|Oct 5, 2018|
I tried to separate them. I really did. In the first version of the Baseball 100, I ended up with several double-entries, players who just seemed to go well together, like Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell (born on the same day). The idea this time around was not to use that two-players-in-one crutch.
But there really was no way to split up Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker.
They were drafted a year apart by the Detroit Tigers, but became a double-play combination in the minor leagues, for the Montgomery Rebels in the Southern League in 1977. They were called up to the big leagues on the same day, Sept. 9, 1977. Each made his debut in the second game of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox.
In the first inning, in his first big league at-bat, Whitaker rapped a single against Reggie Cleveland.
In the third inning, in his first big league at-bat, Trammell rapped a single against Reggie Cleveland.
They turned their first double play the very next day, with Milt Wilcox on the mound. Boston's Fred Lynn hit a grounder to Whitaker, who flipped to Trammell, who threw to first baseman Jason Thompson.
A runner on first is a- pacing
And he is in need of erasing
This could be two
Alan to Lou
Trammell to Whitaker to Jason
At first, it was Jason Thompson and Richie Hebner, Enos Cabell and Dave Bergman, Darrell Evans, Ray Knight, Cecil Fielder and Tony Clark, but realistically they were like Lou Costello just picking up the ball and throwing it to Who. Who's got it? He'd BETTER get it.
They were mirror images of each other, Trammell and Whitaker, Whitaker and Trammell, one white, the other black; one a left-handed hitter, the other right; one a second baseman, the other a shortstop; one as quiet as a tree, the other, as the old line goes, would talk to a tree -- different but exactly the same, too. Good fielders, good baserunners, underrated, beloved, lifetime Detroit Tigers. They each played more than 2,220 games as Tigers. They went out more or less together, too. Whitaker retired first, after a fine season in 1995. Trammell lasted 33 rough games in 1996 before it ended for him.
[caption id="attachment_23275" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Drafted in back-to-back years, Trammell and Whitaker played 1,918 games together.[/caption]
Trammell had the best season of the two; that was 1987, when the ball was jumping out of the park. It all came together for Tram in a near-magical way. He hit .343 with 329 total bases, he scored 100 and drove in 100, he hit 28 homers and stole 21 bases, and even now it's not entirely clear how he didn't win the MVP award. You can look back at 1987 and argue that the award could have gone to Roger Clemens or Wade Boggs, but considering the standards of the times -- the MVP was more a team award, given to the best player on the best team -- it's hard to understand Trammell finishing second George Bell, whose Blue Jays lost the division race to Detroit.
Whitaker never had THAT season. I suppose that's part of the reason why Trammell got just a little bit more love, though neither got much. They were both routinely thrown into the "minor stars" box at baseball card shows.
Who was better? You can ask that question if you like. It's a little bit like, Who would win a fight between Batman and Iron Man? Trammell has 70.7 WAR, which is absolutely Hall of Fame caliber. Whitaker has 75.1 WAR. Trammell won four Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, and made six All-Star teams. Whitaker won three Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers and made five All-Star teams. Hardly much difference.
And yet, Trammell is in the Hall of Fame, while Whitaker fell off the ballot, all but unmourned, many years ago. Why? Here are the theories:
Difference 1: Batting average.
Trammell was a .285 hitter. Whitaker was a .276 hitter.
It's not so much the nine points of difference between them; it comes down to the way we see certain batting averages, and it imprints a powerful image in the mind. A .285 hitter is a solid hitter, a steady hitter, a Rock of Gibraltar hitter. You can count on a .285 hitter, especially if he's a good shortstop like Trammell.
And a .276 hitter? That seems average. That just seems less substantial than a .285 hitter.
Difference 2: Trammell was a shortstop, Whitaker a second baseman.
Perceptions. The shortstop is the life force of the team. The second baseman is the guy who didn't have the arm to play short.
Difference 3: Trammell had more top-line seasons.
As mentioned above, Tram could have and should have won the MVP in 1987. He received MVP votes in 1981, '83, '84, '88, '89 and '90. Whitaker received MVP votes in only one year ('83).
Difference 4: Trammell is white and carried himself quietly and humbly. Whitaker is black and was bold, confident and outspoken.
[caption id="attachment_23276" align="aligncenter" width="478"] Arguably the greatest double-play combo ever, Trammell and Whitaker were comparably stellar with the glove.[/caption]
So let's talk about those four points. The batting average difference is an illusion -- an admittedly powerful illusion, but one just the same. Whitaker had both a higher on-base percentage and a higher slugging percentage than Trammell. Whitaker hit more doubles, more triples and more home runs than Trammell. They were both good hitters. Whitaker was a touch better.
As far as the second base/shortstop thing: By Baseball Reference runs-above-average defense numbers, Trammell is 77 runs better than average. And Whitaker is 77 runs better than average.
Trammell did have more really good seasons than Whitaker, which is not insignificant. Trammell had six seasons worth six wins or more, while Whitaker had only two. Whitaker had more of what you might call solid seasons -- 13 between 3 and 6 WAR, compared to seven for Trammell.
And as far as the race question -- I don't think you can ask "Why is Trammell in Cooperstown and not Whitaker" without at least bringing it up. I'm sure there are many who would argue that OF COURSE race is a factor, it's always a factor. That said, I do think of two other longtime teammates: Jim Rice and Dwight Evans. I feel pretty sure that Evans was the better player over the life of his career, but Rice had the big seasons and the bigger presence, and he's the one in the Hall of Fame. Things are usually more complicated than the first point that comes to mind.
The Hall of Fame is a place meant to celebrate baseball, and yet, as you know, it doesn't stage its elections. There's a vote of the sportswriters and, after that, a players' fate goes to various veterans committees. This often cuts out drama and cool possibilities, and I suppose that's how it has to be.
But Trammell and Whitaker should have gone into the Hall together. They should have given a speech together. They should have shared a Hall of Fame plaque.
Yes, I know the Hall would never do that. But I wish they had. I wish the Hall of Fame could be just a little bit quirkier and more surprising because baseball is quirky and surprising. The baseball winds threw together a California kid born a long double away from Disneyland who always seemed to have life beaten and a Virginia kid raised by a single mother. The pair played 1,918 beautiful baseball games together across America. They won a World Series together one year, lost 100 games together another, but all the while they endured. They turned 1,300 double plays, ground balls hit to one, flipped to the other, each an expression of teamwork and cooperation and, why not, love.
Trammell and Whitaker, Whitaker and Trammell, they were together through it all, a call and a response, an exchange of smiles, an echo of an echo.
The talk now is that with Trammell in the Hall of Fame, Whitaker HAS to go too, and that is right, that is just. I hope that happens as soon as possible. But in a way, Whitaker is already there. Wherever you see Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker is there. You cannot separate Trammell and Whitaker any more than you can separate twist and shout.