They say timing is everything.
In regards to the Hall of Fame chances for three former Tiger teammates that’s definitely true.
Jack Morris and Alan Trammell are Hall of Famers. The first two players from the 1984 Detroit Tigers world championship team to earn that distinction. For the rest of their lives they will be introduced as “Hall of Famer Alan Trammell” and “Hall of Famer Jack Morris.” At banquets, reunions, for interviews, you name it. After they’re gone, they will live on in the Museum and Plaque Gallery in Cooperstown, legendary names in baseball history.
Not the case for Sweet Lou Whitaker, who played a combined 33 years with Morris and Trammell. The former Tiger second baseman is destined to be on the outside looking in. There’s one glaring reason that happened. Timing.
In 2001, Whitaker first appeared on the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He got 15 votes, only two more than Kirk Gibson and six more than Lance Parrish, two former Tiger stars who have lesser credentials. As a result, Whitaker’s name was removed from consideration by the baseball writers. His only remaining chance for election would be through the veterans committee, a small group of former players and managers who have been very stingy for many years.
In 2001, baseball analysis was much different. Advanced methods of statistical analysis existed, but the vast majority of baseball writers were suspicious of them. Baseball writers are not the most daring bunch. They don’t set trends, they rest stolid year after year, decade after decade, sort of baseball’s genus of cranky old men. When Whitaker appeared on the ballot there were practically no baseball writers who relied on stats that went beyond batting average, hits, home runs, and RBIs. They lived and breathed MVPs and All-Star Games and the milestone numbers. Whitaker didn’t have much in those categories. He was Rookie of the Year, he won a few Gold Gloves, he was an All-Star a few times, but he never won a batting title and he didn’t have a glossy .300 career average or 300 home runs. Lou was quiet, unassuming. The writers yawned.
In 2002, Trammell first appeared on the ballot. He got 74 votes, about 15 percent. Well below the 75 percent needed, but not a terrible showing. Gradually, as writers and baseball analysts gained a stronger voice, Trammell gained momentum. In his ninth year on the ballot he inched above 20 percent, and two years later he got 36 percent. But time ran out: players get 15 years, and in Tram’s final year of eligibility he peaked at a little over 40 percent. His case would go to the secondary jury, the veterans committee.
Morris had a different journey. Unlike Trammell, his case is not championed by the sabermetric (advanced stats) crowd. He’s seen as overrated by those folks, who don’t give much credit to Morris for his seven postseason wins, his load of complete games, and for being ace of three world championship teams. The traditional writers were mostly in Morris’ corner however. They admired his durability and they absolutely loved his Game Seven 10-inning shutout in the 1991 World Series. An unmatched feat in baseball history.
For 15 years Morris kept getting support, topping 100 votes every year. He went over 40 percent eight times and peaked at nearly 68 percent. That year he finished second among all eligible players, only three votes behind Craig Biggio, who was elected two years later. Morris was a polarizing candidate but his timing was good: he got on the ballot in 2000, a year before Whitaker, when the writers still liked tradition. He had some marquee credentials: the no-hitter, the postseason success, the Game Seven shutout, most wins in the 1980s, and all those opening day starts.
Last winter, Morris and Trammell were both elected to the Hall by the veterans committee, a group that included men like George Brett and Robin Yount, who played against the former Tigers. Both Tram and Jack had spent a full 15 years on the writers ballot, a feat that factors heavily on veterans committee voters. Traditionally, a player who was consistently debated by the writers will get a long look by the second-chance group. Morris had accumulated more votes than any man not in the Hall, Trammell had the sabermetric crowd behind him.
Where does that leave Lou Whitaker? He’s the odd man out. He got one quick look by the writers. They missed on him terribly. As a result, he’s a “one-and-doner”. That doesn’t bode well for his chances. The veterans committee didn’t even put Whitaker’s name on the ballot last year. Which is a crime.
“I didn’t even get daylight,” Whitaker said.
There’s a whisker of difference between Trammell and Whitaker. If any at all. And it’s possible Sweet Lou was a more valuable player than Tram was over the course of their careers. How one man could be a Hall of Famer and the other not, well it’s baffling.
Consider this: after the two men (who made their MLB debut in the same game in September of 1977) had played ten years, they were separated by 20 hits, three home runs, and 18 RBIs. Both had a career .281 batting average, their career slugging percentages were one point apart. They had almost the exact same number of total bases (32 apart) and had reached base the exact same number of times. Of course, both had hit near the top of the order, won Gold Golves and been All-Stars, as well as won a World Series. They were twins. By their last season as teammates, Whitaker and Trammell had nearly the same total of hits, doubles, and their slugging was separated by a few measly points. Sure, Trammell had more RBIs and a higher batting average, but Sweet Lou had 45 more homers, far more walks, and had scored over 100 more runs. The two players started to diverge as they aged, but they were still very similar as offensive players.
On the field, Trammell played shortstop, a more important defensive position. But Whitaker was his double play partner, and he was excellent at the keystone, playing more than 2,000 games at second. His arm was fantastic and he could turn the double play as well as any of his contemporaries. Whitaker’s range was excellent. Second base is also an extremely important position.
But the timing was off for Sweet Lou. Even though he is statistically the fourth most similar player in baseball history to Alan Trammell, the beloved former Tiger didn’t get enough votes to stay on the writers ballot for more than one year, and he wasn’t even considered by the latest second-chance committee. Through a quirk in the voting rules in years past, there are players in the Hall of Fame who got less than 5 percent who got longer looks by the writers. Bobby Doerr, a second baseman who played nearly 500 games less than Whitaker (although he missed one season to WWII to be fair) and has fewer home runs, runs scored, hits, and walks, and who has an OPS+ lower than Sweet Lou’s, was placed back on the writers ballot after having received only seven votes total in his first two years on the Hall of Fame ballot. Subsequently, Doerr spent more than 12 years on the writers ballot, and in part because of that, his name was regularly considered by the veterans committee. He was elected in 1986.
Timing. It’s everything. Three teammates, all integral in the success of a team that won a World Series and enjoyed one of the best seasons in baseball history. Who starred for a franchise that won more games than all but one other team in the 1980s. Three players inextricably linked. But now there’s a valley between them. Two of them are legends, their portraits in bronze on the wall in baseball’s most hallowed room. The other is an outcast, destined to be forgotten a little bit more every year. Sweet Lou deserves better.