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August 13, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

On Trammell and Whitaker

by David Laurila

“Tram” and “Sweet Lou." The longest-running double-play combination in baseball history, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker played 1,918 games together from 1977-95, the most ever for American League teammates.  During that time they combined for 11 All-Star berths, seven Gold Gloves, seven Silver Slugger awards, 4,734 hits, and 429 home runs.  They were, quite simply, the heart and soul of the Detroit Tigers for nearly two full decades.

What they meant to their team, and how they stack up against the best second basemen and shortstops of all-time—have they been undervalued by BBWAA Hall of Fame voters?—were questions posed to 20 prominent baseball voices. Weighing in on their careers were peers—former teammates and opponents alike—along with present-day players, broadcasters, scribes, and analysts. Here is what they had to say:

Tom Brookens [Tigers first-base coach; Tigers infielder 1979-88]:

“Whitaker and Trammell, that’s the mainstay of the Tigers, in the infield, in the 1980s, for sure. I played with Tram when he was just a young kid, his first year of signing. That was in Montgomery, Alabama. We brought him up at the end of the season, just to fill in. That was my first experience with him. He was just a young kid. Heck, he was just out of high school, really. And he was an all-field, no-bat guy. When he first signed, they were knocking the bat out of his hands, because he wasn‘t real strong. He came a long, long way offensively in his career.

“Lou was originally signed as a third baseman and then they made the switch to move him to second base. They both played in Double-A in 1977, and then they went straight to the big leagues. That’s one of the things I remember, because they skipped me. They jumped right over me, because I was in Triple-A ball. Both of them were just good ballplayers. You would see one and you’d see the other, early in their career. That’s the way that they were.

“Lou was more of a natural. I’ll say that Lou was more of a natural athlete, although Tram was a pretty good basketball player, they say, in San Diego. But to me, Tram worked out a little bit harder to make himself a better ballplayer. Lou, it just seemed like things came natural to him—as far as offensively, anyway.

“People always talk about how you have to be strong up the middle in order to have a good club, and those two guys made that strong up the middle work. Their numbers, per se, don’t say that they’re a lock for the Hall of Fame. Everybody puts the old 3,000 hits in there, and then you’re in, but if you don’t get it, well, then what did you do? I’ll say, yeah, take a look at what they did do without getting 3,000 hits. They both have arguments for being in the Hall of Fame.”

Jerry Howarth [Blue Jays radio broadcaster 1980-present]:

“My memories of Alan and Lou go back to when I first broke in. The first games I ever did were the July 4th weekend games in Detroit, at Tiger Stadium, in 1980. I was asked to fill in for Early Wynn, Tom Cheeks’ partner, who was playing in an Old Timers’ game at Dodger Stadium. That’s when I met Trammell and Whitaker, and Sparky Anderson and Ernie Harwell. And then to follow Trammell’s career, and Lou’s as well, all through the ‘80s and ‘90s was just tremendous. Both are great individuals. I’ve probably established a little bit more of a friendship with Alan, because he was a little more outgoing, but I found Lou to be very good, too, although shy and quiet. But what a team they made for [19] years.

"For me, they’re both Hall of Famers. I don’t think you could speak of one as a Hall of Famer without the other, and I do believe that they’re both Hall of Famers. When you see what they did over the longevity of their careers—and I know that the baseball writers look at it a little differently, and to me there are a lot of injustices, with Bert Blyleven being one of them off the top. And Trammell and Whitaker, too. I don’t know what the writers think it takes to get into the Hall of Fame, but for me, those two had very distinguished Hall of Fame careers up the middle of the diamond.”

Kirk Gibson [Diamondbacks manager; Tigers outfielder 1979-87, 1993-95]:

“I first saw them in 1979 when I went to spring training. They were already in the big leagues—they came up in 1977—so we became teammates when I came up in 1979. My whole career in Detroit, both my first trip there and my second trip, there was never, ever another double-play combination than Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker. And you don’t realize until you go and play for another team, and watch somebody else, just how important that is for a team to be a successful club. I mean, they were together for virtually every game I played for the Tigers. And they were damn good.

