Skip to main content
Menu
Lou Whitaker Turned A Damn Good Double Play

Second base is one of the most important positions on the baseball diamond, always (quite literally) in the middle of the action. But it doesn’t necessarily get the same attention as other, flashier roles in the sport. In the three decades since Joe Morgan and Rod Carew were inducted in back-to-back years in 1990 and 1991, only three more second basemen — Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio — have been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the baseball writers.1 Along the way, a number of deserving candidates at the position have fallen off the ballot because they lacked voting support — and none may have been treated less fairly than former Detroit Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker, this week’s pick for our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players.

HOF resume: Lou Whitaker, 2B

Category Value Rank at Pos.
Career WAR 74.5 7
Peak WAR 37.7 20
JAWS 56.1 10
HOF Monitor 93 20
HOF Standards 43 12
Black Ink Test 1 79
Gray Ink Test 31 68
Implied HOF%* 30% 17
Years on ballot 1
Vote share 2.9%
HOF track**

*Hall of Fame probability based on traditional stats.

**Hall of Fame track based on most recent vote share and years on the ballot.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

When it came to playing baseball, Whitaker did just about everything well: He hit for average better than most batters. He had above-average pop (particularly for a second baseman). He excelled at drawing walks and getting on base. He even had 20-steal speed when he was younger, with above-average base-running value for his career. But of course, the thing Whitaker is most remembered for now is his smooth defense, particularly as half of a fabled double-play combination with longtime Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell. Over 19 seasons in the big leagues, Whitaker took part in 1,527 career double plays, which ranks fourth among all second basemen in baseball history. (And Trammell ranks seventh among shortstops, with the vast majority of his twin killings compiled in tandem with Whitaker.)

In terms of keystone combos, Whitaker and Trammell are probably only rivaled by Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker of the early-1900s Chicago Cubs — and they, of course, had a famous poem devoted to them (along with first baseman Frank Chance). According to fielding runs above average,2 Whitaker and Trammell saved a combined 178.5 runs during their 14 seasons together as the Tigers’ primary second baseman and shortstop, which ranks second to Evers and Tinker in that regard among MLB 2B/SS tandems since 1901:

Baseball’s best defensive 2B-SS combos

For seasons when a pair of teammates were their team’s primary second baseman and shortstop, most total fielding runs above average (FRAA)

Second Baseman Shortstop
Team Years* Player FRAA Player FRAA Total
CHC 1903-12 Johnny Evers +89.0 Joe Tinker +135.0 +224.0
DET 1978-91 Lou Whitaker 87.3 Alan Trammell 91.3 178.5
BAL 1973-76 Bobby Grich 55.6 Mark Belanger 105.8 161.4
CHW 1956-62 Nellie Fox 65.5 Luis Aparicio 87.1 152.6
PHI 2005-14 Chase Utley 110.8 Jimmy Rollins 41.4 152.2
CHC 1932-38 Billy Herman 58.0 Billy Jurges 75.0 133.0
PIT 1965-70 Bill Mazeroski 60.1 Gene Alley 66.9 126.9
NYY 1977-81 Willie Randolph 48.4 Bucky Dent 73.9 122.2
DET 1931-38 Charlie Gehringer 52.0 Billy Rogell 63.0 115.0
NYG 1911-19 Larry Doyle 5.0 Art Fletcher 106.0 111.0
CLE 1904-10 Nap Lajoie 43.0 Terry Turner 64.0 107.0
CHW 1950-55 Nellie Fox 41.9 Chico Carrasquel 61.0 102.8
STL 1988-91 Jose Oquendo 34.4 Ozzie Smith 66.9 101.2
BOS 1901-06 Hobe Ferris 57.0 Freddy Parent 39.0 96.0
STL 1982-87 Tom Herr -2.7 Ozzie Smith 97.1 94.5

* Represents the total range of players’ time together as primary players at the positions; may include some seasons in the range in which one or both players were not the primary starter at the position.

FRAA measures a player’s defensive value relative to the average player at his position, and is calculated by averaging together the defensive metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

There is a question about just how potent Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance was as a double-play duo specifically — the only time either Tinker or Evers led their position in twin killings was 1905, when Tinker turned two 67 times in a 155-game schedule. But there’s no such doubt for Trammell and Whitaker, who led the league on multiple occasions and had six seasons where both eclipsed 90 double plays in the same year. Between the two, the pair earned seven Gold Gloves and a reputation as one of the most balletic pairings to ever dance around second base.3

[Related: Our Hall Of Pretty Damn Good Players]

Most importantly, Detroit started to win — and win, and win — after Whitaker and Trammell arrived late in the summer of 1977. The Tigers had won the World Series in 1968 and made the playoffs as recently as 1972, but they were putting the finishing touches on their fourth consecutive losing season by September ’77. In 1978, however, Detroit improved its record by 12 games, going 86-76 as a 21-year-old Whitaker finished third on the team in wins above replacement4 (with 3.6) and easily won Rookie of the Year honors over Paul Molitor, the Brewers’ future Hall of Famer.

