The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the 2018 Modern Baseball Era Committee Hall of Fame ballot, which will be voted upon by a 16-member committee of writers, executives and Hall of Fame players at the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla,, with the results to be announced on Dec. 10 at 6 p.m. ET. Originally written for the 2013 BBWAA election cycle and revised in subsequent years, it was expanded for inclusion in The Cooperstown Casebook. For a detailed introduction to the Modern Baseball ballot, please see here, and for a fuller introduction to JAWS, see here.
Once upon a time, shortstops didn't hit. In the 1970s, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra were still wearing short pants, the idea that a slick-fielding defensive wizard could be a total zero with the bat and still help his team reached its zenith. It was the same time that shortstops' collective offensive production reached its nadir. In 1977, when major league teams averaged 4.47 runs per game on .264/.329/.401 hitting, shortstops collectively hit an appalling .248/.299/.330. The player most closely embodying that line that year was the Padres’ Bill Almon, a former No. 1 draft pick who hit .261/.303./336 with two homers, 20 steals and 20 sacrifice hits—a line as ugly as his brown-and-yellow uniform.
In the early 1980s, things started to change, as the American League produced a trio of talented two-way shortstops who could field their position and pose a substantial threat to pitchers. The Brewers’ Robin Yount, who debuted in the majors in 1974 at the tender age of 18, evolved into a top-notch hitter and earned MVP honors in '82 as Milwaukee won the pennant. The Orioles’ Cal Ripken kicked off a stretch of 10 straight seasons with at least 20 homers in his official rookie season of 1982, as well as a record-setting consecutive games streak; the next year, he claimed an MVP award as Baltimore won the World Series.
Debuting between those two, in late 1977, was the Tigers’ Alan Trammell. He didn't win the MVP award in 1984—that honor went to teammate Willie Hernandez, a reliever—but he hit .314/.382/.468 and helped Detroit to a world championship. Trammell would spend 20 years with the Tigers, and while he didn't reach 3,000 hits like Yount (who eventually moved to centerfield and won another MVP award) or Ripken (who also won a second MVP before moving to third base for his final few years), he did make six All-Star teams and win four Gold Gloves, even while competing for attention with the other two.
Despite his Hall of Fame-caliber numbers, the BBWAA voters inexplicably neglected Trammell during his 15-year run on the ballot. He didn't reach 20% of the vote until 2010, his ninth time around, didn't reach 30% until '12, and peaked at 40.9% in 2016, his final year of eligibility. Thus he became the best player to age off the ballot since Ron Santo in 1998, the only one above the JAWS standard since I introduced the first version of the metric in 2004.
Trammell is now on the Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot and part of a process that hasn’t elected a living ex-player since 2001. If his odds are long, he’s at least in better shape than double play partner Lou Whitaker, who hasn’t appeared on a small-committee ballot since going one-and-done with the BBWAA in 2001 (I’ve appended a few words about Whitaker below). In a format where voters can choose only four of the 10 candidates to support, Trammell is by far the best player on the ballot according to JAWS, better than MVP winners Steve Garvey, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy and Dave Parker. For Hall wonks such as myself, if there’s one thing that could help to restore some confidence in what has too often appeared to be a broken process, it would be his election.
Avg. HOF SS
The Tigers drafted Trammell out of high school with the second pick of the second round in 1976. Though Detroit's first-round pick, pitcher Pat Underwood, wouldn't amount to much in the majors, the team's draft haul stands as one of the greatest of all time, as fourth-rounder Dan Petry and fifth-rounder Jack Morris anchored their rotation for several years. Who knows what might have happened had they been able to sign seventh-round pick Ozzie Smith, a shortstop who elected to return to school and was chosen the next year by the Padres; he replaced Almon, but wasn't much of a hitter himself, though his fielding wizardry was another story entirely.
