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Put Them in the Hall of Fame: Part 4, Lou Whitaker

In the previous three parts of this series, I've documented the select few players in history I feel have bulletproof Hall of Fame cases—those I'd (figuratively) fight for. I named three players from the 19th century and four players returning to the next BBWAA ballot. Last time, I started writing about the group in between (20th century players no longer on the BBWAA ballot). The first was Kevin Brown. Today, the second is Lou Whitaker.

Lou Whitaker

When I was an early customer of Sean "Rally" Smith's historical WAR spreadsheets, I was a bit surprised to learn that the top eligible 20th century position player outside of the Hall (by WAR) was Lou Whitaker. I have always liked Whitaker, but I didn't expect him to top the list.

While Rally's WAR was the best single statistic I found to correlate with a player's Hall of Fame case, it still wasn't perfect. To get closer to my ideal Hall stat, I whipped up a weighed version of Rally's WAR (and called it wWAR) to account for peak seasons. Whitaker had a long, steady career. Hall voters like a strong peak. Whitaker had an untraditional peak and his career numbers are more of a product of longevity. As a result, his ranking on the wWAR list slips to 9th (Jeff Bagwell has become eligible since then and he has a higher WAR than Whitaker). Placing ninth (behind Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Bobby Grich, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons, Dick Allen, and Jim Wynn) still signals to me that he very much belongs.

Let me share a couple lists to illustrate Whitaker's total value. When looking at his single-season WAR totals, I saw something that was pretty unique. Whitaker played 19 seasons. In his 37-plate appearance cup of coffee, he was worth -0.3 WAR. In the other 18 seasons, he was worth between 6.9 and 1.4 WAR. How rare is it to spend all but one of your seasons (and that one being a cup of coffee) above 1.0 WAR? Very rare. Just eight players have done it:

  1. Chipper Jones (still active): 17 seasons above 1.0, 0.1 in 1993 (4 PA)
  2. Barry Bonds (would-be Hall of Famer): 21 seasons above 1.0, 0.4 in 2005 (52 PA)
  3. Cap Anson (Hall of Famer): 26 seasons above 1.0, 0.9 in 1871 (122 PA)*
  4. Bid McPhee (Hall of Famer): 17 seasons above 1.0, 0.8 in 1882 (322 PA)
  5. Roger Connor (Hall of Famer): 17 seasons above 1.0, -0.4 in 1897 (97 PA)
  6. Ty Cobb (Hall of Famer): 23 seasons above 1.0, 0.1 in 1905 (164 PA)
  7. Honus Wagner (Hall of Famer): 20 seasons above 1.0, -0.4 in 1917 (264 PA)
  8. Louis Rodman "Sweet Lou" Whitaker: 18 seasons above 1.0, -0.3 in 1977 (37 PA)

Bonds is the only player to have his sub-1.0 season come in a year other than his first or last.

* How remarkable is this? Anson played 27 seasons and the only time he missed 1.0 WAR was when he got 0.9 as a 19-year old playing a 25-game schedule for a 4-21 team.

1.0 WAR isn't terribly impressive. It makes for a useful player, but a league-average player will produce something in the neighborhood of 2.0 WAR. A 3.0 WAR season can be considered "excellent", and that's the level that Sean Smith used when introducing Wins Above Excellence (which is now a component of wWAR). Whitaker produced fifteen 3+ WAR seasons. How rare is that? Again, quite rare. Among eligible non-Hall of Famers:

  1. Bill Dahlen (16 3+ WAR seasons)
  2. Lou Whitaker (15)
  3. Jeff Bagwell (13)
  4. Rafael Palmeiro, Alan Trammell, Willie Randolph, Buddy Bell, Ted Simmons, Bob Johnson (12)

What's more impressive is that just 12 Hall of Famers are ahead of Whitaker, too—Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Frank Robinson, Eddie Collins, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Rickey Henderson, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner. That's some kind of list. Tied with Whitaker are Joe Morgan, Al Kaline, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, George Davis, Roger Connor.

Up the minimum to 4+ WAR and 17 non-Hall of Famers do better than Whitaker's seven seasons. Jeff Bagwell leads the way with eleven. Bump it to 6+ WAR and Bagwell and Jim Wynn lead the way with five seasons each (Whitaker has two).

These lists bring to light exactly how unique Whitaker's "peak" is. I like to think of it as a similar shape to Harold Baines, but much higher. You can look at his career one of two ways—either he had an incredibly long peak or no peak at all. It's hard to pick a traditional peak—in the twelve seasons from age 25 to 36, he averaged 4.5 WAR. That's a long time to average 4.5 WAR. But his top seasons (where he had 6.9 and 6.5 WAR) came twelve years apart. It's just not traditional.

But whatever he did, it added up. When compared to other second basemen, he simply stands out. Whitaker's rankings among all second basemen in history (including the 18 that are in the Hall of Fame):

  • Hits: 13th
  • Walks: 4th (behind Joe Morgan, Eddie Collins, and Willie Randolph)
  • Times on Base: 8th (behind Collins, Craig Biggio, Morgan, Charlie Gehringer, Rogers Hornsby, Roberto Alomar, and Nap Lajoie)
  • Home Runs: 8th (behind Jeff Kent, Hornsby, Biggio, Ryne Sandberg, Morgan, Joe Gordon, and Bret Boone)
  • Extra Base Hits: 9th (behind Biggio, Hornsby, Kent, Gehringer, Lajoie, Morgan, Alomar, and Sandberg)
  • Runs Batted In: 12th
  • Games: 5th (behind Biggio, Collins, Morgan, and Lajoie)
  • OPS+: Tied for 12th (min 6000 PA)
  • WAR: 7th (behind Hornsby, Collins, Lajoie, Morgan, Gehringer, and Frankie Frisch)
  • WAR Runs Batting: 15th
  • WAR Runs Fielding: 19th
  • wWAR: Tied for 9th with Roberto Alomar (behind Hornsby, Collins, Lajoie, Morgan, Gehringer, Frisch, Jackie Robinson, Bobby Grich, and Biggio)

8th in times on base. 8th in home runs. 9th in extra base hits. Even the categories he ranks lower in—hits, RBI, OPS+, for example—he's well within the Hall of Fame zone.

It may look like he fares poorly by the WAR components—"just" 15th in batting and 19th in fielding. Remember, these are two very different lists—the mashers in one, the glovemen in the other. How many second basemen have 200 WAR batting runs and 75 WAR fielding runs? Four—Lajoie, Whitaker, Grich, and Jackie Robinson.

I'm very comfortable saying that Lou Whitaker is one of the ten best second basemen of all time. And that, to me, deserves induction.