Monday, May 12, 2014

Card #39: Lou Whitaker

Who Can It Be Now?
Louis Rodman Whitaker II was born on May 12, 1957 -- so happy 57th birthday, Mr. Whitaker -- in Brooklyn, New York.  A note about his name: though Baseball Reference does not have any reference to his being a junior, Wikipedia does and is correct for doing so.  However, Wikipedia calls him "Jr." On cards I have of his that he autographed, he used the "II" appellation.  So, I'm using what he wrote on those cards.

Whitaker's mother moved them to Martinsville, Virginia -- a small city with a "metropolitan" area population as of 2000 of about 73,000 people which is more known for its NASCAR race track than anything else -- when Lou was a year old.  Lou's family was poor, and his life revolved around going to church and to the playground.

According to his biography on SABR, Whitaker never knew his father, Lou Sr., and so never really went by "Junior" throughout his life.  The SABR biography quotes Whitaker from a 1979 article in The Sporting News as saying about his father that, "[h]e's never done anything for me.  I don't hate him.  I haven't got time to hate anybody.  I just don't care to meet him.  There's nothing emotionally happening between us."  

Lou's draft story is recounted in many stories about him.  The Tigers had scouted him as a junior and liked him.  But, their local scout (Wayne Blackburn) did not get the opportunity to scout Whitaker during his senior year because Blackburn got in a car accident on the way to see Whitaker play.  As a result, the Tigers -- under then-scouting director Bill Lajoie -- had to rely on the Major League Scouting Bureau and its two numbers rating Whitaker.  Lajoie knew, however, that the higher of the two ratings was provided by Bill Jurges, a notoriously tough scorer and a major-league infielder himself.  

So, Lajoie talked his organization into drafting Whitaker in the Fifth Round of the 1975 June Amateur Draft.  Whitaker took a while to sign, but eventually did after Lajoie visited Whitaker himself and bought Whitaker $497 in clothes and a new suitcase (according to a September 1983 Sports Illustrated article).  Lajoie then drove Whitaker to Bristol, Virginia, in the far western part of the state to the Tigers' Appalachian League team there.

Whitaker did not hit for any power during his minor league career -- only five home runs and 31 doubles in three seasons and 1100 plate appearances -- but he took walks and walked more than he struck out.  A story told in that Sports Illustrated article from 1983 claims that Whitaker had some chutzpah as a young player.  The story goes that Whitaker walked up to Detroit GM Jim Campbell during spring training in 1976 -- the year after his rookie league debut -- and told Campbell, "Hi, Mr. Campbell.  I'm Louis Whitaker and I'm going to be playing for you soon."  That sounds like one of those stories that is too good to be true or that was invented later to give a precociousness to Whitaker, but if they say it happened, we will too.  Whitaker then went to the Florida State League, where he was named MVP in 1976.  

When people think of Lou Whitaker, they inevitably think of Alan Trammell.  The two met in the Instructional League in the fall of 1976.  At that time, Whitaker was told that he would be moving to second base -- a move he did not like at first, but he did move.  Trammell said later, "The very first day, we clicked."  

Trammell and Whitaker roomed together the next year (1977) in Montgomery in the Double-A Southern League.  When the Southern League season was over, both Whitaker and Trammell were called up to the Tigers for a cup of coffee.  The Tigers gave both players their first major league starts in the second game of a doubleheader against Boston on September 9, 1977, and neither player played in the minor leagues again after that.  While they were good friends initially, by 1987, the relationship was pretty much one that long-time co-workers in any industry would have -- they didn't socialize together, they didn't have family dinners together, and they didn't talk in the offseason.  

Both Whitaker and Trammell were plugged in to the starting lineup for the Tigers in 1978, and both responded.  Whitaker was about 10 months older than Trammell, so it is unsurprising that he responded just slightly better to the jump than Trammell.  Indeed, Whitaker was named American League Rookie of the Year in 1978 with 75% of the vote on the strength of his .285/.361/.357 season in 1978.  Finishing second that year was another player who had to shift to second base as a rookie -- future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. Trammell received one vote to tie for fourth.

