Henning: Hall of Fame ballot call on Lou Whitaker defies logic

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News



Lou Whitaker

Baseball’s Hall of Fame has as part of its unique justice system a kind of appeals panel designed to correct earlier ballot mistakes and ensure no worthy player misses a Cooperstown plaque.

The problem, as most detected Monday when old Detroit Tigers artist Lou Whitaker didn’t make the 10-player oversight list, is that the Hall of Fame’s quality-control agents need eye exams.

This appellate court, as it were, is known as the Modern Era committee and consists of a so-far anonymous group of 16 people whose careers in baseball (players, front office, managers, a couple of media members, etc.) ostensibly qualify them to remedy any past injustices from the nearly 600-person writers’ ballot, which is the way most Hall of Fame players are selected for enshrinement.

The Modern Era is part of a semi-regular review and this time focuses on players from the 1970s and 1980s. The group will meet next month at the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla., to decide which players, beyond those traditionally elected by writers in December and named in January, get plaques during next July’s lawn party at Cooperstown.

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The issue today isn’t with the Modern Era group that will convene at Orlando. It’s with a group known as the Historical Overview Committee of the Baseball Writers Association of America. This is the cast that decided this week’s 10 nominees. And this is the group that put together what looks, here and elsewhere, to be a flawed lineup in that Whitaker, not to mention another second baseman, Bobby Grich, are nowhere to be seen. The injustice of Whitaker falling from the 2001 writers ballot after he failed to get minimal votes is thus compounded. By the same body.

It’s a hard omission to defend as 10 other baseball celebrities now get a second chance: Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Steve Garvey, one-time Southfield star Ted Simmons, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Luis Tiant, and Tommy John, not to mention Marvin Miller, the lawyer who enabled players to enjoy the same free-market economy some Americans believe anyone other than athletes deserve.

It’s a solid group. Most of the 10 got heavy HOF support for years but simply missed at getting 75-percent approval, which is the threshold for getting a Cooperstown plaque.

The problem, locally and to a deep degree nationally, is that Whitaker is missing. Again. And no one can quite explain it, at least no one who looks at numbers and hard evidence and believes data counts.


Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker

One of the ways in which Hall of Fame gold is assayed is WAR (wins above replacement), and here you find Whitaker at 74.9 WAR. If added to the 10 who made this week’s cut, Whitaker’s WAR is higher than any of the cast, Trammell included (70.4), and almost twice Garvey’s (37.9).

Three national writers who crunch Hall of Fame numbers in historical perspective have all said Whitaker’s omission is essentially criminal: Jay Jaffe, of SI.com, who this year wrote a deep and penetrating study of players and their qualifications in “The Cooperstown Casebook,” as well as Keith Law, author of “Smart Baseball,” another numbers-intensive work published this year, and Dan Szymborski, whose mathematical insights have made him a regular with ESPN.com.

 What can safely be said today is that the disdain for Whitaker’s candidacy is not personal. He might not have charmed in the manner of some players during his 19 years in the big leagues, all with the Tigers. But charm, or lack thereof, isn’t much of a factor when it comes to Cooperstown, even if the public suspects otherwise.

Whitaker has been hurt mainly by the times in which he played. He was with the Tigers from 1977-95 and, like Trammell, 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. And that was destined to hurt players whose numbers were not overpowering. Whitaker batted .276 for his career. He made five All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, and one Silver Slugger.

Superficially, he is not a Cooperstown slam-dunk. Dig deeper into the numbers, and historical comparisons, especially with the help of today’s analytics, and you can make a compelling case for him, even an imperative. But not everyone has seen his candidacy the same way. Especially in the murkier times of 2001 when a heavy crowd of first-time stars hit the ballot and Whitaker got only 2.9 percent of the vote when 5 percent was required to return to the ballot.

A relative voting accident, created by an overloaded ticket and a dearth of comparative numbers, blindsided Whitaker 17 years ago. It was the shunning of him this week that makes no sense. The Historical Overview Committee had every statistical nugget and historical prism through which to view Whitaker, and, for that matter, Grich.

It was judgment that has not been explained and will not, in any instances I can imagine, be respected.

As for those who found a seat on the 10-man docket that will be dissected in Orlando next month, good for them. And in most cases, they probably belong.

Trammell might have the best of all shots. He played shortstop, impeccably, for 20 years. He batted .285, with 2,365 hits. He made six All-Star Games, three times finished in the top 10 on the Most Valuable Player ballot (and should have won in 1987), and probably because of his position and all-time ranking relative to position, he has a razor-thin edge on Whitaker.

But that can be disputed, also. Whitaker had a higher OPS (789 to 768), hit 59 more home runs (244 to 185), and had four more career hits while playing one less season than Trammell.

The point is, as Jaffe and Law and Szymborski all attest from their detached corners of the baseball world, the numbers all but mandate that the greatest double-play combination in baseball history should be in Cooperstown.

That should have been a conclusion shared this week. By the Overview Committee. It didn’t have the power to induct. But it had the responsibility to offer a ballot option when a man’s career clearly called for it.