I love to start these Case for the Hall articles with player comparisons, so I’ll go ahead and give you a pretty interesting one:
Looks pretty close, right? Overall, Player A has a better wRC+, fWAR, and rWAR, but the other stats are all not terribly lopsided one way or the other, save for HR and SB. Obviously one of these guys is Larry Walker—he’s Player A— but the name of the other guy is going to surprise you: Vladimir Guerrero, who was inducted to the Hall of Fame last year with 92.9% of the vote. Walker, meanwhile, garnered just 144 votes (34.1%). Walker is doing a lot better this year—of the 140 ballots that have been made public as of publishing, which is a little more than one-third of the electorate, Walker has appeared on 65.7% of them—but it appears as though he will fall short of the 75% threshold needed to gain entry to Cooperstown in his penultimate year on the ballot. There’s a nonzero chance he gets in next year, but ten years is far too long to wait for one of the more deserving players on the ballot.
The primary argument against Walker is that he played in the bandbox that is Coors Field for too much of his career, which inflated his numbers artificially. Yes, he played more games in Coors Field than any other stadium, but that does not change the fact that even before going to the Rockies, he was on a Hall of Fame trajectory. And for those of you who don’t appreciate that logic, get this: Larry Walker’s DRC+ (Defensive Runs Created Plus, a new statistic created by Baseball Prospectus that attempts to aggregate total offensive contribution) ranks 46th among all hitters ever. DRC+ adjusts for park factors and era, so you are supposed to be able to compare players across eras and in different run environments. Walker’s DRC+ ranks ahead of guys like Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and the aforementioned Vladimir Guerrero, among others.
Let’s revisit the pre-Coors numbers though. Through his first five full seasons, Walker triple-slashed .281/.357/.483 with 99 HR, 97 SB, and 147 doubles. He compiled 20.9 fWAR over that time frame, good for 9th in all of baseball among outfielders, and keep in mind that in 1989 he only played 20 games. If you cut the time frame down to just 1990-1994, Walker moves up to 6th with 21.1 fWAR (he had negative fWAR in his 20 game stint in ’89). Extrapolation is dangerous when it comes to baseball careers, especially because careers are often non-linear and players decline after the prime, but if you give Walker 5.0 WAR in every year from 1995 to 1999, (5.0 because it’s just about what he averaged during the last three years in Montreal) which covers everything up to his age-32 season, he would have 45.9 fWAR which is actually only 0.3 fWAR above what he actually produced in his career. So did Coors Field have an effect on his hitting performance? It certainly did in terms of counting stats, but in comparison with the rest of the league, Walker just kept doing what he was doing while taking the hit in WAR for his home ballpark.
Now to the counting stats. Walker played in just 17 seasons, which explains his lack of a high hit total—just 2160 for his career. Still, though, in those 17 seasons, Walker hit 383 HR, stole 230 bags, batted .313 and hit 471 doubles. We do have to keep in mind that some of those numbers are Coors-inflated, but each is still above-average for the Hall of Fame. In addition, Walker took home an MVP in 1997, when he hit 49 HR and triple-slashed a ridiculous .366/.452/.720. Walker certainly got help from the thin Rocky Mountain air, but he was already one of the best hitters in the game before he got there.
Some people prefer to elect folks who had long careers only, but Walker was so good during his prime that the fact that he only played for 17 years should not come back to bite him. JAWS, which is a metric that takes a player’s career rWAR and averages it with their 7-year peak rWAR gives Walker a 58.7 JAWS. The average Hall of Fame right fielder has a JAWS of 57.8, which is right around what Walker has. Keep in mind that WAR already penalizes Walker for his home ballpark, so these numbers include an adjustment for Coors. I don’t like to use WAR as the be-all end-all stat, but it’s good to use as a benchmark and Walker measures up perfectly.
One more point to consider is that Harold Baines is now in the Hall of Fame. I’m not a fan of using the worst player in the Hall of Fame as a baseline against which other players should be measured, but the fact that Baines is going into the Hall this year means that we can take him into consideration with this year’s writer’s ballot. Baines played five more seasons than Walker and still has worse numbers. Baines has one more homer and 17 more doubles than Walker but over 200 fewer stolen bases over five additional seasons. He also triple-slashed just .289/.356./.465 for his career which is dwarfed by Walker’s .313/.400/.565 line. Walker also didn’t have -20 defensive rWAR like Baines did over his career. I don’t think that Baines should be in the Hall of Fame in the first place, but if he’s the worst right fielder in Cooperstown, Walker was leaps and bounds better and deserves the nod.
I’ll leave you with one last fun stat. Here’s the comprehensive list of players with 300 HR, 200 SB, and a .300 average:
That’s seriously the entire list. Barry Bonds isn’t even on there, neither is Ted Williams or Stan Musial, all of whom are considered to be among the best hitters to ever walk the face of the Earth. Is the stat above cherry-picked? Absolutely. But it does demonstrate that Walker is in some elite company as a hitter because the rest of the guys are in the Hall of Fame.
Walker is by no means a slam-dunk first-ballot sort of guy, but he is better than the average Hall of Fame member. That means he should definitely have a plaque in Cooperstown.
(Image Credit: The Denver Post)