“I retired in 1995, so they’d have been there for 18 years at that time and I think it’s safe to say that they knew each other’s mannerisms as well as anyone ever has in the game. They made plays. I remember one time I hit a home run to win the game. It was in the bottom of the ninth inning, or something like that—we were in Detroit—and Sparky called me in. He said, ‘Hey, Gibby. You did a good job on the home run, but let me ask you a question.' They’d had the bases loaded with one out, and Lou made an unbelievable play and he and Trammell turned it, so Sparky goes, ‘If Lou doesn’t make that play, does your home run mean anything?’ So when the media came over to talk about the home run, I said ‘You’re at the wrong locker, because if Lou doesn’t make the play, I don’t get the opportunity.’ That’s the type of player both of those guys were.

“They weren’t flashy; they were just damn good. They were big-time playmakers when it counted. They were very consistent and steady. And both were very, very, very good hitters. They were simply big-time players.

“Maybe I’m partial—in fact, I’m sure I am—but there have never been two people to play like that, together, in the history of the game. I don’t know why they wouldn’t be [in the Hall of Fame]. I don’t know why baseball wouldn’t want them in the Hall of Fame, or why they wouldn’t want to promote that, because it’s exceptional, what they did. It’s just exceptional. They should be in there together.”

Sheldon Ocker [Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal]:

“Obviously, the most distinctive thing about the two guys is that they played together for so long and you just don’t see that. As far as them being Hall of Fame candidates, I don’t think Whitaker is. I think that Trammell is close, but for me he falls just a little bit short. He was a very good player; he was a good hitter and a good defensive player, but he just wasn’t outstanding at anything. I know that people in Detroit are going to disagree, of course, but I just think that Trammell falls a little bit short of being in the Hall of Fame.

“I think that it is kind of hard to put people in the Hall of Fame because they played together on the same team. I don’t know what kind of achievement that would be from an individual standpoint. I think that’s one of the reasons they’re talked about so much, because they played together on the same team for so long. If they were on two different teams, or if they only played together for two or three years, I’m not quite sure they would be as individually famous as they are. What they’re most famous for, at least outside of Detroit, is playing together on the same team for a long time.”

Jim Price [Tigers broadcaster; Tigers catcher 1967-71]:

“When you hear their names, you think about one of the great double-play combinations of all time. But the thing I knew about Lou Whitaker was that he was so good talent-wise, pure talent. You just wonder sometimes if maybe he could have been even better. I don’t mean that he didn’t hustle, or anything like that, but his talent was so good in all facets of the game that you thought that he could have been a little bit better. I think that he is Hall-of-Fame stock.

“Alan Trammell, when I look at him, I see one of the smart guys, one of the smart infielders. He never overplayed, he never tried to be fancy, he did what it would take to win, defensively. Two guys who worked together the way they did, for so many years—you just don’t see that.

“I think that Alan was the guy who tried to bring Lou out of his shell a little bit, and kind of guided the way. Defensively, I don’t think there were two guys any better, and they could hit. They were clutch hitters. Alan was a clutch hitter, obviously, and so was Lou. For me, talking from a player’s standpoint, I’d have loved to have played with them. I didn’t get to do that, but to simply broadcast some of their games was a thrill.”

Larry Parrish [Toledo Mud Hens manager; MLB infielder 1974-88]:

“They came up early together with the Tigers and were almost connected at the hip, because when you think of Trammell, you think of Whitaker. They were there for a long time as a double-play combination. It really all came together for them in that 1984 season, but they were good for many years before and after that.

“They were probably as two different guys as you could have. Lou was sort of a guy that played by feel. He could hit even when he was late in his career; he could swing the bat. Tram was more of a baseball… you could almost call him a dirt-bag type of player, a guy who would give you what he had every day and could answer trivia questions from 30 years before about baseball players. And actually, Tram really grew into a guy who had some sock, some power. When he first came up, he was just a right-field-singles, get the guy over type of hitter. He sort of evolved into a guy with some power who could hit in the middle of the order.