Whitaker continued to develop as a major league player after that.  He struggled in 1980 -- hitting only .233 with a .331 OBP and a meager .283 SLG -- on the heels of an offseason in which he went to arbitration against the Tigers and sought $130,000 as his salary.  The 1983 Sports Illustrated article summarized the issues best:
Whitaker caught a lot of flak in 1980.  Pushed into the leadoff spot to replace Ron LeFlore, who had been the best man at his wedding, Whitaker hit only .233.  He said he wouldn't mind being traded, SWEET LOU TURNS SOUR became a tired headline.  The "Loos" actually became "boos."
In 1981, Whitaker rebounded somewhat.  He played all 109 games of the Tigers' season and increased his home run output to 5, his batting average to .263, and his SLG to .373.  But, coming in to 1982, and without more data than merely the base batting statistics, it would have been a stretch to predict what would happen next for Whitaker: he found some home run power.  

Indeed, starting in 1982 and ending in 1993 (when Whitaker hit 9 homers at age 36 in 119 games), Whitaker had double digits in home runs every year.  Perhaps one could have seen this coming by simple maturation -- even after playing four complete seasons in the major leagues coming into the 1982 season, Whitaker still was only 25 at the start of the season, turning 26 that May. 

Fantasy baseball enthusiasts who are familiar with John Benson's writings know that Benson says to watch players who are "26 with experience."  As the Baseball HQ website puts it, "While batters may peak about age 27, the players most likely to exhibit the most dramatic spike in performance are those aged 26 who have several years of major league experience." Certainly, Lou Whitaker's 1982 season is a lesson in that theory: 15 HR, 65 RBI, 11 SB, and a slash line of .286/.341/.434 (for a jump in OPS of over 60 points from 1981).  

Whitaker's career progressed from there.  In 1983, he played in the first of his five straight all-star games.  He received the first of his three Gold Gloves that year as well, and, finally, he also was named to the first of his four Silver Slugger teams.  After 1988, though, Whitaker stopped getting those accolades.  The fans voted in Paul Molitor as the starting 2B that year -- though Molitor played a grand total of 1 game at 2B for the Brewers that year (he was a DH and 3B).  The BBWAA moved on to other players for its accolades at second base -- awarding Julio Franco the Silver Slugger (and let's be clear -- Franco had four excellent seasons from 1988 through 1991) and Frank White, Harold Reynolds, and Roberto Alomar the Gold Glove at second for the rest of Whitaker's career.

Whitaker retired after the 1995 season at the age of 38.  Even in his last two injury-and-strike-shortened seasons in the majors, he continued hitting at a high level -- over those two seasons and in 657 plate appearances, he hit .298/.375/.503 with 26 home runs and 87 RBI. He finished his career with 244 home runs, 2369 hits, and 143 stolen bases with an AVG of .276 and an OPS of .789. 

Goody Two-Shoes
For most of his career, Lou Whitaker and teammate Chet Lemon refused to stand during the National Anthem.  This was not as any kind of political protest, but rather because both were devout Jehovah's Witnesses.  That Christian sect does not believe in the idea of a Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (called Trinitarianism) and are conscientious objectors to military service. Indeed, many groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court cases on religious freedom arose out of cases filed by members of the sect, including West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943).  

Whitaker stayed with the church after his retirement.  Indeed, in 2004, when Alan Trammell was managing the Tigers and asked Whitaker to help in spring training, Whitaker agreed to help Trammell.  But, he noted in talking about that agreement that he only helped because of the limited amount of time it would take, contrasting it with full-time coaching: "If I could fit it (coaching) in and still have a full share in doing everything I know I should be doing (as a Jehovah's Witness), it would be no problem."

Totally Gnarly
A lot of players can claim that something that they wore has made it to Cooperstown.  Lou Whitaker probably can say the same.  But, he also can say that he has an item in the Smithsonian's inventory. In 1985, Whitaker forgot his uniform bag -- with his glove, bat, hat, helmet, uniform, pants, stirrups, and spikes -- in his car at the airport on the way to his All-Star game appearance.  