It was the first of 11 consecutive winning seasons for the Tigers, a span over which Detroit won the second-most ballgames of any team in baseball,5 averaged 89.3 victories per 162 games and won the 1984 World Series with one of the greatest single-season teams in MLB history.6 Whitaker was a star, recording 44.4 WAR over that span — which led all MLB second baseman (edging out New York’s Willie Randolph at 43.5) and ranked second on Detroit behind Trammell’s 50.9 WAR.

Whitaker was a driving force behind the Tigers’ renaissance

Ranking in wins above replacement (WAR) among MLB primary second basemen and members of the Detroit Tigers, 1978-88

MLB Second Basemen Detroit Tigers
Player Team(s) WAR Player Pos WAR
1 Lou Whitaker DET 44.4 Alan Trammell SS 50.9
2 Willie Randolph NYY 43.5 Lou Whitaker 2B 44.4
3 Bobby Grich CAL 33.9 Jack Morris P 37.8
4 Ryne Sandberg CHC 27.2 Lance Parrish C 30.7
5 Frank White KCR 27.1 Chet Lemon OF 28.3
6 Bill Doran HOU 25.0 Kirk Gibson OF 23.6
7 Johnny Ray 2 Tms. 22.2 Dan Petry P 17.7
8 Joe Morgan 5 Tms. 20.2 Milt Wilcox P 15.4
9 Tom Herr 2 Tms. 19.9 Darrell Evans 1B 14.8
10 Glenn Hubbard 2 Tms. 16.9 Steve Kemp OF 14.5

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Largely on the strength of that run, Whitaker ended up starting in 1,134 Detroit victories during his career, which ranks fourth all-time for one of baseball’s oldest franchises. He also ranks fourth all-time for the Tigers in WAR, in both cases trailing only Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Al Kaline (“Mr. Tiger”) and Charlie Gehringer — and ranking one spot ahead of Trammell.

Sweet Lou’s place among the greatest Tigers ever

Career ranking in wins above replacement (WAR) and team wins started for members of the Detroit Tigers franchise, 1901-2020

WAR Leaders Most Wins Started
Player Pos WAR Player Pos Starts
1 Ty Cobb OF 144.1 Ty Cobb OF 1,473
2 Al Kaline OF 90.8 Al Kaline OF 1,392
3 Charlie Gehringer 2B 81.1 Charlie Gehringer 2B 1,165
4 Lou Whitaker 2B 71.6 Lou Whitaker 2B 1,134
5 Alan Trammell SS 67.3 Alan Trammell SS 1,131
6 Harry Heilmann OF/1B 65.9 Sam Crawford OF/1B 1,018
7 Hal Newhouser P 62.1 Norm Cash 1B 978
8 Sam Crawford OF/1B 61.8 Donie Bush SS 975
9 Justin Verlander P 56.5 Harry Heilmann OF/1B 951
10 Hank Greenberg 1B/OF 55.4 Bill Freehan C/1B 883

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

And yet, when it came time to vote for the Hall of Fame in 2001, Whitaker’s first year of eligibility (he retired after the ’95 season), “Sweet Lou” received just 2.9 percent of the writers’ vote, well below the 5 percent threshold necessary to stay on future ballots. Trammell got 15.7 percent of the vote in his debut the following year, and though he never came close to the 75 percent needed for induction through the writers’ balloting, he did make it via the Veteran’s Committee in 2018.

Will Whitaker’s turn come as well? Although he is MLB’s 10th-best second baseman since 1901 by JAWS (an average of career and peak WAR),7 rating better than 63 percent of Hall of Famers at the position (including Alomar and Sandberg), Whitaker was denied by the Hall of Fame’s Modern Era Committee last December, meaning he’ll have to wait until 2022 to be reconsidered yet again. But it remains mystifying that Trammell made it without his longtime partner by his side — particularly considering how similar their careers were, both statistically and narratively. As Trammell put things in his own induction speech:

“My whole career, I had been linked with one person. For 19 years, Lou Whitaker and I formed the longest running double-play combination in the history of baseball. I doubt that record will ever be broken. Lou and I were called up to the big leagues from Double-A on the same day. We both played our first big-league ballgame at Fenway Park on the same day. We both got hits at our first major league at-bats off the same pitcher, Reggie Cleveland. And both got our last hits of our careers off the same pitcher, Mike Fetters. Can you believe that? That’s truly amazing. For all those years, it was Lou and Tram. Lou, it was an honor and pleasure to have played alongside you all those years. And my hope is some day you’ll be up here as well.”

For now, Whitaker is firmly in the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players. We’ll see if someday he gets the Cooperstown upgrade he deserves.


Subscribe to our sports podcast, Hot Takedown

By
 

Footnotes

  1. Five more — Joe Gordon, Frank Grant, Bill Mazeroski, Bid McPhee and Nellie Fox — were inducted via special committee.

  2. Which averages together the defensive values (relative to position average) found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  3. They even got in one memorable appearance on Magnum, P.I.

  4. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  5. Trailing only the Yankees.

  6. With 104 regular-season wins, the ‘84 Tigers are tied for 16th-most among all World Series winners.

  7. Once again using JEFFBAGWELL for wins above replacement.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments