By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 97: Lou Whitaker

There are many people who do not like the statistic Wins Above Replacement (WAR) because, for various reasons, they don’t agree with the math. There are many people who do not like it because they don’t like the defensive component, or they feel like the offensive component doesn’t weigh things properly, or they are opposed to one catch-all kind of statistic or they feel strongly that there are much more accurate ways to rate a ballplayer. There are lots of reasons to like or dislike WAR.

And, then, I suspect, there are some who don’t like WAR because it ranks Lou Whitaker as one of the best second basemen in baseball history.

Well, obviously, the Whitaker WAR is just one thing … but it’s an example of a statistic clashing against what is an accepted world view. There are numerous other examples (the mot recent being WAR rating Mike Trout as a significantly more valuable player than Miguel Cabrera). But I suspect Whitaker is the most striking case.

Many baseball fans seemed sure they had Whitaker pegged accurately when he retired — he was a nice second baseman who teamed well his his baseball soulmate Alan Trammel for some good Tigers teams in the 1980s. He made a handful of All-Star Games, won some Gold Gloves, was a .275 or so hitter and that was that. When he came up for the Hall of Fame vote, he got 15 votes (less than half of Dave Stewart), fell off the ballot*, and that was that.

*That year, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett were both elected in their first year on the ballot. WAR shows Whitaker to be worth 10 more wins than Winfield, 24 more than Puckett.

Now, how in the heck does WAR turn Lou Whitaker into the sixth-best second baseman in baseball history?

Top second basemen by WAR
1. Rogers Hornsby, 126.9
2. Eddie Collins, 123.9
3. Joe Morgan, 100.3
4. Nap Lajoie, 89.6
5. Charlie Gehringer, 80.8
6. Lou Whitaker, 74.8
7. Bobby Grich, 71.0
8. Frankie Frisch, 70.1
9. Ryne Sandberg, 67.7
10. Robbie Alomar, 66.7

Let’s say you are one of many who saw Whitaker as a perfectly fine player but certainly not an all-time great. That WAR number forces you to make a call. You can question everything you’ve ever heard, read or thought about Whitaker and change your mind and look at him in a new way. You also can disregard WAR as a viable statistic or decide Whitaker must be an anomaly. I think it’s tempting (and a lot easier) to do the latter.

But let’s try looking at Whitaker the way WAR does. Let’s say we compare him with someone who is widely viewed as an all-time great — Robbie Alomar. He was a second-ballot Hall of Famer — he missed on first ballot, it seems, only because of a protest vote over a spitting incident that stained his career a bit. Alomar made 12 All-Star teams, won 10 Gold gloves, hit .300 for his career, got first place MVP votes in 1999 and 2001, etc. How in the world does WAR rank Whitaker ahead of this guy?

Well, it starts on the defensive side: WAR (both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference) view Whitaker as a superior second baseman. That might not make sense to us as fans. Alomar won TEN GOLD GLOVES. But that’s what those numbers say. Are they wrong? Maybe. But how would we know? How many times did you watch Lou Whitaker play ball? How many times did you watch Alomar? How often were you concentrating on their defensive skills?

Let’s look at their basic fielding numbers. They played almost exactly the same number of games at second base, which makes this convenient. Whitaker made 300 more putouts, had 120 more assists and had the same fielding percentage. Whitaker’s range factor was quite a bit higher over the career, and it was consistently higher when you go year by year. Again, this might mean nothing — defense is so much more difficult to quantify than offense. But certainly the numbers skew in one direction. You could at least make an argument that Whitaker was a better defender than Alomar.

How about offense? Alomar seems the better offensive player. He hit .300 for his career (to Whitaker’s .276) and stole 474 bases (300-plus more than Whitaker). He also scored 120 more runs, accounted for almost 400 more total bases.

Whitaker has his advantages too: He hit more home runs than Alomar and drew 150-plus more walks. But here’s something to remember: Alomar played in a MUCH better hitting era. When comparing players, I like to neutralize their numbers just to clear a little bit of the smoke.

Alomar’s neutralized numbers: .298/.368/.439 with 1510 runs scored, 1,124 RBIs, 1,508 runs created.

Lou Whitaker’s neutralized numbers: .282/.370/.435 with 1,508 runs, 1,179 RBIs, 1,455 runs created.

That’s awfully, awfully close. So that explains it. WAR sees them very close offensively and thinks Whitaker was the clearly better defender. You might not come around on that,. I don’t come all the way around on that (spoiler alert: I do rate Alomar higher).

But I think it’s pretty clear that when you get down to it, Whitaker was wildly under-appreciated in his time. And that’s no reason to continue not appreciating his play. He got on base, he hit with surprising power, he stole a few bases, he played excellent defense at second base … there just aren’t many players in baseball history who did all those things. We carry our biases with us, and Lou Whitaker has long been viewed as a good but hardly great baseball player. I disagree. I have him ranked as the 97th best player who ever lived.