So, the clubhouse men in Minnesota bought a replica jersey and mesh-back adjustable hat from a souvenir stand, he used Cal Ripken's spare glove, and other teammates let him use their spare equipment.  To make the jersey look right, the clubhouse guys stenciled the number "1" on the back of the jersey.  And he got pants and shoes from the Twins.  That's the story of how Lou Whitaker's "makeshift" uniform made it to the Smithsonian.

Lou Whitaker appeared in an episode of Magnum, P.I. called "A Sense of Debt" as himself. For those too young to recall, Magnum (played by Tom Selleck) was a private investigator living in Hawaii who was a big Detroit Tigers fan and often wore a Tigers hat.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
So, I delayed this post to coincide with Lou Whitaker's 57th birthday and to allow Charlie Lea's post to remain center stage for a couple of days.  When you're the blogger, you get to do things like that.

Of course, I remember Lou Whitaker as being one of the best second baseman of the 1980s. When you look at his approximate contemporaries -- going 5 years in either direction in terms of debut seasons -- I think you would be hard pressed to find more than two or three others who would approach Whitaker's stature in the game generally.  

Who else is in the discussion?  Let's start with guys older than Whitaker.  I would argue that three players could be in the discussion who debuted before Whitaker did: Davey Lopes (1972 debut), Frank White (1973 debut), and Willie Randolph (1975 debut).  Of those three, the best comparison is probably Randolph because Randolph was closer in age and career length.  Using Jay Jaffe's JAWS and Wins Above Replacement, Whitaker had more career WAR (74.9 to 65.5), a better career peak (i.e., more WAR in his 7 peak years at 37.8 to 36.1), and a better JAWS score (56.4-50.8).  None of these 5 players is in the   

Looking to those younger than Whitaker, the first thought has to be of Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.  This comparison favors Sandberg slightly.  Whitaker has more career WAR -- by 7.4 (74.9-67.5) -- but has a lower career peak (46.8 for Sandberg to 37.8) and a lower JAWS score (57.2 for Sandberg to 56.4).

Let's take this question to the next step:  is Lou Whitaker a Hall of Famer? Looking at Black Ink -- a Bill James number indicating league leadership in categories -- Whitaker has just 1, versus 27 for the average HOFer.  Gray Ink, which is placement in the top 10 in the league in various hitting categories, gives Whitaker a similarly dismal ranking:  31 for Lou, 144 for the average HOFer.  

The career monitors are more forgiving: 92 score on the Hall of Fame Monitor (likely HOFer is about 100) and 43 on the Hall of Fame Standards list, with the average Hall of Famer being around 50.  For comparison, Sandberg had 14 on Black Ink, 134 on Gray Ink, 158 on the Hall of Fame Monitor, and 43 for Hall of Fame Standards.

Whitaker only appeared on the Hall of Fame Ballot for the BBWAA for one season -- 2001 -- and dropped off after receiving just 2.9% of the vote.  That season saw Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett elected even though Whitaker had more career WAR than either, a higher WAR7 (career peak) than either (barely...37.8 to 37.7 for Winfield and 37.5 for Puckett) and a better JAWS score than either -- 56.4 to 50.8 (Winfield) and 44.2 (Puckett).  But Whitaker didn't get 3000 hits and didn't hit .318 for his career, so that counted against him.

In my opinion, Whitaker does belong in the Hall of Fame.  He's ranked 7th in his career in WAR at second base (and, below him on that list are 13 HOFer second basemen).  He's 12th in the other two categories.  Indeed, the great sportswriter Joe Posnanski makes the argument that Lou Whitaker is one of the 100 greatest baseball players of all time.

While I'm not sure about that (and I should make my own list, I think), I can agree that Lou Whitaker should be in the Hall of Fame.


  1. I didn't know about the makeshift uniform. That is great.

  2. It's too bad Whitaker was "one and done" in the HOF voting. He deserved more consideration.