On Monday the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will reveal the ballot for the Modern Baseball Committee, with voting results to be announced in December at Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings.
Three, and possibly as many as five, former Detroit Tigers could find their way onto the ballot. Given previous iterations of the Hall of Fame’s Veterans Committees and the controversial candidacies of a few Tigers on the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), it’s not far-fetched.
Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, and Lou Whitaker, core members of Detroit’s 1984 World Series champions, are expected to be considered for the ballot, which will be selected by a nominating committee consisting of historians, scholars, former players, broadcasters, and executives.
Morris was a polarizing Hall of Fame candidate who spent the maximum 15 years on the BBWAA ballot. He received more votes for the Hall of Fame than anyone who has never been elected, peaking at 67.7 percent. A candidate must receive 75 percent support from the BBWAA to be elected.
In his 18 seasons, Morris was a textbook definition of ace: starting on opening day an American League record 14 times; completing games; pitching lots of innings; anchoring pitching staffs; winning games; pitching important postseason games. His 254 victories are the most of any pitcher who debuted between 1971 and 1984. He won seven postseason games and four in the World Series, including an epic 10-inning shutout in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series for the Twins. He was the ace of three championship teams and also threw a no-hitter.
But Morris has become the favorite whipping boy of the sabermetric community, who rely largely on advanced statistical analysis to evaluate players. That group points to Morris’ ERA of 3.90 (which would be the highest in the Hall of Fame) and his relatively modest total of Wins Above Replacement. They acknowledge Morris’ importance in his era, but don’t feel a few great performances in the postseason should place him in the Hall of Fame. It’s possible that his crusty personality also placed Morris at a disadvantage with the baseball writer electorate.
The 16-person Modern Baseball committee will convene at the Winter Meetings in December, and each member will be allowed to vote for up to for candidates. Any candidate who receives at least eight votes will be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Like Morris, Trammell spent 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, peaking at 40.9 percent in his final year of eligibility. His supporters point to Trammell’s career numbers being among the top ten among shortstops in the history of the game. Detractors feel he didn’t reach significant career milestones or lead the league in enough categories. Trammell’s biggest crime might be that he did everything very well, but wasn’t flashy at any one thing.
The case of Whitaker is puzzling. The former Tiger second baseman put up stats nearly identical to that of his longtime double play partner, but he was kicked off the BBWAA ballot after one try, failing to garner even five percent support. In this instance, it’s probably a case of being too far under the radar. Whitaker was aloof during his 19-year career spent entirely in Detroit. Though he captured numerous Gold Glove awards, Silver Slugger awards, and was an All-Star several times, he was not a superstar in stature. He was very good at things that most baseball observers (even sportswriters) have been loathe to recognize. Whitaker got on base a lot via the base on balls, he fielded his position with tactical precision, and had one of the best infield arms in the game.
In contrast to Morris, Whitaker’s statistical paper trail is excellent. He ranks in the top ten or fifteen in nearly every offensive category for second basemen. His career WAR (74.9 according to baseball-reference) ranks seventh, ahead of notable second basemen Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar, both Hall of Famers. His defensive metrics, measured by the most advanced methods we have to evaluate play in the field, are among the best for a second baseman. His critics point to his career .276 batting average and the fact that Whitaker never led the league in any category other than games played. In spite of his quick dismissal from the HOF ballot, the sabermetric community has taken up the fight for Sweet Lou’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
Morris, Trammell, and Whitaker are all eligible for the Modern Baseball ballot, which looks at players, managers, and executives “whose greatest contributions to the game were realized from the 1970-1987 era,” according to the Hall of Fame website. All three players debuted for the Tigers in 1977.
Two other former Tigers may see their names on the Modern Baseball ballot this week, both members of the 1968 World Champions. Catcher Bill Freehan and pitcher Mickey Lolich have both been under consideration by veterans committees in the past, but neither has gained much of a groundswell of support.
Many Tiger fans believe Freehan and Lolich deserve to be elected based on their lengthy careers and accomplishments. Freehan was an All-Star eleven times, a number only a few catchers have ever surpassed. He won five Gold Gloves and was unquestionably the best catcher in the American League for a decade starting in 1964.
Lolich’s performance in the ’68 Series stands as one of the best in baseball history. The quiet lefthander started, completed, and won three games, defeating Bob Gibson in Game Seven on two days rest. He was more than a postseason one-trick pony: Lolich held the Al record for strikeouts by a southpaw for more than four decades; he pitched more than 300 innings in four straight seasons; and he finished second and third in Cy Young voting.
Seeing as how both Freehan and Lolich played (and starred) in the 1960s as well as the 1970s, it’s possible they would be considered for the Golden Days Committee, which handles the era of 1950-1969. But the Hall of Fame normally does not make those distinctions public, leaving it to the nominating bodies to sort it out.
In October, the Hall of Fame did confirm that the Tigers 1984 trio would be under consideration for the Modern Baseball Committee. Whether all three end up on the ballot will not be clear until tomorrow.
Would having all three members of the 1984 team on the ballot at the same time hurt their individual chances? I don’t think so. If anything, having Trammell and Whitaker side-by-side on the ballot, as they were for 19 seasons in the middle of the infield with the Tigers, should help their case. The duo are inextricably linked: they played more games together than any teammates in AL history (1,874). They normally batted first and second in the Detroit lineup. They debuted on the same day and posted eerily similar stats. Fans can barely say “Trammell” without adding “And Whitaker.”
Morris has a tremendous case for election. He garnered hundreds of votes year-after-year and probably only missed being elected because a few times he had the misfortune of being on a packed ballot with several worthy candidates. Still, in numerous elections, Morris received more votes than Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Barry Larkin, and Tim Raines, all of whom were subsequently elected to the Hall.
Will members of the committee look at Morris as a player who unfairly missed out on his chance after several years of strong support? Or will they say that if he couldn’t make it after 15 years on the BBWAA ballot, he’s not a Hall of Famer? It’s difficult to understand how the winningest pitcher of the 1980s, a man who was so important to so many pennant races and championship teams, a man who started All-Star Games, pitched a no-hitter, and had an indomitable competitive spirit, can be left out of the Hall of Fame. To those of us who watched his career closely, Morris felt like a Hall of Famer, he carried himself like a Hall of Famer, he looked like the epitome of an ace.
The face of Morris, Trammell, and Whitaker has a larger narrative. The 1984 Detroit Tigers are one of only two* World Series champions from 1903 to 1996 that do not have at least one player in the Hall of Fame. At the time they were enjoying their magical season, it seemed inevitable that at least one of their core players would one day get a plaque in Cooperstown. In addition to Morris, Trammell, and Whitaker, catcher Lance Parrish, center fielder Chet Lemon, and infielder Darrell Evans went on to post great career numbers. While the latter three are not strong HOF candidates, the first three, as outlined above, rank among the most popular candidates in history.
Tomorrow we’ll learn who will be on the ten-person ballot, and each candidate will have their supporters. But the ballot will mean a lot more to Detroit fans after years of seeing some of their favorite players be shut out.