Ryne Sandberg was the most famous second baseman of the 1980s. In 2005 (his third try), Sandberg went into the Hall of Fame. And deservedly so, I think.
Lou Whitaker, however, was the BEST second baseman of the 1980s. In 2001, Whitaker received 15 of 515 votes (2.9 percent) and fell off the ballot forever. And that's the biggest mistake the BBWAA has ever made.
I don't have the time (or space) to prove this, but second basemen seem to burn out faster than any position other than catcher. The abrupt fade of Roberto Alomar was unusual, but not THAT unusual, for someone at his position. Also, of course, it's traditionally been a defense-first position.
So while Whitaker's career line doesn't scream "Hall of Fame," put into the context of his position (and without the support of newfangled stats like WAR), the case becomes clearer. When Sweet Lou retired, among players to have primarily played second base, he was seventh all time in plate appearances (and less than one season's worth away from third), ninth in hits, ninth in doubles, fifth in homers, eighth in runs, ninth in RBI, and fourth in walks.
That may or may not sound like a Hall of Famer to you, but it certainly is. Every player ahead of Whitaker on every one of those lists, and even several behind him, is now in the Hall. And it's not as though he was a mere "compiler" (whatever that means); his 116 OPS+ is equal to or better than 10 of the 18 major league second basemen currently in the Hall of Fame as players. Craig Biggio, Alomar and Jeff Kent have since passed him in many of those categories above, but only Alomar was even arguably in Whitaker's class defensively. I hate to repeat my Jim Edmonds argument from last week, but there's a legitimate argument in 2011 that if you're a top-10 all-time player at your position, you should be in the Hall.
And he was better than Sandberg. Ryno had more speed and a touch more power (the difference is exaggerated by the park he got to play in), but a hitter's most important skill is getting on base, and Whitaker's 19-point advantage in OBP -- over a longer career -- is vital. To match Whitaker's on-base ability (ignoring park and league differences) in equal opportunities, Sandberg would have had to play one more season in which he reached base 433 times in 685 trips. He couldn't have grounded into a single double play, and he would have to put up a .632 OBP -- crushing Barry Bonds' single-season record of .609. Looked at differently, Sandberg collected 19 more hits than Whitaker and hit nearly 40 more homers, but Whitaker reached base more than 400 more times. It shouldn't be that hard to see which of those was more valuable.
And the metrics suggest Whitaker was every bit Sandberg's equal on defense, to say the least. Both were excellent, and Sandberg won nine Gold Gloves to Whitaker's three, but Sandberg didn't have to contend with an incumbent like Frank White, one of the two greatest ever to field the position.
One could argue that Sandberg's best was better than Whitaker's best, and that's probably true. Whitaker was never QUITE as good as Sandberg was in '83, and didn't have four consecutive seasons that can quite match Ryno's '89-'92. But he also didn't suffer the valleys Sandberg did in the mid-'80s, and I'd argue that "consistently good and sometimes great" can be just as valuable as "inconsistent but sometimes slightly greater."
Even if you'd still put Sandberg above Whitaker, though, it's close enough that there's no way one should get in easily and the other should be one-and-done. They're both Hall of Famers, and you shouldn't need fancy new metrics to see it.
The writers have made errors of omission before, of course. Ron Santo was a huge one, and they're making one now with Lou's teammate Alan Trammell. But at least with those players, they took the full 15 years to think it over. Letting a rock-solid Hall of Famer like Whitaker fall through the cracks on the first try is the biggest mistake they've ever made.