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38 Responses to No. 97: Lou Whitaker

  1. John Franco says:

    Whitaker played in an era where pitchers had fewer strikeouts, so of course he had higher assist and putout totals. In 1983, when Whitaker won his first gold glove, the Tigers had a K/9 of 5.4. In 1991, when Alomar won his first, the Tigers were at 6.0.

    Not a huge difference, but it adds up over 1300+ innings. Alomar’s last gold glove was 2001 (team K/9 of 7.4). In 1990, Whitaker’s last great RF/9 year, the Tigers were at 5.4.

    I’m not necessarily saying this proves Alomar was better, but it’s something to consider.

  2. shoelesskc says:

    Yikes! Who’s #96 Ron Cey?
    Conceptually hard to place Whitaker in even the top 200… but he did have more Magnum PI cameos than any other second baseman.

    • Yeager says:

      We had Schilling at #100. The tone was set early on these rankings making any sense. Just sit back and enjoy the writing like I am.

      • Herb Smith says:

        Are you serious? Who was the best “big-game pitcher” in the entire history of baseball?

        You can make a good argument for Bob Gibson, Koufax, even Mathewson or Smoltz perhaps. Bur Schilling is prolly number one, or in a three-way tie, at worst.

        Oh, and the greatest strikeout-to-walk ratio of all-time? Yeah. He sucks.

        • PhilM says:

          If World Series WPA is any measure of “big game-ness” (either in total or on a per-IP basis), Herb Pennock, Allie Reynolds, Monte Pearson, and Babe Ruth (the Red Sox pitcher, to balance this list of Yankees) have a bone to pick with you. Plus Tommy Bond wants his K/BB title back.

        • Yeager says:

          Pretty sure I didn’t say he sucked.

    • Linus says:

      Whitaker was a much, much better player than Cey.

    • Trent Phloog says:

      “Dear Joe: Stop challenging my preconceptions! I only want the most boring and safe top 100 possible. Sincerely, shoelesskc”

      • DjangoZ says:

        My thoughts exactly. But to Joe’s credit he is much, much nicer to folks like this than I would be. Part of why he has the readership he does. That and his amazing writing skills.

  3. Sweet Lou would have a more enhanced reputation if Frank White hadn’t been hogging all the AL Gold Gloves at 2b during his career. He belongs in anyone’s Top 100.

    • Agreed. GGs are influenced by who else is playing at the time. If Frank White were playing in Alomar’s era, Alomar would have fewer GGs (but not a lot fewer; GG awards remarkably go to good hitters, as if good hitting means you are deserving of fielding consideration). I wanted to argue range factors, and compare to league range factors, but your point about strikeouts is persuasive; you’d have to look at all the potential ground balls to second base on each team and then see what percentage of each got fielded, and I’m not sure bRef is up to that.

      Still, one thing Joe is big on (and the HOF much less so) is players who were competent or better at every aspect of the game. MVP and All-Star awards tend to go to league leaders, whereas the guy to hits .290 with 25 homers, 20 steals, near GG defense, will get no awards even though he might be a better player. These days all around consideration is more in vogue, but I don’t think it has been so for more than about 15 years.

      And if I’m going at overall competence, Whitaker’s OPS+ (which does not depend on having a ground ball pitching staff) was 117 to Alomar’s 116. Alomar was very much a plus base stealer (average season: 32 steals, 8 times caught) whereas Whitaker was a weak stealer (10/5), against which the defensive metrics (and OPS+) favor Whitaker. It seems fairly absurd to me that one is enough better than the other to be in the HOF while the other didn’t make it to year two.

  4. nscadu9 says:

    Interesting to see this list come together. We’ve always seen questions asked by Joe, but not necessarily his rankings. 5 man Hall of Fame? The positional rankings will be interesting. Does this mean Robbie Alomar is still to come? Alomar peaks higher and stays there longer. In fact just about everyone on that top 10 2B list peaks higher and stays high longer. Never been big on career WAR numbers. Even Jeff Kent arguably peaks higher and longer that Lou and he lags far behind on career WAR. Anyway interesting to see. Nice to see Schilling and Santo in the top 100.

  5. Confused in Boston says:


    Did you post your 5000 word opus on the Dayton Moore contract extension somewhere else? I saw the piece on Vargas, and you have clearly been writing since the extension was announced so I know you haven’t imploded. I guess what I’m saying, is that as a loyal reader, I thought I deserved better.

    Love ya Joe, keep up the brilliant work.

  6. I’ve looked at Whitaker before, and the problem, from a 2013 perspective, is that nothing pops out as “great”. But Whitaker didn’t play in 2013….though he did cross into the Selig era, depending on when you believe that started. So, you have to move your thought process back into the 80s and early 90s. For a lot of that time, offense was down and for sure, there were not a lot of second basemen who could hit, let alone hit with some power, run a little and play great defense.

