Lou Whitaker played 19 seasons with the Detroit Tigers. He represents one half of the longest running double play combination in baseball history. Whitaker appeared in five All Star Games, won multiple Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, and was the 1978 Rookie of the Year. Despite having statistics similar to Hall of Famers such as Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, and Ryne Sandberg, Whitaker is not in the Hall of Fame and dropped off the ballot after one appearance. Despite this, Whitaker remains the greatest Tiger second baseman of the postwar era.
The Tigers drafted Lou Whitaker in the fifth round of the 1975 amateur draft. He played alongside Alan Trammell in the minors before the two made their Major League debut at Fenway Park in September 1977. The pair remained teammates and double play partners until 1995. The two became synonymous leading writers to honor the two with mock columns where the two finish each other sentences. In 1983, the duo made a cameo appearance on Magnum P.I.
Whitaker was a significantly better baseball player than actor. He won the 1978 American League Rookie of the Year. The second baseman hit .285 with three home runs, 58 RBI, .361 OBP, and .718 OPS. He received 21 first place votes and beat out Hall of Famer Paul Molitor for the honor. Carney Lansford, Rich Gale, and Alan Trammell also received votes.
The 1978 Rookie of the Year remained steady over the next four seasons. He basically repeated his rookie campaign in 1979. His average remained steady at .286 while he hit three home runs, knocked in 42, increased his OBP to .395, and posted a .774 OPS. His stolen bases dramatically increased to 20. He dipped significantly to .233 in 1980 when almost all his statistics dropped precipitously. Whitaker bounced back in 1981 to lead the league in games played. He batted .263 with a .714 OPS. Whitaker broke out in 1982. That season, Whitaker had his first classic season. Sweet Lou batted .286 with 15 home runs, 65 RBI, and .775 OPS in 152 games.
Whitaker’s improvement continued into 1983. He posted a career campaign, made his first All Star Game, won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, and finished eighth in the MVP vote. The infielder hit a career best .320 with 12 home runs and 72 RBI. Additionally, Whitaker set career bests in hits (206) and doubles (40). On top of this, he scored 94 runs, posted a .380 OBP, .457 slugging, and .837 OPS. The 1983 Tigers finished second, so the team added bullpen help and transformed into champions. Whitaker batted .289 for the 1984 World Champions. Although he batted just .143 in the ALCS sweep of the Royals, he hit a respectable .278 in the World Series. Once again, Sweet Lou made the All Star team and won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
Whitaker’s power increased dramatically after 1984. In 1985, he topped 20 home runs for the first time and even cleared the roof at Tiger Stadium with a long ball. That season, Whitaker forgot his uniform for the All Star Game and had to buy a Tiger jersey at the concession stand. Then, he used a magic marker to pencil in his #1. Whitaker received criticism for his unprofessional attire, but the jersey eventually ended up in the Smithsonian. Despite the wardrobe malfunction, the second baseman won his final Gold Glove in 1985. The next year, he made another All Star Game and blasted 20 home runs. In fact, the 1986 Tiger infield became the first to feature four 20 homer men. Whitaker made his final All Star appearance and won his last Silver Slugger in 1987. He scored a career best 110 runs as the Tigers made the playoffs. The Minnesota Twins held Whitaker to a .176 average in the ALCS as they dispatched Detroit in five games.
The Tigers declined after 1987, but Whitaker did not. Over his final eight seasons, Whitaker batted .273 with 135 home runs, 503 RBI, and .834 OPS. He hit 28 home runs in 1989 and 23 in 1991. Whitaker batted at least .278 in every season except 1989 and 1990. His OPS topped .800 six times in that span and the infielder scored 552 runs. Whitaker batted .301 in 1994 and posted a .890 OPS in 1995. In 1992, he knocked his 2,000th hit and belted his 200th home run. Despite the numbers, the Tigers failed to contend between 1989 and 1995. Whitaker’s final pennant race came in 1988 when Detroit collapsed down the stretch.
Amazingly, Lou Whitaker received minimal support for the Hall of Fame and dropped off the ballot. His numbers resemble Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan. His lifetime WAR is higher than Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar. Bill James lists Whitaker as the 13th greatest second baseman of all time while the JAWS method ranks Whitaker 11th. The Veteran’s Committee will reconsider Whitaker’s candidacy in 2016.
Fans shouted “Lou” whenever Whitaker came to bat. It sounded like they were booing, but it was a term of endearment. Fans continue to love Sweet Lou. Whitaker batted lead off for the 1984 World Champions. He finished with a .276 average, 1,386 runs, 2,369 hits, 244 home runs, 1,084 RBI, 420 doubles, .363 OBP, .789 OPS, and walked more than he struck out (1,197 to 1,099). In the end, only Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer surpassed Whitaker at second base in Tiger history. In this context, Lou Whitaker was the greatest Tiger second baseman since the Great Depression.