Examining the Hall of Fame case for Detroit Tigers legend Lou Whitaker

Detroit Tigers Lou Whitaker stretches during a game against the New York YankeesLouwhitaker018
Detroit Tigers Lou Whitaker stretches during a game against the New York YankeesLouwhitaker018 /

On Tuesday, the Detroit Tigers finally announced a date for the number retirement ceremony for Tigers legend Lou Whitaker. The number was set to be retired in 2020 but due to the pandemic, the Tigers postponed it until 2022.

Whitaker is someone that the sabermetric community has long campaigned for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, as he was, inexplicably, dropped off the BBWAA ballot on his first ballot in 2001 after receiving just 2.9 percent of the vote, or 2.1 percent below the requisite five percent needed to stay on the ballot.

But Detroit Tigers legend Lou Whitaker should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame

If you just look at offensive numbers as BBWAA voters often did more than 20 years ago, it’s easy to see why Detroit Tigers legend Lou Whitaker did not receive much support for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The second baseman only had one season where he had more than 80 RBI and only had more than 20 homers four times. Most writers look for 8-10 Hall of Fame seasons and if you use All-Star selections as a barometer for it, Whitaker only had five selections. He won four Silver Slugger Awards and three Gold Glove Awards as well.

But just because writers were ignorant of a player’s excellence over a long period of time due to the numbers of the time (or lack thereof) or other reasons (bad teams, position, etc.) doesn’t mean that Whitaker (or others) shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.

Whitaker is a career .276/.363/.426 hitter with an OPS+ of 117. By WAR, he had 10 seasons with an rWAR of 4.0 and another five seasons with an rWAR of 3.5 or better.

Whitaker was a great defender too. He won the aforementioned three Gold Glove Awards but, perhaps, he should have won more. Defensive metrics in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s are not great but there is the predecessor to DRS. It’s not quite as good but it’s the best we have for the time.

On FanGraphs, it is called TZ (or Total Zone) and on Baseball-Reference, it is called Rtot (or Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average) but it’s the same thing. Whitaker has 77 TZ in his career (0 is league average, just like with DRS) so he averaged just over 4 TZ per season.

For comparison, Whitaker’s infield contemporary, Ozzie Smith, played 19 years (just like Whitaker) and is in the Hall of Fame for his defense (his career OPS+ is 87). Smith’s TZ is a staggering 239, so he averaged nearly 13 TZ per season so Smith is far superior defensively. But since Whitaker was much better on offense, they are very similar players.

Smith’s career rWAR was 76.9 and Whitaker’s is 75.1.

Another contemporary of Whitaker is Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg was a 10-time All-Star, nine-time Gold Glove winner, seven-time Silver Slugger winner, won the 1984 NL MVP, and was inducted into the Hall in the Class of 2005 on his third ballot.

Whitaker, though, was superior on offense and defense.

  • Sandberg: 16 seasons, .285/.344/.452, 114 OPS+, 60 career TZ (3.75 TZ/season), 67.9 rWAR
  • Whitaker: 19 seasons, .276/.363/.426, 117 OPS+, 77 career TZ (4.05 TZ/season), 75.1 rWAR

Sandberg got 49.2 percent on his first ballot in 2003 but two years earlier, Whitaker got less than three percent.

For what it’s worth, if you use Baseball-Reference’s “Similarity Score” of players, Sandberg is the most comparable player to Whitaker and there are six Hall of Famers among the top 10, including Whitaker’s long time double play partner, Alan Trammell.

Among all players who have been on a Hall of Fame ballot who made their debut after 1901 (the “Modern Era” of baseball) without a “character” clause (suspected PED users, Curt Schilling, Pete Rose), Lou Whitaker’s rWAR is the highest among any player not in the Hall of Fame.

Next. The HOF case for Rick Reuschel is also very good. dark

Lou Whitaker deserved more consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Hall of Fame Era Committees (formerly known as the Veterans Committee) but with the voting record, they may decide to pass him over as he hasn’t even made a ballot for them, let alone get 75 percent of the vote.