Despite Trammell's youth, the Tigers advanced him quickly; after 41 games in the rookie level Appalachian League in 1976, he jumped straight to Double A Montgomery of the Southern League and earned MVP honors as a 19-year-old before being recalled by the Tigers in September. On Sept. 9, 1977, he and Whitaker—a fifth-round pick in '75 who was his double-play partner in Montgomery—made their major league debuts; they would remain partners in the middle infield through '95, playing 1,918 games together, the most of any double play combo or AL teammates. They joined catcher Lance Parrish, a 1974 first-round pick who had debuted on Sept. 5, and Morris, who had debuted in July, a homegrown quartet that would serve as the franchise’s foundation for nearly a decade.
Trammell and Whitaker were in the Tigers’ Opening Day lineup in 1978, though it took until late May before manager Ralph Houk made them everyday players. Trammell hit .268/.335/.339 for an 89 OPS+ with defense that was six runs above average en route to a solid 2.8 WAR. He tied for fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting; Whitaker won. Trammell’s 1979 season wasn't so impressive (just 0.7 WAR), but in '80—Detroit's first full season under manager Sparky Anderson—he broke out as a first-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, hitting .300/.376/.404 for a 113 OPS+ with nine homers, good for 4.8 WAR. Not bad for a 22-year-old.
While that year provided a preview of what was to come, Trammell at this stage was “so weak you could knock the bat out of his hands,” as Anderson recalled years later. Though he repeated as a deserving (+15 runs) Gold Glove winner in the strike-shortened 1981 season, it wasn’t until his age-25 season in 1983 that he advanced further with the bat. That season, he hit .319/.385/.471 with 14 homers, 30 steals, and 138 OPS+, all career highs to that point; his 6.0 WAR ranked eighth among AL position players. In 1984, his virtual carbon copy season with the bat (136 OPS+), plus a 16-run improvement on defense yielded 6.7 WAR, fourth in the league. More importantly, the Tigers jumped out to a 35–5 start, finished 104–58 and won the World Series for the first time since 1968. Trammell won Series MVP honors, going 9-for-20 in the five-game triumph over his hometown Padres and swatting a pair of homers in a Game 4 win in which he drove in all four runs.
After the season, Trammell went under the knife of Dr. James Andrews to repair torn cartilage in his left knee and clean up his right shoulder, both of which had caused him considerable discomfort. The knee injury dated to the previous Halloween, when he fell while modeling a Frankenstein costume for his children; surgery to repair the cartilage hadn’t taken, requiring a touch-up. The shoulder injury had forced him to the disabled list for three weeks in July and limited him to DH duty for a spell. "I never had a full day I didn't feel it," he told The Sporting News' Tom Gage, "But people don't want to hear you making excuses … I was going to play as long as I had to."
Slowed by recovery as well as by a midseason forearm strain, Trammell endured a down season in 1985 but rebounded the following year to hit .277/.349/.469 with 21 homers and ranking fifth in WAR at 6.3. In 1987, he had a monster year for a Detroit team that was the class of the league, winning 98 games and the AL East flag. Even in a lineup with heavy hitters Darrell Evans, Kirk Gibson, Chet Lemon and Matt Nokes, Trammell stood out via a .343/.402/.551 showing with a career-best 28 homers, not to mention 21 steals in 23 attempts. His 155 OPS+ and 8.2 WAR were career highs, ranking fifth and second in the AL, respectively; the latter trailed only Wade Boggs's 8.3. Alas, the Tigers lost the ALCS to an 85-win Twins team that had actually been outscored by their opponents by 20 runs, and Trammell lost a very close AL MVP vote to the Blue Jays’ George Bell, who hit 47 homers and drove in 134 runs but compiled just 5.0 WAR. Trammell was robbed!
Trammell was very good in 1988 (6.0 WAR and 138 OPS+ on .311/.373/.464 hitting), but he was limited to just 128 games due to injuries, including a bruised left elbow that cost him a role as the starting shortstop for the AL All-Star team. That was the start of a familiar trend as he passed into his 30s. Injuries prevented him from topping 130 games more than once, via a 146-game, 6.7 WAR season in 1990. As he interspersed his good seasons with the bat (1988, '90, '93) with weaker ones, strong defense still bolstered his value. Excluding the 1992 season, when a broken right ankle limited him to 29 games, he averaged 4.8 WAR and 122 games a year over the '88–93 span.
