Will Tigers' 'Sweet Lou' Whitaker finally get good news from Hall of Fame?
You can yet see him stepping to home plate at Tiger Stadium.
He taps his bat once, moves smoothly into a tune-up swing, then gets a first luscious pitch. And in a blur as fast as a rattlesnake’s strike, he drills the ball on a line into right field, or as often happened, on a rising arc that crashes into Tiger Stadium’s right-field upper deck.
A half-inning later, he sucks in a ground ball at second base, and in another portrait of fire and efficiency, whips a bulls-eye to first base.
Sunday could deliver a fresh scene celebrating "Sweet Lou" Whitaker’s baseball elegance: An announcement that Whitaker has, like his 20-year Tigers mate at shortstop, Alan Trammell, joined the shrine of those forever hallowed at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It is quite possible Whitaker’s moment has finally arrived.
“Reading the tea leaves, it could be good news for Whitaker,” said Jay Jaffe, author of “The Cooperstown Casebook,” a remarkable text released in 2017 that is considered to be the most detailed analysis of players and their Hall of Fame credentials.
Whitaker, 62, needs at least 12 of 16 votes by a group of former players, front office types and writers called the Modern Era Committee. He and nine others will be considered in the conclave that three years ago awarded Whitaker teammates Trammell and Jack Morris plaques in Cooperstown, N.Y.
By one esteemed modern measure called Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Whitaker was the seventh-best second baseman in baseball history, behind only Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, Rod Carew, and ex-Tigers icon Charlie Gehringer -- all of whom are in the Hall.
His WAR number also beats a good many other second basemen already enshrined: Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, Ryne Sandberg and Bill Mazeroski to name a few.
And he has the highest number of any player who will be considered Sunday, a whopping 75.1, significantly higher than was even Trammell’s 70.7. He scores marginally lower on the scale known as JAWS and devised by Jaffe, but still ahead of second basemen Alomar, Biggio, Mazeroski, Nellie Fox and Joe Gordon.
WAR measures a player's contributions in all facets of the game by determining how many more wins he's worth than a replacement-level player. JAWS evaluates a candidate's Hall of Fame credentials against those of players already enshrined in Cooperstown.
Whitaker is one of at least three players with Michigan ties who has a chance for election on Sunday.
Steve Garvey, a 10-time all-star, played football and baseball at Michigan State University before being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Ted Simmons is a Highland Park native and Southfield High and University of Michigan star who had glorious years as a catcher with the Cardinals and elsewhere. Simmons, statistically, can be considered the 10th-best catcher in baseball history and missed by only one vote of joining Trammell and Morris in Cooperstown following the 2018 Modern Era voting. Players can receive unlimited cracks at the Hall through the Modern Era Committee.
Whitaker and Simmons are also examples of how mainstream Hall of Fame voting can create casualties that necessitate second looks from oversight committees.
The two players failed in their first, conventional bid at Cooperstown, by votes from eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Players listed each year require 75 percent of the vote to be elected, and must win at least 5 percent to remain on the following year’s ballot.
Although it could be better understood then than now, neither Whitaker nor Simmons survived their first dance. Simmons got 3.7 percent of the vote in 1994, while Whitaker received 2.9 percent in 2001.
Their career numbers have appeared more lustrous in the past 20 years as analytics and the internet have combined to make their niches, historically and comparatively, better understood and more imposing.
The question heading into Sunday’s Modern Day Committee conference: Among a starry crowd, will there be at least a dozen votes for Whitaker, Simmons, or for any of the other seven players and the single non-player considered?
Thurman Munson, Tommy John, Dave Parker, Dwight Evans, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy will be mulled along with Whitaker, Simmons and Garvey.
Front-office executives, managers, and noteworthy figures from big-league baseball’s Modern Era – it is designated as the years 1971-87 – are also eligible for plaques. This year’s candidate, the late Marvin Miller, is on the ballot for the ninth time because of his work in bringing players out of the economic shackles in which they were regularly housed before free agency arrived 40-plus years ago.
How the gang overall might view Whitaker is difficult to gauge.
Why it took so long for Whitaker to gain steam is as baffling as his one-and-done candidacy 19 years ago.
And while his sudden slip into ballot oblivion is curious, it is not as sinister as is believed by Tigers fans who insist voters had it out for either Whitaker or for a team from Detroit.
The truth is Whitaker’s gloss-over at the time produced no great protests locally or nationally.
And that’s because Whitaker was never considered a superstar. In fact, he wasn’t.
He won three Gold Gloves and made five All-Star teams. But as Jaffe writes in “Cooperstown Casebook”:
“While very consistent, with 11 of his 18 full seasons worth between 3.5 and 4.7 WAR – somewhere between an above-average regular and an All-Star – he had just four seasons more valuable than those, and only three that cracked the A.L. top 10.”
