Where’s Whitaker? Eight Theories on a Hall of Fame Snub

Second baseman Lou Whitaker played 19 seasons for the Detroit Tigers, winning the Rookie of the Year Award, three Gold Gloves, four Silver Slugger Awards, and earning five All-Star selections.

If Alan Trammell is elected to the Hall of Fame by the Modern Baseball Era Committee on Sunday, it will end one Cooperstown snub but make another one seem worse. If Trammell gets a plaque, why is his double play partner Lou Whitaker—who had an essentially identical career—shut out not only from induction but from voting consideration altogether?

By the numbers, Whitaker clearly belongs in the Hall, both by traditional statistics—where he ranks among the top 10 Hall of Fame second basemen in career hits, home runs, RBIs, doubles, and runs scored—and advanced stats, where he shines in Wins Above Replacement, JAWS, and Hall Rating. Beyond the raw numbers, Whitaker is etched in our memories for playing the game of baseball with incomparable fluidity and grace.

There is no rational reason to induct Ryne Sandberg in 2005, Roberto Alomar in 2011, and Craig Biggio in 2015, while keeping Whitaker—whose numbers keep pace or surpass them—not only out of the Hall but off the ballot.

So what’s going on? I’ve seen at least eight different explanations.

To be clear up front: none of them are good enough to justify Whitaker’s exclusion, and the sheer number of theories suggests a struggle to explain the inexplicable.

1. Whitaker’s personality and relationship with the media hurt him on the ballot.

Let’s get this one out of the way first, because it may be the most influential despite being the least relevant to Whitaker’s worthiness as a player. Whitaker was withdrawn and eccentric , and was seen by the media as aloof and self-absorbed.

“He wasn’t a good quote and was not that well liked by reporters,” writes Keith Law in Smart Baseball.

Law adds that there could be a more sinister aspect to the media’s failure to warm up to Whitaker.

“Whitaker was also an African American player reaching the ballot at a time when the Hall of Fame electorate was overwhelmingly white,” Law writes. “When I reached out to several voters [recently] to ask about Whitaker’s failure on the ballot, I heard the word ‘uppity’ used to refer to his character, which unfortunately is a word only applied to people of color.”

To be clear, Law isn’t saying that white voters dislike all African American candidates, but rather that race may have worsened the writers’ reaction to Whitaker’s personality.

The fact that Trammell performed so much better with voters—he stayed on the ballot 15 years and got as high as 40% on his last writers’ ballot—reinforces all of the above suspicions.

You may have correctly observed that none of this has anything to do with actual baseball. But there’s little doubt that popularity with the media (and lack thereof) plays an outsized role in Hall of Fame voting. So this theory alone, sadly enough, may be to blame.

2. Whitaker was good or great at a lot of things without being the best at anything.

Detroit Athletic Co. blog editor Dan Holmes pointed out to me that Whitaker is one of just 26 players in major league history to finish more than 30 Runs Above Average in batting, baserunning, and fielding.

You’d think being among the most well-rounded players ever would be a good thing. But Hall of Fame voters prefer a player who was the best at something over one who was good or great at everything.

“It’s hard to remember any period when Whitaker was looked upon as the greatest second baseman of his era,” explained voter Jayson Stark in 2001. “‘Just’ a very good player.” (Unfortunately for Trammell, Stark is one of the 16 voters deciding his fate on Sunday.)

3. Whitaker had career longevity without a standout season or seasons.

Just as Whitaker had several skills without standing out for any one of them, his career consisted of many good seasons without a true breakout year. If you are “just” going to accumulate career statistics, you’re best served by reaching a traditional threshold like 3,000 hits, as Craig Biggio did. Whitaker bests Biggio in almost every aspect except that one.

“I don’t think that Craig Biggio is in the Hall of Fame if he retires with 2,700 hits,” Hall of Fame reporter Graham Womack, who supports Whitaker’s cause, told me recently. “It’s hard for guys who are seen as just statistical compilers, or who are really good for a long time but never necessarily an elite superstar.”