The Tigers couldn't get back to the playoffs for the rest of Trammell's time in Detroit, plunging from 88 wins in 1988 to 59 in '89 and posting just one more winning season through the remainder of his career. In 1993, he hit .329/.388/.496, albeit in just 112 games; that year, he made 27 starts at third base and eight more in the outfield, largely to make room for Travis Fryman, a slugging third baseman who had been able to hold down the shortstop position in Trammell's increasingly frequent absences. After three more seasons of part-time duty, Trammell retired at age 38.
On the traditional merits, Trammell looks like a solid Hall of Fame candidate. His 2,365 hits (2,232 as a shortstop, ninth since 1913) and 185 homers (177 as a shortstop, 12th in that span) may not be in the class of Ripken and Yount, but it’s a substantial résumé when accompanied by his All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves; it’s worth noting that Trammell spent far more time at the position (2,139 games, 11th all-time) than Yount (1,479). He scores 118 on Bill James' Hall of Fame Monitor metric with 100 representing "a good possibility" and 130 a virtual cinch.
In terms of advanced metrics, Trammell’s 132 batting runs—the offensive component of WAR—is 20th at the position, better than 10 of the 21 Hall of Fame shortstops. He added another 25 runs on the bases and 14 for double play avoidance, the combination of which ranks 17th at the position and is better than all but five enshrined shortstops—which is to say that he makes up ground via those secondary offensive contributions. On the defensive side, his total of 77 runs above average (81 above average strictly at shortstop) is good but not great, 44th among shortstops, and ahead of nine Hall of Famers.
Separately, those rankings aren’t grounds for election, but the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Trammell was the rare two-way shortstop, very good on both sides of the ball and consistent over a long career. Only nine shortstops (five enshrined) were at least 100 runs above average with the bat and 50 above average with the glove. Hence Trammell’s four times in the league’s top five in WAR, with two more in the top 10, and the 11-year stretch from 1980-90 during which his 59.3 WAR ranked third in the majors, behind only Rickey Henderson (80.7) and Boggs (63.1), with Yount (57.6), Ripken (57.5, albeit with just 23 games before 1982), Mike Schmidt (56.4) and Smith (55.5) behind.
Relative to the other Hall of Fame shortstops, Trammell surpasses the career and peak WAR standards at the position with room to spare and is 2.7 points above the JAWS standard, good for 11th on the all-time list. Of the 10 players above him, all are in the Hall except the recently retired Alex Rodriguez and the dead-ball era's Bill Dahlen. That Ripken, Yount and Smith outrank him does suggest that Trammell was the fourth-best shortstop of that bunch, though not by a huge amount. His peak score is actually higher than those of Smith and 2012 inductee Barry Larkin, whose career ran from 1986 through 2004:
Player (JAWS rank)
Cal Ripken (3)
Robin Yount (5)
Ozzie Smith (8)
Alan Trammell (11)
Barry Larkin (13)
Avg. HOF SS
Trammell lags slightly behind all but Smith as a hitter in terms of counting and rate stats, but he was the third-best fielder of the bunch according to Total Zone (I've included time at other positions in this as well, since they all wind up as part of each player's overall value). In short, there isn’t anything to suggest that he doesn't belong in the Hall if those contemporaries are in. As for the idea that so many Hall of Famers from the same period constitutes a saturation point, every position except catcher and third base has multiple seasons in which at least six future Hall of Famers were active; for shortstops, that was the case in most seasons between 1930 and ’42.