Whitaker finished his career with 2,369 hits, 244 home runs, a .276 batting average, .363 on-base percentage, and .426 slugging percentage, which is a .789 OPS – right there at Hall of Fame altitude. What astounds is that Whitaker, offensively, got even stronger in his waning years. His final five seasons of OPS were extraordinary: .881, .847, .861, .867, and .890 in 1995, his final year, at age 38.
Thus, conspiracy theorists figure there must be other reasons why Whitaker was ignored. Probably, they say, because he wasn’t a great interview.
And that is true. Whitaker tended to drift with his words and thoughts, taking to-and-fro routes that could send a post-game writer headed for another locker.
But he wasn’t nasty. And any notions that only good quotes make for Hall of Fame votes, or vice versa, are nonsense. That idea is refuted by any number of Cooperstown plaques owned by players who weren’t chummy with writers.
Whitaker was simply regarded as a very good, rather than as a tremendous, player during his career.
“The thing about Whitaker is that players who do many things well tend to get less recognition than one who does one thing very well,” Jaffe said. “Whitaker was a very good hitter for a second baseman. When you include base running, and his batting average and on-base percentage, and that he was an excellent defender, those things individually aren’t always going to stand out.
“So here is a player who has certainly benefited from the added dimensions (analytics) that WAR gives us. It shows how a guy contributed everywhere on the diamond.”
Why Whitaker was backhanded from the ballot in 2000 isn’t so difficult to understand.
A big problem was a crowded ballot. Hall of Fame votes for decades tended to be rare check-marks tied to the simple fact few Cooperstown-worthy players appeared each December. One, two, maybe three, and rarely more than three names, would be a typical Cooperstown quota.
But in 2000 there was a surge: Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett were newcomers joining some golden-oldie return candidates: Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage.
The bar had always been so high, and the cast of Hall-worthy names so typically few, that voters weren’t attuned to think broadly.
Whitaker wasn’t subject to great debate. While there would have been no effort to shove him aside, neither was there any chorus singing a Whitaker campaign tune.
Trammell was a shortstop and had the benefit of a higher-status position, which might explain why he at least pulled 15.7 percent of the vote in his first year, 2002, keeping him alive for 2003 and beyond.
"One and done, that was such a crime," Trammell told The News in November. "Now hopefully that's a moot point. In a couple of months we can be talking about Lou being in the Hall of Fame with myself and Jack — where he deserves to be."
Again, timing probably hurt Whitaker as well as Trammell.
Cable TV had not been an American staple during the first half of the Trammell-Whitaker years. Motown’s glowing double-play combo didn’t get great coast-to-coast exposure.
More precisely, there was no Internet. At least not an Internet that soon would become part of America’s bloodstream. Voters who for years had been doing their research by way of the “Baseball Encyclopedia” got greater, steadier religion in the years after Whitaker disappeared, all thanks to keener analytics and the spread of numbers on an information highway that had as one of its exit ramps: Cooperstown.
It didn’t mean that Trammell, who topped out at 40.9 percent of the vote in his final year of BBWAA eligibility, would have been any more of a slam-dunk than Whitaker. But with today’s science they likely would have fared better early and perhaps wouldn’t have needed the Modern Day electors to have given them a second shot.
“I don’t know,” Jaffe said. “It’s tough to imagine them electing three people Sunday, but I’m vaguely optimistic that there will be at least one person, possibly two.
“I think with Morris and Trammell going in, that opened some eyes. Whitaker’s career suddenly got so much more attention. The fact his name is back in circulation as Trammell’s double-play partner, and with Trammell now in the Hall, that bodes well for him.”
As for Whitaker's take on all of this, he has viewed the Hall of Fame much as he approached a game for the Tigers at second base: As something worth his best efforts but ultimately out of his complete control.
"Am I supposed to be mad, am I supposed to be envious?" Whitaker asked in 2018 as Morris and Trammell returned to Detroit with their plaques. "You know, we (he and Trammell) were a shortstop-second base combination. All the Hall-of-Famers, they say, 'How could this be this way?' But that's life sometimes.
"Jack has it, Tram has it, I'll wait my turn.”
Chris McCosky contributed to this report.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
Here are the 16 members of the Modern Era committee who will vote on up to four Hall of Fame candidates at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on Sunday. Lou Whitaker needs at least 12 votes to win enshrinement.
►Hall of Fame players (6): George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, and Robin Yount.
►Executives (6): Former Royals owner David Glass, and longtime general managers Sandy Alderson, Walt Jocketty, Terry Ryan, Doug Melvin, and Dave Dombrowski, who headed the Tigers from 2001-15.
►Media members (4): Bill Center, Tracy Ringolsby, Steve Hirdt, and Jack O’Connell.