Which one of these guys has the highest career Wins Above Replacement total?
If you’re a baseball fan, you can easily guess the answer based on the title of this post.
Lou Whitaker has the 18th-highest career WAR among all position players whose careers are encompassed by the last half century of MLB (A category that includes almost half of all MLB players ever. As for active players who are likely to pass him, the only two with a good shot are Miguel Cabrera and the ridiculous Mike Trout).
Here are the 17 players ahead of him, in no particular order:
Every one of these players who is eligible is already in the Hall of Fame, except for Bonds and Bagwell. Bonds is of course being informally banned for taking steroids, and Bagwell seems to be getting the same treatment, although AFAIK nobody will come out and say it, given that the evidence against him is purely conjectural.
Meanwhile, Whitaker got 2.9% of the vote in his first year of eligibility, meaning he didn’t even stick on to the ballot for another year.
This was par for the course for him. Sweet Lou won the Rookie of the Year award in 1978, but was almost completely ignored in award voting after that. Amazingly, he appeared on anyone’s MVP ballot only once in 19 major league seasons, in 1983 when he finished 8th in the voting (In a typical year, about 25 players will appear on at least one voter’s ballot, since voters can rank up to ten players). He did make four all-star teams, which is far fewer than everybody on the two lists above, except for the strange case of Robin Yount, who made only three all-star teams despite winning two MVP awards.
Now to be fair, framing the case in terms of career WAR makes the strongest argument for Whitaker’s nomination as the most under-rated MLB player ever. The causes of Whitaker’s relative obscurity among great players are several:
(1) He was a terrific all-around player, as opposed to doing one thing — such as hitting for a high average, or hitting lots of home runs, or winning the gold glove every year — that tends to catch fans’ and voters’ attention. All-around players are, all other things being equal, invariably under-rated relative to specialists.
(2) He didn’t play in one of the giant media markets.
(3) He had lots of excellent years, but never one career year of obvious MVP quality.
(4) He was a quiet guy, rather than a rah-rah type. He also developed a bit of a reputation for being somewhat spacy (he once forgot his uniform when he went to an all-star game, and had to play in a makeshift jersey that had his number drawn on it with what looked like some sort of magic marker).
Here, the comparison with Alan Trammell is revealing. Whitaker and Trammell were by far the longest-lasting double play combination in MLB history. They were also remarkably similar players. Points (1) and (2) above apply to Trammell equally well. Point (3) doesn’t, as Trammell had an obvious MVP-quality season in 1987, but finished second to George Bell, back in the days when sportswriters didn’t realize there were more than three statistics by which to evaluate a player. Point (4) also doesn’t apply at all, and I remember Bill James argued on a couple of occasions that the relative attention given to Trammell over Whitaker, given their almost uncanny similarity as players, was in large part race-based. (Trammell has gotten double-digit support on the HOF ballot for all 14 seasons that he’s been eligible, topping out at 33% of the vote a couple of years ago.)
Anyway, the argument for Whitaker as the most under-rated MLB player ever, at least in terms of overall career value, is very strong.