Finding the modern Lou Whitaker

Mike Ehrmann

Lou Whitaker is in the news today. Lou Whitaker should be in the news every day. What's he doing? What did he have for breakfast? How many times does he text Alan Trammell in a 12-hour period? That sort of thing, though maybe my perspective is warped and other people wouldn't care as much.

The problem is that Whitaker is in the news for the wrong reasons. Instead of a "Can you believe only 2.9 percent of Hall voters watched baseball in the '80s?" article, Whitaker said what we were all thinking about notable 1984 Tigers: Jack Morris wasn't exactly mustache and shoulders above the rest of them:

"If Jack deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, Alan Trammell deserves to be in the Hall of Fame," said Whitaker, who, himself, received just 2.9 percent of the vote in his one year on the ballot, 2001.

That is the least controversial statement of the morning. My five-year-old daughter told me that if she eats waffles with her hands, the syrup will make her hands sticky. That was far more controversial than what Whitaker said.

As someone who grew up envying the Tigers' double-play combo, it's still completely baffling to see the lack of respect for Trammell and Whitaker. They were the Diamond Kings, the players on the cover of Beckett, the Starting Lineup figures in the first run. It's hard to find a current comparison because there is no good current comparison. Maybe if Roberto Alomar played his entire career with the Reds. Trammell and Whitaker were stars. They were famous. They should have been considered for a hall filled with plaques of famous baseball players.

Weird. Just weird. Preach on, Sweet Lou.

The goal today, though, isn't just to rehash how weird it is that Whitaker/Trammell aren't getting voted into Cooperstown. The goal today is to find the modern version of Whitaker. That is, the player that seems like a no-doubt Hall of Famer to us nerds right now, but who will fade from the collective memory of voters during the five-year grace period, possibly dropping off the ballot in the first year.

Some of the qualities that probably hurt Whitaker:

  • Never an MVP, and rarely finished in the top 10
  • Often not clearly the best player on his team
  • Big statistical boost from his defense
  • Big boost from his position
  • Big boost from his relative health
  • Slow, moderate decline after a steady peak

There are other reasons Whitaker fared poorly, but those are the main ones. If you're looking for a modern comparable, those might be a place to start.

Scott Rolen hits a lot of those points. Rolen had one freaky-great season with the Cardinals and several outstanding ones for the Phillies, but he was never an MVP or particularly close. He made seven All-Star Games, but just one with the Phillies, oddly enough. He gets the big boost from his defense, and a lot of his best years were in the shadow of Albert Pujols. And he didn't burn out; he faded away. Neil Young and Def Leppard both warned against that.

Rolen has a great shot of falling off on the first year, like Whitaker and Kenny Lofton, too. But he's not the perfect comparison. One of the reasons it's hard to think of Rolen as a sure thing, yessir, mm-hmmm Hall of Famer is that he missed time seemingly every season. That was my problem with Barry Larkin, too, but I got over it. It was also a problem with Will Clark, and the voters didn't get over that one. Rolen is much closer to Clark than Larkin. He'll be up there with Whitaker on the lists of best statistical careers not in the Hall.

Rolen's ex-teammate, Bobby Abreu, isn't going into the Hall of Fame without a coordinated, Bert Blyleven-like awareness campaign. It's easy to forget just how good Abreu was. Just focus on his time in Philly. He was insane.

Year G PA HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
PHI (9 yrs) 1353 5885 195 814 254 80 947 1078 .303 .416 .513 .928 139

Abreu missed 41 games in those nine seasons. He was a force of nature, one of the best pure hitters in baseball, with 40-steal speed, too.

He isn't going to fall off the first ballot, though. He'll be on the McGriff plan, I'll guess, convincing every fifth voter for several years. There will be steroid whispers for the Hardy Boys to investigate, too. He's akin to Whitaker because of the underrated career (two All-Star Games!), but he's unlike Whitaker because he played right field and hit like a right fielder.

Rolen and Abreu will get both get hosed, certainly, but they're imperfect comps. For me, the best comparison going for Whitaker right now is Adrian Beltre.

The record scratches. Someone spits out their drink. Wait, you think Adrian Beltre might fall off the first ballot, you monster?

Not necessarily. But he's clearly the best shot we have at someone being woefully under-appreciated with the passage of time. His last four seasons have been otherworldly, sure, but before that? His value was harder to see. Here are his seasonal OPS+ marks before he went to Boston:

Year Age Tm OPS+
1998 19 LAD 73
1999 20 LAD 102
2000 21 LAD 114
2001 22 LAD 91
2002 23 LAD 97
2003 24 LAD 88
2004 25 LAD 163
2005 26 SEA 93
2006 27 SEA 105
2007 28 SEA 112
2008 29 SEA 109
2009 30 SEA 83

It's not like HOF voters are going to study OPS+, but it gives you a good thumbnail of what the other numbers looked like. Even worse, though, is that OPS+ gives Beltre credit for playing in Dodger Stadium and Safeco Field; voters probably won't think about it that much.

He was a valuable player the entire time, though, with a chunk of that value coming from his magic glove. The WAR wars with Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera will flare up again in a few years with Beltre, who by then will probably have something like 80 or 90 career wins -- easily good enough to be in the Hall. But if he starts to slow down soon, voters will wonder if they can vote for someone with only four or five great years.

But he had several great years, we'll respond.

They'll ignore that and wonder if they can vote for someone with only four or five great years.

Beltre hits a lot of those bullet points up there, though we don't know what his decline will look like. And this all changes if he gets to 3,000 hits or tacks on two or three more excellent seasons. But if the goal is to find a first-ballot dropoff who would absolutely stun people paying attention in his prime, you have to pick a name that makes people think you're stupid. You can't hedge your bets and say "Hunter Pence" or "Brandon Phillips," good players who probably don't have much of a shot. You have to start with an obviously qualified candidate and work backward.

I could be wrong. I'm probably wrong. I hope I'm wrong. I want to see what cap Beltre wears in Cooperstown, just so I can touch it and see if the plaque takes a swing at me. But it would have seemed weird back in 1990 to think about Whitaker getting dusted after one ballot, too. That's the point. That's the horrible, hard-to-fathom point.

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