be forgiven for having an opposing point of view. Whitaker simply doesn’t make sense. No, he did not lead the league in any statistical category. He never won an MVP (or have a top five finish). He had no signature seasons. He didn’t win a huge playoff game with a game winning hit. He doesn’t even have a nickname. Well, that changes today. From here on out he will be Sweet Lou Whitaker. I have no idea if that nickname fits his personality or how he was viewed by his teammates. It doesn’t matter. Hopefully, it is enough to get him in.