“I know one thing, they were darned good players, both of them. They were at the top of the league, and at the top of their era, my era, because I played against both of them. And they played for a long time. I don’t know what constitutes a Hall of Famer, but they were darned good players.”

Sandy Alomar Jr. [Indians first--base coach; MLB catcher 1988-2007]:

“In the era they played in, they were one of the most solid combinations up the middle. It was Whitaker and Trammell when you went to Detroit. Lou had a lot of power for a second baseman and Trammell was good with his hands and made all the plays, and he played the game the right way.

“Whitaker was more of a guy who liked to pull the ball. The second deck they had [at Tiger Stadium] was hanging out a little bit, so he was pretty much a pull hitter and we tried to maintain the ball down and away on him.  If we went in, we’d go [way] in, just for effect, but mostly on Whitaker we’d try to go with a lot of changeups and balls down and away. Trammell hit the ball everywhere. He adjusted to the situation and could go to right field, so you tried not to fall into too much of a pattern against him most of the time.

“They had very high grass [at Tiger Stadium] and kind of a sandy infield, so while I wouldn’t say that they had the best range in the league, they always positioned themselves well, so you had to hit the ball pretty good to hit it through that infield.”

Bob Tewksbury [Red Sox sports psychology coach; MLB pitcher 1986-98]:

“What I remember about Whitaker is that he was on the plate at Tiger Stadium and from the view I had on the mound, I could swear the plate was off-center, that it wasn’t lined up correctly. Whitaker used to crowd the plate and look to pull everything, so you had really to pitch him away and throw him off-speed stuff. He was a really good fastball hitter.

“Trammell was just a classy guy. From the talk of the veterans on the Yankees, he was a good classy player, kind of the Dale Murphy of the American League, so to speak.

“When you have two guys like that who are around the clubhouse—two veteran players who get along and set the tone— you can bring up younger players around them. Kirk Gibson and Cecil Fielder come to mind, but they had a lot of good players. When you have two players like Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, especially up the middle, you have consistency. They were around for a long, long time.”

Nick Cafardo [Boston Globe]:

“I’ve voted for Alan Trammell [for the Hall of Fame] every year that he’s been eligible. I think he combined both offense and defense, and he was a great leader. I think he began the movement toward more offensive-type shortstops in the league and he was just a very consistent player for many, many years. He and Whitaker were one of the best DP combos of that generation. They worked so well together and were very instrumental in the Tigers' success. Both of them were excellent players.

“As Hall of Fame voters, we dismissed [Whitaker’s] candidacy very quickly and I wish that he had kind of hung around a little bit. I know that he didn’t hit all the home runs, and all that, but he was a very consistent player, a very good defensive player and he hit well. He certainly should have been in the discussion for the Hall of Fame a lot longer than he was. He’s one of the people I’ve always thought should have been [on the ballot] for 15 years. We debated [Davey] Concepcion for many years—I always voted for Concepcion—and Whitaker, along with Dwight Evans and Albert Belle and a few other people, probably should have been in the discussion a little longer.”

Matt Nokes [Potomac Nationals hitting coach; Tigers catcher 1986-90]:

“I remember that Sparky used to say that Lou was as good as he wanted to be. He had so much talent. It just seemed like he took the game effortlessly; he kind of went out and showed his intensity when he was in the action, but that was it. Then he backed off. He knew how to pace himself.

“Alan Trammell was the team leader, the guy that everyone looked up to on the field. He was one of the nicest guys you‘d ever want to meet, classy, kind of a Don Mattingly type. He was a superstar, but he treated everybody the same. You’re a rookie coming up but he welcomed you like a veteran. He was an incredible shortstop, an incredible talent.

“I remember the intense focus that Alan Trammell had when he played. Talk about grinding out at-bats. He had an ability to have a quality plate appearance every time. He went pitch to pitch and didn’t ever waste an at-bat. He was one of those guys who got every ounce of talent out of his skill set. He didn’t have a great arm, but he had a very good arm. He made up for anything he didn’t have in his accuracy, his release, and he understood where to be at all times.

