Editor’s note: This is the concluding installment of a 2-part conversation with Martinsville’s Lou Whitaker.
When Lou Whitaker was playing Major League Baseball for the Detroit Tigers, most fans and writers only paid attention to the statistics on the back of baseball cards. Hits, home runs, batting average, and RBIs were the teller of a player’s ability.
By those metrics, Whitaker was seen by the baseball world as good, not great. He had a career batting average of .276 and 2,369 career hits. His most home runs in a season was 28, and his most RBIs was 85.
Whitaker, who grew up in Martinsville, appeared just one year on the Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballot, garnering just 2.9% of the vote in 2001. Players need at least 5% to stay on the ballot each year.
But now, as sabermetrics, defined as “the application of statistical analysis to baseball records,” has taken over the game and those who study statistics have begun digging deeper into the numbers of retired baseball players, a new appreciation for Whitaker’s career has grown.
Not only was Whitaker the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1978, a 5-time All-Star, 4-time Silver Slugger, and 3-time Gold Glove Award winner in his 19-year career, he also finished with 75.1 career wins above replacement, or WAR, a statistic used to represent how many victories a player provides his team versus what a “replacement level” player could provide.
By WAR alone, Whitaker is 75th in baseball all time. He has the fourth-highest WAR of non-Hall of Fame players, behind Barry Bonds, Pete Rose and Bill Dahlen.
There are dozens of other new stats that paint Whitaker in a much different light than those Hall-of-Fame voters saw in 2001, and now a new set of voters will get a chance to take a look at the second baseman. Whitaker has been placed on the ballot for the Hall of Fame to be voted on by the Modern Era committee, which will meet to vote on Dec. 8.
“My fans just kept saying, ‘Lou, you’re next, you’re next,’” Whitaker, a graduate of Martinsville High School, said by phone last week. “You sort of understand what they’re saying but you sort of dismiss it because until it happens nothing is really concrete. I’ve always appreciated the support from the people who watched me play over the years. Even not getting more than 15% on my first ballot, most people would say, ‘Man that was a travesty,’ and couldn’t believe it.
“What can you say? Proud, happy, joyful, jovial. All those adjectives one can only think of to be in a position like this.”
Although Whitaker doesn’t have a plaque in the museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., his presence in its walls is certainly known. His jersey is there alongside shortstop Alan Trammell, his long-time double-play partner in Detroit. The two played more than 1,900 games beside one another, the most of any pair of middle infielders in baseball history.
Whitaker’s minor-league teams would play exhibition games in Cooperstown, and he said the players would walk through the building and see the names of the greats before them.
Now, decades later, the Hall of Fame has expanded, with TVs throughout showing highlights. Whitaker says it’s “50 times better now” and the amount of information “tells you everything you don’t even know about yourself, so to speak.”
“If that day comes, Martinsville is welcome, and they’ll get an opportunity to see the things I’m talking about,” he said.
Actually getting inducted is different, though. It’s about more than just jerseys and memorabilia. It’s a chance for players to be memorialized for all time.
“Because once your name disappears from that sort of light, you’re sort of forgotten in the sense of nobody really goes back and thinks about players,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker said he knows if it weren’t for the Modern Era committee he too would have just been one who played, had a decent career, and that would have been it. It took looking at the serious numbers, the deeper dive, for what he did to be fully appreciated.
He points out that most of his home runs came during crucial times of games, and the numbers agree. He had 75 career homers when the game was tied. Sixty-seven of his home runs came in the seventh inning or later.
He also points out that he wasn’t able to drive in so many runs because, for most of his career, he hit either first or second in the batting order.
“That’s something that [former Detroit Tigers Manager] Sparky Anderson used to tell me all the time. He used to tell me about all the great players, and he’d say, ‘Lou, you know what, some of these guys are hitting 35 or 40 home runs, and I bet you 30 of them probably didn’t mean anything,’” Whitaker said. “It’s so many different ways of really judging or looking at a players and seeing how valuable they were to a team.”
Whitaker also put just as much emphasis on his defense as he did his play at the plate. He turned more than 1,500 double plays and had had 6,600 career assists, both in the top-10 all time among second basemen at the time of his retirement. In 19 seasons he had just 189 errors.
Like the sabermetrics, these are numbers that Hall of Fame voters weren’t really looking at in 2001.
“They’re starting to see, ‘Wow, how did this particular guy get overlooked for all these years and years?’” Whitaker said. “These guys are basically seeing like, ‘How in the world could Lou Whitaker be overlooked? Man look at his numbers.’ And then they even say out of all the players that ever played Major League Baseball, they have a stat and they say, ‘What? Lou Whitaker is 77, 78 out of everybody that’s ever played baseball? What?’ And they look at this WAR ... I’m above [Roberto] Alomar, [Derek] Jeter.
“Keeping up with those little numbers like WAR and all this other stuff, because when we played in our days it was just hits, home runs, and RBIs, you know what I mean? And those were your superstar players back then. They were the top 10 in hitting and RBIs and homeruns...and that’s still the big numbers but now they look at all this other stuff. They look at all these other stats when judging player’s value and ability, to see how valuable they are to their team.”
Throughout his career, Whitaker said he always felt like there were people who tried to make him feel less valuable than he truly was. But he didn’t play to impress others. He didn’t play to rack up big numbers. He played to win, and he played because he loved the game.
“I enjoyed playing baseball. Loved it. Just being out there having fun doing something I loved to do, because that’s what I did in Martinsville,” he said. “When I played baseball it wasn’t about who got the most hits, and who hit the most home runs in that day, but who won. And that’s the only reason I played the game is I played to win.”
His hope, he said, is that his play on the field would be enough. Now that he’s got another chance, it just might be.
Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at (276)638-8801 ext. 241.