The Best Player Not in the Hall of Fame?

To get at the question posed in the title, let me clear away a bit of clutter first. This post is not about Roy Smalley, despite his being the clearly correct answer to the question. Second, it excludes all players not eligible. No active players, no banned players, no players retired for 5 or less years (i.e. not even the players coming up for election for the first time next month.) Finally, it excludes Bert Blyleven. I think that he is the real answer to the question, but the internet, and especially sabermetric sites, are full of Blyleven support, as they should be. Instead, I want to focus on a player just below Blyleven’s stature but nonetheless even more overlooked. I would like to talk a bit about Lou Whitaker.

Sean Smith, at his Baseball Projection site, ranks all position players by his version of Wins Above Replacement. The list contains no adjustments, instead being a straight ranking by this one stat. The first eligible player not in the Hall of Fame is Bill Dahlen, ranked 42nd with 75.9 WAR. This places him between Sam Crawford and Frank Thomas. Dahlen was a shortstop who spent half his career in the 19th Century. For his first two years, pitchers still threw from 50 feet away, instead of 60’6″. Given that, I want to exclude Dahlen from consideration and move to the next eligible missing player, Lou Whittaker. Whitaker ranks 55th, between Billy Hamilton and Harry Heilmann, with 69.5 WAR. Despite such lofty praise, Whitaker was on the Hall of Fame ballot only once, in 2001, earning 15 votes, just two more than former teammate Kirk Gibson. What happened? Why did Whitaker get ignored?

Whitaker is the sort of player easy to overlook by Hall of Fame voters. Consider his stats. He had 2,369 hits for his career, hitting .276 with 244 home runs. None of those numbers are spectacular. None of them catch the eye. Similarly he hit .204 in three postseason series. Again, nothing to help his case. Whitaker’s case for the Hall of Fame is only partially about the traditional stats. As a second basemen, his numbers instantly start looking better. But look farther. For his career, Whitaker walked almost 100 times more than he struck out. He only grounded into double-digit double plays three times in his career. He won three gold gloves and was a consistently above average fielder at a position that thrives on fielding prowess. Unfortunately, Whitaker was overshadowed for most of his career by Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg ended his career with more hits, more home runs, and a higher batting average. He also won more gold gloves. For what it’s worth, Smith’s ranking considers Sandberg overrated, putting his fielding only slightly better than Whitaker and giving a serious edge because of his longer career.

Without any number to hang a voter’s hat on, Whitaker slipped through the cracks. He came up for the vote on a strong ballot. Two players, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett, were both elected that year in their first year of eligibility. The next four players, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage, would all be elected soon thereafter. He slipped through the cracks. Sadly, Whitaker will have to wait until the Veterans’ Committee considers him 10 or so years from now.

Who do you think is the best eligible player not in?

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7 Comments on “The Best Player Not in the Hall of Fame?”

  1. verdun2 Says:

    Let me throw in Ron Santo as another very worthy candidate.

  2. Wow, very interesting! Always loved Whittaker. I’d have to throw Charlie Keller (.410 OBP, .518 SLG, 162 OPS+) into this conversation despite a career shortened by war time and a back injury. He didn’t have the glove Whittaker had, but he made up for it by being such a great batter.

  3. sportsphd Says:

    The question is how to judge “best.” Whitaker wins if you look at WAR (as done by Sean Smith) and exclude 19th Century players and Bert Blyleven. I admit that the Blyleven exclusion is completely arbitrary, but as he could really get voted in this year, I did not want to give him the title. If you use something else, you get different results. For Santo, he is probably the highest rated player at a position not in the Hall of Fame. Bill James rated Santo as the 6th best third baseman ever, higher than any other player eligible but not in. Using OPS+, Keller is third among eligible players not in. McGwire is still eligible to be voted on, like Blyleven. By this measure, then, Keller’s only real rival is Dick Allen. Both Santo and Keller are interesting and legitimate picks.

  4. verdun2 Says:

    I have one problem with your devotion to WAR. If you look at the guy’s list of pitchers, he has Bret Saberhagen better than Sandy Koufax. Oh, really?

  5. sportsphd Says:

    The stat clearly puts a lot of stock in longevity. The argument would have to be that 17 years of Bret Saberhagen, of which the first 10 were good, has more value overall than 12 years of Sandy Koufax, of which 6 were good and 4 exceptional. I would also suspect he must have a strong park adjustment to correct for Dodger Stadium. The one on the list I find oddest is Mathewson one spot below Blyleven. Again I assume it is predicated on the greater number of innings Blyleven threw. There might be some severe era adjustments as well. The site does not lay out exactly how the numbers are calculated.

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