“They were the longest double-play combination; they did it for [19] years. The two of them belong in the Hall of Fame. Without question.”

Derek Lowe [Atlanta Braves pitcher; Michigan native]:

“They were arguably the best double-play tandem that was in the game. Alan Trammell was my sister’s favorite player and Chet Lemon, their center fielder, was mine. I think it’s great to see Alan Trammell still in the game, but as a kid I just marveled at the… it was more his defense. He was so much fun to watch. I was a shortstop when I was a kid and I’d try to emulate him.

“I’m not a big numbers guy, so I don’t really know where they rank, or where they stand, as far as being among the all-time greats, but the Hall of Fame isn’t an exact science and sometimes guys that should get in don’t really get looked at. But being from Detroit, I’d like to see as many Tigers get into the Hall of Fame as possible."

Jason Varitek [Red Sox catcher; Michigan native]:

“Being a Tigers fan growing up, that was the centerpiece of their team for so long. As a young boy, when I saw my first game, and went to my first game, it was all about the Tigers and right in the middle of that was a left-handed-hitting Whitaker and a right-handed, power-hitting Trammell. I wasn’t [living in Michigan] as an adult, but I know they were the centerpiece over a long period of time and that they stabilized that team right up the middle.”

Will Rhymes [Tigers infield prospect]:

“To be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about them, although I do know Lou a little bit from spring training. I know that they were a great double-play combo, but not much more than that, because I didn’t get a chance to see them play too much growing up.

“It would be amazing to have the same double-play partner for as long as they [played together]. There have been a couple of guys that I’ve come up with who I’d love to be in the big leagues with for a long time, so that would just be phenomenal. And usually you end up being pretty close friends with the guy you’re playing up the middle with, because you spend so much time together.

“Up the middle, your job is a lot more than just the stats. Defense is so important and, especially historically, they didn’t really expect middle infielders to hit as much as they do now, so I think that guys like [Trammell and Whitaker] maybe get a little overlooked.”

Jim Beattie [Blue Jays scout; former Expos and Orioles GM; MLB pitcher 1978-86]:

“When I think back to it, Whitaker was kind of like Orlando Hudson; he was a lot-of-energy second baseman. He had speed as part of his game. He had some power, but he was mostly just kind of a slap hitter, trying to put the ball into play, steal a base and try to get the offense ignited that way. You knew he had that pop if you gave him something down and in that he could turn on, but most of the time it was a matter of keeping him off the bases. He was more of an in-your-face kind of guy and the more acrobatic of the two.

“Trammell was more of a quiet professional. They were kind of Mutt and Jeff at short and second for so long, because they had different approaches, but they worked together so well. Trammell was the quiet professional who didn’t stand out in the lineup as much as guys you typically look at as Hall of Famers, but he could beat you in a lot of different ways. He could beat you with the bat, he could beat you with the glove, and he was a solid defender. I don’t particularly remember him having acrobatic range or anything, but he made all the plays. He was a steady player, and guys who are steady ballplayers, and all-stars year in and year out, are pretty valuable.”

Torey Lovullo [Pawtucket Red Sox manager; Tigers infielder 1988-89]:

What I remember most about them is their ease to getting things done. They were just so good, and so gifted, that they just put their bodies and minds into automatic and became the best middle-infield combination in Major League Baseball for many, many years. They had an innate ability to understand one another; they were able to communicate without talking. It was a pretty spectacular thing to watch.

“We’re talking about some pretty gifted athletes. People don’t realize just how good of an athlete Lou Whitaker was. His ability to turn two, with limited movement, was as good as anybody I’ve seen. Alan Trammell’s ability to go into the hole, and throw a ball across the diamond, accurately and crisply, is unmatched. They were great athletes that worked in unison.”