To say that the BBWAA voters overlooked Trammell’s strong credentials is an understatement. Debuting on the 2002 ballot alongside Smith and Andre Dawson, he instantly became a forgotten man. Smith breezed into Cooperstown with 91.7% of the vote, while fifth-year candidate Gary Carter drew 72.7%, setting himself up for election the following year. Trammell polled just 15.7%, lower than any post-1966 candidate ever elected by the BBWAA (Duke Snider’s 17.0% in 1970 is the low-water mark). Whether it was the patchiness of his late career, or his disastrous stint managing the Tigers from 2003–05—three sub-.500 seasons including a 43–119 crater in his first year—he remained below 20% until 2010. Perhaps tellingly, his low-water mark came in 2007 (13.4%) as Ripken and Tony Gwynn sailed in. Even after his minor surge to 36.4% percent in 2012, when Larkin was elected on his third try, his support receded once the ballot grew more crowded, save for that final year.
With his BBWAA eligibility having lapsed, Trammell will have to hope to break through on the Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot. The good news is that he has plenty of historical precedents in terms of those who struggled for BBWAA support, even late in their ballot tenures. For example, Trammell’s peak share of the vote is within 10 points of several players who aged off the ballot and were subsequently elected by the Veterans Committee: Santo (43.1%), Red Schoendienst (42.6%), Bill Mazeroski (42.3%), Richie Ashburn (41.7%), Phil Rizzuto (38.4%) and George Kell (36.8%). Among that group, Trammell is stronger in JAWS than all but Santo.
Unlike some of those players—and most of the ones on the Modern Baseball ballot—there’s no question that Trammell will be worthy of the honor if he’s elected to the Hall by a small committee. The question is whether the call will come, but it damn well should.
A few quick words about Lou Whitaker, whose exclusion from the ballot threatens to overshadow Trammell’s inclusion. It’s just the latest in a long series of injustices that began when the second baseman received 2.9% of the BBWAA vote in 2001, which not only ruled him out of consideration in that realm but in any realm through 2015. There were teases suggesting that the reconstituted VC would take up his case as early as 2003, but he remains ineligible for consideration. That the Historical Overview Committees—currently made up of 11 BBWAA elders with enough tenure to have been among those who bypassed him in 2001—has kept him off this ballot seems like a cruel joke.
Via the Detroit News’ Tony Paul, Whitaker’s case was discussed by the HOC, but as committee member Jack O’Connell said, “[H]e did not get sufficient support to make the ballot. There were quite a few other players from that era who might have been worthy of inclusion, but we were limited to 10. This does not mean Whitaker or anyone else who did not make the ballot will be excluded forever."
Like Trammell, Whitaker’s case is profiled in depth in The Cooperstown Casebook. In brief, he was an excellent, durable two-way second baseman whose totals of five All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves undersell him. His 2,308 games at the keystone ranks fourth all-time, while his 239 homers while playing second (out of 244 total) rank seventh. For his career, he collected 2,369 hits while batting .276/.363/.426 for a 117 OPS+, with 143 stolen bases thrown in. Via Total Zone, he was 77 runs above average afield, with six seasons of at least 10 runs above average and his bookend seasons the only ones significantly in the red.
Whitaker ranked among the league’s top 10 in WAR just three times, so his 37.8 peak WAR, which ranks 20th, is 6.7 below the Hall standard for second basemen, and below 12 of the 20 enshrined. On the other hand, his 74.9 career WAR is seventh at the position, ahead of 14 of 20 Hall of Famers, and 5.5 above the Hall standard. He’s 13th in JAWS at 56.4, 0.5 below the standard, but still above 11 of the 20 enshrined. While his case tilts towards that of a compiler, his 117 OPS+ surpasses those of the second basemen recently honored, namely Roberto Alomar (116), Ryne Sandberg (114) and Craig Biggio (112), and he tops the last two of those in JAWS as well. He was legit.
Given that the Modern Baseball Era Committee will have ballots again in 2020, 2023 and 2025, we can hope that Whitaker eventually comes up for a vote. Perhaps the election of Trammell will, as Bill James suggests, provide the leverage to help Whitaker, but that big first step is still necessary.