    When Martin Scorsese directed Age of Innocence, he wanted to take the viewer back to a different time and a different way of thinking. In 2013, we’re at the point where a sex tape is not really even a scandal. In Scorsese’s 1870 New York, a sideways look at a divorcee was a scandal. So, to get the movie viewer to think like an 1870 upper class New Yorker, Scorsese spent a good 30 minutes washing the viewers mind and indoctrinating them into a different way of thinking so they could appreciate the story he wanted to tell. That 30 minutes was tedious and put a number of viewers completely to sleep….including my wife. But the movie wouldn’t have worked without it.

    In the same way, when looking at Whitaker, we need to transport our minds back to the way baseball was in the 80s and look at Whitaker from that frame of reference. I think Whitaker was far more appreciated then than Joe states. Unfortunately for Whitaker, baseball entered the Selig era and inflated offensive numbers towards the end of his career. Whitakers last season was 1995 and he came up for the HOF vote in 2001 at the height of the steroids era and comic book like hitting numbers. Then he had to wait another 5 years for his hearing on the HOF ballot.

    The 2001 ballot was very robust. Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield were elected that year and other future HOFers Blyleven, Gary Carter, Rice, Sutter and Gossage were on the ballot. So, right there, those guys sucked up 7 of the 10 votes on many ballots. In addition, there were other strong candidacies from Garvey, Tommy John, Jack Morris, Jim Kaat, Dale Murphy and Don Mattingly. So, Whitaker got lost in the shuffle and never got much of a hearing.

    In short, it was the perfect storm that kept Whitaker from the strong HOF consideration he should have received.

  7. Jim says:

    I think the defensive numbers are skewed because of Trammell. The extra putouts by Whitaker could have come on 6-4 forceouts to end innings. The assists could easily be on double-plays starter by other players making the great plays. Perhaps this is like Bill James’ comparison of Buckner and Garvey and why defensive stats showed Buckner was better when everyone knows that’s not the case.

  8. Phil says:

    Over at High Heat Stats, for their “Circle of Greats,” they’ve been trying to pry Alomar/Whitaker/Grich/Sandberg/Biggio apart for something like three or four months. When I put my hometown (Toronto) bias towards Alomar aside, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can rank the five of them in any order you want and come up with reasonable supporting arguments.

  9. Chad Meisgeier says:

    I like it, but I don’t have Whitaker in my top 100. For #97 I will argue for Tom Glavine.

  10. David says:

    Well, I’m going to go ahead and guess that there will be about 20 pitchers in this top 100. That leaves 80 players for eight positions. I don’t really think it’s that ludicrous to consider Whitaker the 8th best 2B of all-time. I wouldn’t put him that high, but I don’t think it’s totally crazy.

  11. Carl says:

    Great arguments Joe for Whitaker. Did he really stand out among his contemporaries? I think you have a great article for the wonderful second basemen of the mid 70s to mid 80s. Whitaker, but also White, Randolph, Grich, in the AL (Carew was a 1B by that point) and Morgan, Lopes and Trillo in the NL. Be wonderful to compare and contrast them and decide where to draw the HoF line.

  12. Carl says:


    Just checked out Baseball Reference and noted that Whitaker gets 21% of his WAR total from his defense. Unless an all-time great (Maz, O. Smith) it’s offense that people remember and value, and not defense.

    I encourage you and Tom Tango to work together on an all-under-rated team using percentage of WAR from defense vs same WAR but lower percentage of WAR from defense. Suspect the list with a greater percentage of WAR value from defense will be under-rated (however defined) vs those w a greater percentage of WAR from offense. Perhaps even a BR survey pairing off participants could be used to define under/over rated?

    • Josh says:

      And when so much of a player’s WAR value is made up via defense, a lot of people are going to struggle with it, because bWAR doesn’t always match up well with memory or perception. (Kirby Puckett, who was somewhat tossed under the bus here, is a good example: bWAR has him as a net negative defender over the course of his career, which is something that most people are going to see as a head-scratcher.)

      Whitaker is a fine player, but his defensive accomplishments and value are still being assessed. He was overshadowed in his career from a fame perspective by other 2Bs in the league and by other players on his own team. He certainly didn’t deserve to be dropped off after one shot on the ballot, but he’s also not an easy HoF case either, despite his WAR totals.

  13. jim louis says:

    Being a long-time Royals fan made me look up Frank White’s numbers. Yeah, no question that Whitaker would rank ahead of White overall, though I’d argue not by a whole lot. Whitaker’s ability to get on base was pretty spectacular.

    I stumbled across Amos Otis’ numbers, and offensively he was very similar to Whitaker over his career. And Otis’ post-season numbers are better. But as you say, it was that Whitaker not only was very solid offensively, but also defensively, which is where Otis would come up a little short.