“When I came to Detroit, I went into that clubhouse in awe of both of those guys, because I played second base and shortstop in college. Sparky said, ‘Look, you’re not going to be able to play in the middle of the diamond here, and we have a guy by the name of Tom Brookens at third base, so can you play first base?’ I knew—I just knew—that unless they broke a leg, I’d never get an opportunity to take over at either of their positions. I felt like I was on the JV team compared to what they were offering.”

“Alan Trammell was the face of the Detroit Tigers through the ‘80s and those championship years. Lou Whitaker put up the best numbers, including power numbers, and was one of the best offensive second basemen of that time. If you look at that little gap of the steroid generation, their numbers fall short of the numbers that happened in that little run from 1995-2005, so in an unfair way they’re judged because they played the game innocently; they played the game the right way. They were the two best baseball players in their time, for the Detroit Tigers, as far as I’m concerned.”

Frank White [Royals broadcaster; MLB infielder 1973-90]:

“What they meant to their team, the Tigers, is stability and they were two guys who knew how to play the game. They were one of the best middle-infield combinations in baseball during the time that they played, and they played together for their entire careers. Lou hit for some power, as did Trammell at shortstop, and both guys were very consistent in doing what they had to for their ballclub.

“They were very good [defensively]. Alan didn’t have what you would call tremendous range, but he knew how to play the position. Lou, at second base, was a guy with range. They could both turn double plays. From a fundamental standpoint, both of them were just right there. They didn’t have any weaknesses. I played against them my entire career, so I saw them a lot of times and they were always a source of competition for our ballclub, and for me and my shortstop. We always looked at those guys as players who were going to be there every day and making all the plays. They did everything right, so when we played against them, we wanted to try to outplay them.

“Am I surprised that they haven’t gotten more support for the Hall of Fame? Not really. I’m surprised that no middle infielder gets much support for the Hall of Fame, but nothing about the Hall of Fame really surprises me. I think that the best thing guys can do, like Alan and Lou, basically, is just know that they had great careers and not depend on the Hall of Fame to define that they had great careers."

Tim Belcher [Indians pitching coach; Tigers pitcher 1994]:

“Unfortunately, my memories are a little tainted, because I played with them in 1994 at the end of their careers and they probably weren’t as good as they were at the beginning or the middle. I guess the biggest thing I remember is the length of time they played together in the middle of the infield together on the same team, which is highly unusual. But both were good guys and good players.

“I would characterize Trammell as a thinking man’s shortstop, relying on positioning and doing all of the little things right. He wasn’t necessarily a rangy, spectacular, playmaking, strong-armed guy. Lou was kind of the same way, I guess. But like I said, seeing them at the end of their careers probably taints my image of just how good they were.

“Trammell had a presence in the clubhouse. Lou was kind of quiet and kept to himself, but Tram was a leader both on and off the field.

“I think that longevity counts for something. They might not have been perennial all-stars or at an MVP level, but they performed at a high level for a long time. They did so at important positions, too, in the middle of the infield. I think they probably deserve more [Hall of Fame] consideration than they’ve gotten.”

Tom Gage [Detroit News]:

“They were a generation of baseball to Detroit. If you were born in the early ‘70s and were 7 or 8 years old when they came up to the big leagues, you watched them for 20 years. They were the infield and they represented, basically, the Tigers. You saw them progress from hitters who couldn’t pull the ball—skinny little guys—to solid ballplayers who turned into great baseball players.

“They were totally different personalities. Lou Whitaker was very quiet. He was a great natural talent who didn’t even have to take batting practice and sometimes didn’t. He wasn’t much of a clubhouse presence. Alan Trammell probably wasn’t the clubhouse leader of the team, but he was always a significant clubhouse presence.

“I think that Trammell will get a lot more [Hall of Fame] recognition. People will begin to say, ‘What about Alan Trammell?’ if Barry Larkin makes it, and I think that Larkin will make it. With Lou Whitaker, I think he suffered from the fact that for many of the years he played for the Tigers, they weren’t on the baseball map. Yes, they won in 1984, and I’d have to say that in 1984, before you could blink it was always first and third with Whitaker and Trammell on that team. But after ‘84, and certainly in the late ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Detroit disappeared. Whitaker, [Lance] Parrish and [Kirk] Gibson were all on the ballot the same year, and none of them got 5 percent; they all disappeared off the ballot. And nobody got overlooked more than Lou Whitaker. He compares favorably to a lot of the great second basemen.”

