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.