  14. Clayton says:

    I think Lou Whitaker is generally under-rated as a player…but Joe seems to over-compensate for that and thus over-rates him. To me, Whitaker is definitely better than his HOF-voting numbers would suggest. But I dont think he’s a Top-100 player, either.

    • todmod says:

      I completely agree with this. Whitaker was pretty unappreciated for the Hall voting – but I think people begin to overstate his case (especially considering him a top 100 player). The biggest reason – Whitaker had a fantastic, steady career of being a really good player.

      But peak value is pretty important when talking about the best. Whitaker had just 4 5 WAR years (sure-fire all star years). He’s 7th in WAR for 2nd basemen, but 19th in WAR7 for his top 7 seasons. Alomar/Sandberg/Biggio all had a pretty clearly higher peak. I think when considering greatness, they’d have to all be ranked higher.

      • todmod says:

        Just another note on comparing players (it seems like Whitaker will be on this list, and Alomar not)

        In WAR (baseball reference), Alomar had the better best season, 2nd best, 3rd best, 4th best, 5th best, 6th best, and 7th best seasons of their careers. They had the same 8th/9th best seasons. Whitaker gets his career advantage in the 10th-17th best seasons of their careers. Which is great – it shows that he had a long valuable career. But if you’re using that career total to say he’s better, I just can’t go along with that.

        I tend to rate peak values pretty highly for Hall of Fame / ranking considerations.

        • todmod says:

          And I didn’t pay attention to the last note that Alomar is still to come – shame on me.

          So I’ll just say it’s a nice writeup on a great player in Whitaker, and that I think peak vs career value is still a good discussion to have.

  15. JR Saginaw says:

    Love the love for my favorite childhood player. Growing up in Michigan, all of the other kids on my baseball team raced to the uniform box to search and fight for jersey #3 (Trammell’s number) while I snuck in and grabbed the #1 jersey from the pile discarded to the side. Looooooooooouuuuuuu!

  16. Kris says:

    Tigers fans often say about Whitaker, Trammell, Morris etc. because the team did not win as much as it should have, they do not get the vote consideration for BB HOF.

    However, i did notice, Joe, that Grich & Sandberg were direct contemporaries on the listing and Morgan’s 2nd half of his career overlapped some into Whitaker’s era. Everyone agrees it is difficult to get a majority when there is a Plurality vs. a Singularity of great players on the ballot.

    Additionally, i think Willie Randolph and Frank White were direct contemporaries as well. And there were some other fairly good 2B around – Lopes, Dave Cash …. etc. (apologies to anyone i missed).

    The point being of course, when there are many good to greats at the same position in the same era, it becomes difficult to select all of them.

  17. I’m loving this blog and the arguments that come after it. But we really gave Joe a free pass when he said he “neutralized” numbers just to “clear the smoke.” That’s saying, “well, Alomar his .300, but he didn’t really hit .300.” And that’s a fairly shaky assumption to base an entire argument on. There’s something to be said for this kind of “control,” so that we can better compare a player’s numbers from a given era to numbers across the whole history of baseball, the idea being that we adjust for changes in the game that affect a player’s stats but don’t necessarily reflect a player’s skill. At the same time, say what you want, but Whitaker did hit .275 and Alomar did hit .300. If we make the assumption that baseball players can’t be compared between eras on raw stats, we approach the assumption that all eras of baseball history should have the same number of players in the top 100, because what matters is only one’s play relative to the era in which one played, so the best of each era should be included. If you say that Alomar, placed in context, wasn’t as great as we say, then you discount some of his accomplishments, and inflate the accomplishments of a guy like Lou Whitaker. This may or may not be valid but it’s a point worth debating. For example, if we were to “neutralize” pitching strikeouts from our current era when no pitchers get 300 k’s in a season, I think we’d be too generous in equivocating the top whiff guys of today with Sandy Koufax.

  18. amazin69 says:

    I wonder what effect AstroTurf has on the Range Factor/defensive WAR numbers for infielders. I’m guessing that because balls get through the infield faster on turf, turf teams see the OFs make a greater percentage of the team putouts than do grass teams, and so the infielders’ numbers are diminished. And since Alomar had most of his key seasons in Toronto, that might affect his numbers.

    Also, with everybody and their cousin swinging for the fences in the ’90s, was the FB/GB ratio skewed more against infielders than it had been in the previous decade? Combining this with the increase in strikeouts, and I’m guessing that infielders overall showed a marked drop in Range Factor over the course of the ’90s.

    I also can’t get by the fact that the people who saw Whitaker play regularly did not think he was the best defensive 2B in the league. If you’re going to canonize him based primarily on his defensive stats (I personally always thought of Lou’s bat carrying his glove, rather than vice versa), that’s quite a bias to overcome.

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