Jay Jaffe [Baseball Prospectus]:

Should Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker be in the Hall of Fame? At the very least, they deserve better than they've received from the Baseball Writers Association of America, the voting body for the annual balloting. Trammell is nine years into his 15-year eligibility, and only this past winter did he even top 20 percent of the vote for the first time; the 22.4 percent he received is less than one-third of the 75 percent needed for admission. Whitaker’s been treated even worse, having fallen off the ballot after receiving just 2.9 percent in his first year of eligibility in 2001.

Trammell measures up particularly well relative to the shortstops in Cooperstown. That's the verdict according to JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score), my Hall of Fame monitor system which identifies above-average candidates by comparing their career and peak (best seven seasons) values to those of enshrined players at their primary positions. WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) measures each player's offensive and defensive contributions relative to a minor league call-up or waiver-wire pickup, a common concept in performance analysis. Park and league difficulty adjustments are built into WARP such that players from every era of baseball history can be compared on a level playing field, so to speak.

Trammell accumulated 78.1 WARP in his career with his bat and glove, and 52.8 WARP during his best seven seasons, giving him a JAWS of 65.5 (the average of those two totals). His most valuable season was in 1987, when he racked up an impressive 10.0 WARP while hitting .343/.402/.551 with 28 homers and 105 RBI for the AL-East winning Tigers. He should have won the AL MVP award, but instead lost a close vote to George Bell, who hit 47 homers but was otherwise far less valuable either at the plate or the field, accumulating just 5.4 WARP. Trammell's second-most valuable season came in 1984, when his 8.4 WARP led the world champions.

The average Hall of Fame shortstop, by comparison, accumulated 70.0 WARP in his career, and 47.9 WARP at his peak, for a JAWS of 59.0, meaning that Trammell is better on all three counts. In fact, he ranks eighth among shortstops in all three categories, with Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Arky Vaughn, Ozzie Smith, Barry Larkin, and Lou Boudreau the only ones ahead of him in JAWS. Rodriguez, of course is still active (and now a third baseman, but the system considers where he accumulated more value), while Larkin just reached the ballot for the first time last year. Trammell's JAWS outpaces BBWAA-elected shortstops Ernie Banks, Joe Cronin, Luke Appling, Robin Yount, Luis Aparicio, and Rabbit Maranville, as well as 10 Veterans Committee selections (typically weaker candidates than those elected by the writers) including Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto. That he faces such an uphill battle—nobody with a vote percentage this low this late has ever been elected—counts as an injustice.

Whitaker's case is tougher to make as far as JAWS is concerned. His 75.9 career WARP is comparable to that of Trammell, but his peak total is just 39.5, and his JAWS is just 57.7. He was more valuable into his mid-to-late 30s than his keystone-mate but at his peak, he was worth two to three fewer wins per year, with his best seasons coming in 1983 (7.1 WARP) and 1982 (6.1).

The real problem for Whitaker is that second base is a stronger position in terms of Hall of Famers; the average enshrinee accumulated 76.8 career WARP—nearly seven wins more than the average enshrined shortstop—and 50.1 peak WARP, for a JAWS of 63.5. Whitaker comes close in the first category, but falls significantly shorter in the other two. The only second basemen in Cooperstown with lower JAWS scores were voted in by the VC, with last summer's posthumous honoree, Joe Gordon, ranking the highest. The recently retired Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent also outrank Whitaker, as do contemporary Bobby Grich, and Roberto Alomar, who narrowly missed being elected last winter but will in all likelihood gain admission this coming winter.

