Craig Biggio was elected into the Hall of Fame last week with 3,060 hits, 454 votes and an untarnished reputation.
Most big-league hitters are lucky if they can achieve one of those distinctions, let alone all three.
Biggio played 20 seasons in the major leagues, and needed every one of them to reach the first milestone, without which there wouldn’t have been the second, which didn’t hurt the third.
Biggio hit .251 in his final season, when he surpassed 3,000 hits, with a .285 on-base percentage, and .246 the year before that. There are exhausted marathon runners who finish with more of a kick.
In the last six seasons of Biggio’s career, only once did he hit more than .264 and only once was his on-base percentage more than .337. Those aren’t Hall of Fame numbers, but more like Maicer Izturis’. In a bad year.
An ESPN commentator endorsed Biggio’s election by saying Biggio had more doubles than Hank Aaron and more extra-base hits than Mickey Mantle. That’s true, if as selective as David Ortiz with a 3-1 count. Aaron had 44 less doubles than Biggio, who ranks fifth all-time, but 463 more extra-base hits (Hank had a bit of an edge in home runs); Biggio had 2,597 more plate appearances than Mantle but only 62 more extra-base hits. Biggio had 12,504 plate appearances, more than all but 10 other players. He should have a lot more of a lot of things, including outs.
Left unmentioned was that Luis Gonzalez had more extra-base hits than Biggio, and Mantle, and Mike Schmidt, and Rogers Hornsby and Willie Stargell. And no one outside the state of Arizona is nominating Gonzalez for Cooperstown. We hope.
None of this is to detract from Biggio, who deserves his enshrinement and who should be compared to second basemen more than sluggers. Which brings us to Lou Whitaker.
Whitaker played second base for the Tigers for 19 seasons, from the ages of 20 to 38, retiring with 2,369 hits, 244 home runs, 143 steals, three Gold Gloves, a .363 on-base percentage — same as Biggio’s — and 439 fewer votes, in his only year on the ballot, than Biggio received in 2015. Talk about a cynical electorate.
By most of the advanced metrics, Whitaker was a better player than Biggio, if certainly debatable. Whitaker had a higher OPS+ (117-112) and a higher WAR (74.9-65.1) and a higher win percentage (.515-.510; the stat attempts to measure what a team of otherwise average players would do with that player added to the lineup).
But Whitaker retired after his age 38 season, when he hit .293 and slugged .518 in a part-time role. After his age 38 season, Biggio had 2,639 hits, but played on. Biggio batted .254 over those final three seasons, and .261 over the final six, when he accumulated just 4.5 of WAR (or about 0.8 per season). For nearly the last third of his career, Biggio was an average player, more Hall of Same than Hall of Fame.
And yet voters rewarded Biggio and punished Whitaker. There’s a reason Biggio accepted a .666 OPS in his final season and Tom Glavine endured a 4.45 ERA in his penultimate season: it put them over 3,000 hits and 300 wins, respectively, the kind of numbers voters and fans alike have a childish fascination with.
Don’t think they make a difference? Ask Mike Mussina, an arguably better pitcher than Glavine who won 20 games in his final season, 270 in his career and received 409 less votes. Or Fred McGriff, who retired with 493 home runs and has yet to receive more than 23.9% of the vote. Does anyone not think Mussina’s 300th win wouldn’t have put him in, like Glavine, on the first ballot? Does anyone not think seven more home runs by McGriff, even like the 13 he hit in his .249/.322/.428 next-to-last season, might have swayed a few votes?
Hall of Fame shopping is nothing new. Early Wynn won seven games for the White Sox in 1962, the seventh in early September his 299th. Wynn made three more starts that September and lost them all (two by complete games, including a 5-1 10-inning loss to the pennant-winning Yankees). A win away from 300, Wynn was released by the White Sox in the offseason. He was idle until June, signed with the Indians, lost one start, was no-decisioned in two others and pitched in relief before finally winning his 300th game on his seventh attempt.
Wynn found it easier to get inducted, securing election on his fourth attempt.
It’s hard to blame the players, who are entitled to round off a career; even harder when Hall of Fame voters consider it a litmus test. If you’re a player thinking about the Hall of Fame, it’s better to play one season too many than one too few.
It’s unfair to withhold approval of players who aren’t compilers — longevity may have its privileges but Hall of Fame certification shouldn’t be one of them — but it’s done. Is the Hall of Fame about stockpiling or excelling? Or both?
Whitaker went to the plate 9,967 times, or 2,537 fewer times than Biggio — that’s almost four seasons more the latter played. Yet, Whitaker had 37 more walks, 47 fewer homers, 91 fewer RBIs, 1,060 fewer total bases, 691 fewer hits. Whitaker averaged — and had he played longer, it’s certainly likely his would have tapered — 81 walks per season (to Biggio’s 66), 17 homers (same as Biggio), 73 RBIs (67), 247 total bases (268) and 161 hits (174). Their careers overlapped by eight seasons, growing decidedly more offensive in each one.
Whitaker stood for election to the Hall of Fame once, in 2001. Of the 32 players on that year’s ballot, seven have since been voted into the Hall. Nineteen players received more votes than Whitaker. Only one — pitcher Bert Blyleven — had a higher WAR. Whitaker received 15 votes, or 161 fewer than Steve Garvey, a player his WAR almost doubled. We can be thankful Whitaker outpolled Jim Deshaies, although it was closer than it should have been.
Biggio deserves congratulations and his place in the Hall. So, too, someday, does Lou Whitaker.
A few more idle thoughts on the 2015 voting: