|Hall of Fame - Seconds Anyone? Lou Whitaker||| Print |||Send|
Written by Robert Grossman (Contact & Archive) on July 23, 2003
The following essay is the next in an ongoing series of articles about the contemporary role of the Hall of Fame as a cultural institution and as a benchmark for measuring baseball’s changing standards of excellence over time. Previous articles in the series may be found here: Hall of Fame Part I , Setting a New Standard, Painting the Corner with Alan Trammell
Before passing final judgment on Alan Trammell, I wish to look at Trammell’s longtime teammate and double-play partner, Lou Whitaker, who put up numbers so nearly identical to Trammell’s, one could only imagine that they were fabricated by impish sportswriters to win an argument. Despite their surface similarities, Whitaker received less than 3% of the vote in 2001 and was cast from the Hall of Fame ballot in his first year of eligibility.
Look at these remarkably similar careers:
Whitaker played second base with great durability, won three gold gloves, was a five-time all-star and Rookie of the Year (1978) but never became a serious MVP candidate (he finished 8th in 1983 by dint of a .320 average). He didn’t have the MVP or the star power, and lacked the HoF mystique. Career-wise his offensive numbers are roughly the same as Trammell’s, and his defense not much below, if at all (Whitaker’s 3 consecutive Gold Gloves were wedged in between the eight of Frank White, who dominated the voting for a decade). Moreover, Whitaker was more durable toward the end of his career. Over his last five seasons (1991-95), if we include his last two years, in which he played only 176 games combined, Whitaker hit .287 — ten points above his career average — with 77 home runs, 303 RBI and 321 walks — playing in all but 27 games at second base. Furthermore, he made only 40 errors in those five seasons, including a 4-error season in ’91 that followed a 6-error 1990 (Harold Reynolds was selected for the Gold Glove during those years).
Why is Whitaker so overshadowed by Trammell when he had more durability, better power/OB numbers overall, a strong finish to his career, and played excellent defense both early and later on? For one thing, Whitaker hit .300 or better only once (that 8th place MVP finish), and did so a second time at the end of his career (1994) in only 92 games; or, perhaps it is the .204 postseason average with 1 RBI (though he did walk a lot--.350 on base%), or the lack of post-season awards. It seems that unless you have the eye-popping numbers of a Ripken or a Sandberg, or a defensive reputation like Ozzie Smith or Roberto Alomar, your chances of making the Hall as a middle infielder will be left to a more sympathetic Veteran’s Committee some years down the line.
In contrast to Whitaker’s cold reception by the baseball writers, second baseman Ryne Sandberg’s stock has started high, and deservedly so. He received 49.2% of the ballots in 2003 and many feel he was robbed and should have been inducted in his first year. Most baseball gurus also have Roberto Alomar pegged for the Hall as a “can’t-miss.” Since Alomar finished last season (2002) with exactly one more career at bat than Sandberg, a comparison is useful. I will add to the chart future candidate Craig Biggio and our “near-miss” Lou Whitaker:
Alomar, now 35, will probably reach 3000 hits, 500 steals and owns ten gold gloves. He was selected twelve consecutive years to the all-star game, missing last year (2002). Now, Alomar is certainly an unfair comparison to almost anyone, unless you are Rogers Hornsby. But a comparison to Sandberg is striking. Ryne has more HR-power, but Alomar is a craftier hitter — a .300+ career switch hitter who walks more and strikes out less than Sandberg did, but with an equal slugging nonetheless. And if we consider that Sandberg himself won nine Gold Gloves, all in a row — including 1988-1990 (Alomar’s first three years in the big leagues, when he played in the NL for San Diego), we can safely say that Sandberg’s .989 fielding percentage matches Alomar’s extraordinary range and pure talent. Sandberg also won an MVP and had exceptional power for a second baseman, winning the HR title in 1990 with 40 dingers. Both of them are deserving players. Expect Ryne Sandberg to win HoF enshrinement within the coming two elections. If you look above at Whitaker’s numbers next to Sandberg’s, they probably seem a lot better now than they did a few minutes ago.
But perhaps this comparison does little for Whitaker, given his lack of hardware and the comparisons to Sandberg’s Gold Gloves or 90s superstars Craig Biggio, Alomar, Jeff Kent, and the offensive superstar of the 21st century, Alfonso Soriano. But if we look at Craig Biggio’s offensive numbers—and I’ve always been a Biggio fan—he is basically Lou Whitaker with ten more points of batting average and excellent speed. However, one should also consider Biggio’s great versatility: he was a catcher who converted to second baseman and became a Gold Glover after working hard to learn that position. Biggio is also the game’s leading masochist when in comes to the inside fastball: he is the active leader — and sixth all-time — in the dubious but effective category of “hit by the pitch” (shades of Hugh Jennings, perhaps?) Biggio hit over .300 four times, very good, but not Alomar country (of course, there is still time) — and four Gold Gloves and seven all-star appearances make him more of a Lou Whitaker than an Alomar defensively, especially if his final few seasons have seen him decline at second base (Whitaker finished strong, despite missing the Gold Gloves), and the acquisition of Kent has shifted Biggio yet again, this time to center field, where he has been adequate so far. On the other hand, he is considered the best all-around NL second baseman for at least half a decade.
Is he a Hall of Famer? Quite possibly. But in 14 post-season games over four separate division series Biggio is an abysmal .130 hitter including only one extra base hit (a double) and no RBI, and he never helped his team get past the NL Division Series. This is particularly important when one considers that Houston’s post-season failures are directly related to the poor hitting of their superstars. Teammate Jeff Bagwell, who appears on course for the Hall of Fame as one of the most feared hitters in the NL for more than a decade, and is a good first baseman, is currently hitting .174 in the postseason alongside Biggio, including no home runs and 4 RBI (all of which came in one series — in 1998 against the Braves). If the Astros never make the postseason again, and Jeff Bagwell stays healthy, he will surely make the HoF regardless of those failures. Will Biggio be hurt by these same postseason failures, or will positional prejudices dictate that a “mere” second baseman should not be held to the same slugging standards? Certainly Lou Whitaker was not excused from his post-season struggles. And does a comparison between Biggio and Bagwell even matter, if Bagwell’s ostentatious lifetime run-production will hardly be tarnished by a .174 NLDS average and 4 post-season RBI? Biggio has had a remarkable career, and should he stay healthy, have some postseason success, or reach benchmarks like 3000 hits, he will receive just and serious consideration, with or without the shiny hardware. There are also the inevitable comparisons with contemporary (and now teammate) Jeff Kent, who does have some hardware and will have to stay healthy for another 5 or 6 years to put up the “all-time” style numbers. My guess is that Biggio will probably make the Hall one day, nearing or exceeding 3000 hits.
Next in the series will be Placing a Great Duo in Historical Context