The VC is Whitaker’s only potential route into Cooperstown, but he won’t even be eligible until 2015, 20 years after his final season. A year later, Trammell will become eligible via that route. Perhaps when the two players are side by side on the ballot as they were in the field, they’ll receive stronger considerations from the committee of former players, executives and writers than they did from the BBWAA.

Gary Gillette [author; co-editor ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia]:

Surely you’ve heard the old joke about Chicago politics, where people are advised to “vote early and often.” Whether that’s true any longer about Windy City elections, that old saw still applies to the way baseball writers vote for candidates for the Hall of Fame. If a writer doesn’t vote early for a candidate and the player fails to be named on 5 percent of the ballots, he’s not eligible in the future. But you get to vote for a player up to 15 times, just in case you want to change your mind—or simply to bide your time while your colleagues are making up their minds.

Good-bye, Lou Whitaker.

It is impossible to discuss whether Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker deserve to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame without discussing the larger issues of the voting process, the biases of the voters, and the standards applied by the various electorates.

Statistically, based on their career numbers, both Tram and Lou deserve to get their bronze plaques. Yet it’s easy to make superficially appealing counter-arguments. Are they among the very greatest players in history? No one would make that argument. Would they have been elected 30 years ago: certainly not. Were they the best players in their league? No. Did they set records? No.

There are different ways to measure career value, but suffice it to say that both of the great Tigers’ infielders are head and shoulders better than many other members of the Hall. Trammell’s and Whitaker’s career numbers are so similar as to be eerie; moreover, Whitaker is actually slightly better. And Whitaker’s career stacks up pretty well when compared to fellow second-sacker and recent Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Sweet Lou isn’t quite as good overall, and he doesn’t have that MVP hardware, but the gulf between the two isn’t remotely like the chasm that should separate a Cooperstown denizen and someone dismissed by the back of the writers’ hands.

Which, of course, brings up the crucial issue: Exactly what defines a Hall of Fame player, other than having at least played at least 10 years in MLB? The answer to that is: nothing. The only standards that matter for the Hall are those in the minds of the individual voters, and those voters can and do apply radically divergent standards. So a player can be enbronzed by an electorate that weights a half dozen or more fundamental measures very differently--career stats, peak performance, comparison to peers, major awards, records held, winning teams, postseason play. Yet, so long as 75% of the BBWAA writers eligible to vote list a player’s name, he is in. Forever.

So what, says you? The wisdom of a large number of experts—even if they don’t all agree on the standards—is meaningful and even helps to limit mistakes due to the hundreds of electors.  Not so.

The reality is that many baseball writers apply only one standard to their voting: They think they know a Hall of Famer when they see one, and everyone else is just an imposter. Don’t confuse them with numbers they’re uncomfortable with, and god help you if you quote advanced metrics.

Another problem is that the Hall of Fame itself keeps changing the rules for election. There have been multiple incarnations of the Veterans Committee over the years, and the election rules for the Vets have changed many times. In fact, for a while in the 1990s, a player that failed to get at least 5% of the writers’ vote was not only dropped from the BBWAA ballot, he was not eligible for future consideration by the Veterans Committee, either.

What does that say about the collective wisdom of the writers? Or of the members of the Veterans Committee? If less than one writer in 20 of them thinks a player is worthy of Cooperstown, but more than 95% of them can be overruled by the Veterans Committee later?

Discussing the Hall is difficult because many people reflexively intone, “One mistake doesn’t deserve another.” Or they dismiss the common tactic of comparing a candidate to the lowest common denominator (e.g., the worst players elected at that position, or the worst players recently enshrined.) Fair enough, except that the Hall is currently populated by so many mistakes that they have irrevocably changed the meaning of Hall of Famer.  Maybe Lloyd Waner’s and Jim Bottomley’s bronze passes don’t justify Whitaker’s or Trammell’s accession, but I guarantee that George Kell’s and Tony Perez’s most definitely do.

If this isn’t enough to make your brain smoke when you contemplate who is worthy of being designated as a baseball demi-god, let me know and I can give you another 3,000 words on the irregularities and hypocrisy of the history of the Hall of Fame. 

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