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Lou Whitaker’s path to the Hall is still alive despite this week’s vote

MLive- Flint/Saginaw/Bay City logo MLive- Flint/Saginaw/Bay City 12/11/2019 By Evan Woodbery, mlive.com
a person sitting on a bench reading a book: Former Detroit Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker addresses the crowd during the number retirement ceremony for recent Baseball Hall of Fame inductee former Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell at Comerica Park in Detroit on Sunday, August 26, 2018. © Mike Mulholland/Mike Mulholland | MLive.com/mlive.com/TNS Former Detroit Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker addresses the crowd during the number retirement ceremony for recent Baseball Hall of Fame inductee former Detroit Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell at Comerica Park in Detroit on Sunday, August 26, 2018.

SAN DIEGO -- As Ted Simmons accepted congratulations Monday for his recent election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he reflected on how -- more than two decades ago -- no one gave his candidacy a second thought.

“I was essentially, you know, one-and-done, for lack of a better phrase,” he said. “Then people started looking at the numbers and making the comparisons, and then discussions started.

“I’ve said it for a while: It was really the metrics people who revived my candidacy: There have been a lot of people who had a lot to do with this, but the sabermetrics people brought me back to life.”

For many Detroit fans, the fact that Simmons was standing on the podium alone on Monday -- and not joined by Tigers great Lou Whitaker -- was a crushing disappointment.

But the election of Simmons is good news for Whitaker, not bad news, because the two players share so much in common.

Both spent only one year on the Baseball Writers Association of America Ballot before falling off due to lack of support. Both were scarcely considered or debated for the Hall until a new wave of statistical analysis prompted a closer look. Neither played in big coastal markets. Neither were national stars. Both played excellent defense at high-value positions -- a trait that Hall voters overlooked until recently.

This year was Simmons’ turn. Next time? Don’t be surprised if it’s Whitaker.

The process of selecting players to the Hall of Fame is complicated and convoluted and far from perfect.

But don’t blame the media. Or, more precisely, you’re welcome to blame the media of two decades ago, but don’t be too harsh on them. The statistical revolution was still in its infancy during Whitaker’s one-and-done year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and fewer tools available to assess players across positions, teams and eras.

But the current media? If they had 16 seats on the Modern Era Committee, Whitaker would probably be in. None of the 10 candidates had more enthusiastic support on social media. No one had more articles written in support of his candidacy.

Historical evidence suggests that it’s actually former players who are the stingiest about allowing admission into the Hall.

Beginning in 2003, the the 15-member Veterans Committee was expanded to include all living members of the Hall of Fame, plus recipients of the Spink and Frick Awards for broadcasters and writers.

They voted by mail and....elected no one. Then they did it again two years later. And two years after that. Still no one was elected.

So it was back to the drawing board for the Hall, which has been trying for decades to find a fair process to select candidates bypassed by the BBWAA vote. Preferably before they’ve died.

The current committee system might not be perfect. But it’s probably the best one yet. And for an inherently complex process, it might be the best we can ever hope for.

Unfortunately, Whitaker won’t get another chance at the Hall for another three years, when the Modern Era Committee next convenes.

But he’s laid the groundwork for a stronger push in 2022.

While the six votes he received in this year’s voting were only half of what he needed for induction, it’s not a bad starting point. The 16 committee members can vote for no more than four candidates each, so the margin for error is slim.

Rather than dwell on what the committee didn’t do, let’s recognize what they did:

1. They elected Marvin Miller, a union executive who was a perpetual thorn in the side to the powers-that-be in baseball and who many predicted would never reach the Hall.

2. They Simmons, who is undoubtedly an “analytic” candidate moreso than a player who was elected through the good-ole-boy system.

It took Simmons three ballots over three committees from two different induction systems to finally get over the hump. Miller became so disgusted with the system that he planned to boycott the ceremony in Cooperstown if he were ever elected. (After his death, his family indicated that it would honor his wishes and not participate in the induction.)

Compared to that, Whitaker is still a neophyte in this strange game. Sunday’s committee meeting was the first time Whitaker had been considered for the Hall in any capacity since his name appeared (and quickly disappeared) from the ballot in 2001.

So don’t look at Sunday’s vote as a crushing defeat. Perhaps it was a promising start.

Journalist Jay Jaffe, perhaps the foremost expert on the Hall’s sometimes byzantine selection system is a Whitaker supporter. And he doesn’t think the path to Cooperstown has closed for Sweet Lou.

“(The vote should) by no means quash the dreams of those hoping for his eventual enshrinement (this scribe included),” Jaffe wrote. “Both the fact that his candidacy is back in circulation, and that a precedent for a one-and-done candidate to be elected in this format has been set, bode well for him down the road.”

Simmons, 70, survived a heart attack when he was 43 years old. He looked spry and healthy this week. And he was grateful for the honor, in spite of the long path it took to get there.

“It was supposed to happen just like this,” Simmons said. “I wouldn’t change anything. Not one thing.”

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