Jay Jaffe’s influential JAWS system bears this out. Jaffe uses three numbers: a player’s career WAR, his WAR7 (which is his WAR from his seven best seasons), and then the average of the two, which he calls JAWS. This gives you a snapshot of a player’s longevity, his peak, and then–since most Hall of Famers are stronger in one or the other–a single scale to evaluate all of them.

Whitaker soars in career WAR and JAWS, but he has a low peak: his WAR7 is below average for a Hall of Famer, and behind a lower tier of players including Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, and Chuck Knoblauch.

Whitaker’s combination of durability and productivity is still worthy of the Hall. But it’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats, so voters are often asking different questions.

4. Whitaker is an analytics-friendly candidate at the mercy of analytics-unfriendly voters.

Whitaker’s voters ask the wrong questions because they come from the wrong era. Whitaker’s one-and-done came in 2001, two years before Moneyball came out and well before analytics started nudging Hall of Fame debates.

Unfortunately, that forever put him out of reach of the writers, a voting body that in recent years has gotten younger and more analytically inclined, as seen by Tim Raines’ triumph last year. He’s stuck for life with veteran voters who are more averse to analytics.

Again, Whitaker’s career totals in traditional stats do hold up when compared with Hall of Fame second basemen. But batting .300 only twice, never hitting 30 home runs or reaching 100 RBIs in a season, and falling short of 3,000 hits are cardinal sins that Hall of Fame high priests seldom forgive.

5. Whitaker and Trammell suffered from a lack of exposure in Detroit.

“Whitaker has been hurt mainly by the times in which he played,” wrote Lynn Henning in the Detroit News. “His stage was Detroit, before all games were regularly telecasted, before ESPN and the MLB Network had either reached full flower or even been conceived. There was no Internet helping to distill numbers. No national Twitter chatter to consolidate information and brighten spotlights. The Trammell/Whitaker double-play combo played in relative darkness, at least compared with today.”

6. Whitaker and Trammell are tainted by the Tigers underachieving in the 1980s and stinking up the joint in the 1990s.

The Tigers were the second-winningest team of the 1980s, but they failed to become the dynasty they were expected to be.

“There’s a feeling that those Tigers, with [Jack] Morris, [Alan] Trammell, and Whitaker, underachieved relative to expectations,” Jaffe, author of The Cooperstown Casebook, told me recently. “They won the 1984 World Series, but they got bumped off in 1987, upset by the Twins, and they never won anything else. They’re all sort of implicated in that shortfall.”

Then, when Whitaker and Trammell came up for a vote in the early 2000s, the Tigers were coming off ten straight years of 1990s futility, a stench that stuck in voters’ nostrils.

7. Whitaker was penalized by coming up for a vote during the Steroid Era.

Whitaker’s lone appearance on the writers’ ballot came during the height of the Steroid Era, when both stars and average players were posting juiced-up stats that made Whitaker’s look light by comparison.

“Even though Whitaker’s career offensive numbers were … better than league average during his era, they looked pedestrian when compared to the video game numbers produced in the year 2000,” wrote Christopher Yheulon at Bless You Boys.

8. Whitaker was the victim of a fluke ballot in 2001.

The ballot was crowded in 2001, and every voter was banging their drum for someone else.

“If ever I’ve seen a case where every voter figured, ‘Someone else will put him on, I’ve got other fish to fry,’ that was it—a perfect storm,” Henning told Jaffe. “I’ve never seen anything so utterly flukish in Hall of Fame voting.”

The good news for Whitaker is that if Trammell does get the call on Sunday, the case for his inseparable double play partner may finally get the momentum and attention it deserves.

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About Nathan Bierma

Nathan Bierma is a freelance writer, web designer, and educational technologist living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is on Twitter at @nbierma.