If you’re an avid FanGraphs reader, you might remember a piece I wrote January in which I wondered whether Vladimir Guerrero had the credentials of a Hall of Famer. The verdict? He does. As an inductee, he wouldn’t have the most impressive resume in the Hall, but he’d belong — and, according to the first 44 ballots collected by Ryan Thibodaux by way of his BBHOF Tracker, it appears as though the voters agree:
At 74%, Guerrero is right on the threshold for induction (which requires a candidate is named on 75% of ballots). That means that even if he isn’t selected this year Guerrero will almost certainly gain entry to the Hall next year. Which is great. Guerrero was a fantastic player. He’s deserving.
Larry Walker was also a great player, though. In most important ways, he was a superior one. And he’s received enough votes on previous Hall of Fame ballots to return for a seventh year. Like the previous six years, however, Walker is unlikely to be enshrined in Cooperstown this year — if the early polling holds steady, that is. In light of Guerrero’s seeming popularity, that’s strange. By most reasonable accounts, Walker has a better case. If you vote for Guerrero, you have to vote for Walker.
Let’s begin by re-examining the voting-percentage numbers for this year’s candidates so far, in the context of some well-established metrics for determining the strength of a player’s Hall of Fame credentials.
|Player||Vote%||WAR||JAWS||Hall of Stats||HoF Rating|
As you can see, Guerrero sticks out like a sore thumb: he’s received quite a share of the vote relative to his most relevant numbers. Walker sticks out, too — for the opposite reason. The contrast becomes more stark when you strip this down to just right fielders:
|Player||Vote%||WAR||JAWS||Hall of Stats||HoF Rating|
When you boil it down like this, you see that Walker is first among all of these measures, while Guerrero is last in all but one (JAWS), and he is next-to-last in that measure. A graphic from Adam Darowski’s excellent Hall of Stats sums things up well:
These are the top right fielders by Darowski’s Hall Rating who haven’t been inducted. Darowksi’s methodology rates Walker as his seventh-best right fielder of all-time, with Guerrero as 20th-best, in a virtual tie with Bobby Bonds, who isn’t enshrined in Cooperstown.
Guerrero does have a lead on Walker in some counting stats, but not over all of his right-field brethren. (Listed in order of games played. Table is sortable.)
Looking specifically at Guerrero vs. Walker, we see that despite logging 1,029 more plate appearances than Walker, Guerrero’s extra-base hit advantage is a minuscule 56. If you look at rate stats, you see that Walker had a 19.1% HR/FB compared to 16.0% for Guerrero. And this isn’t merely a product of Coors Field, either: Walker’s advantage holds for away games as well — 16.9% for Walker to Guerrero’s 15.8%. And keep in mind those are numbers that encompass only the tail end of Walker’s career (our splits only go back to 2002, which is the first year the Rockies had their humidor), and the prime of Guerrero’s.
The Coors Field factor still is a bugaboo, though, isn’t it? Let’s look at the road stats for the position players on this year’s ballot.
The table is sorted by road ISO, and you’ll see that Walker is squarely in the middle of the pack. Not much separates him from Guerrero, and he does better than Hall of Famers like Edgar Martinez, Gary Sheffield and Tim Raines, whose offensive credentials are not in question. Overall, on the road for their careers, Guerrero posted a .376 OBP, while Walker was at .370. That’s a negligible difference.
The real hangup is the separation between Walker’s home and road stats, which we see quantified numerically in tOPS+, which is defined as “OPS for split relative to player’s total OPS.” Walker’s road numbers look far worse than his home numbers, and so it appears as though his stats were unfairly inflated by Coors Field. But as we see here, Walker’s stats on the road show he was no scrub. He hit more road homers than Martinez in fewer PA. Compared to his contemporaries, Walker was in the top 40 in OBP and OPS, and top 50 in ISO and SLG.
Moreover, this gap isn’t a reflection of Walker’s true talent. We have seen time and again that Rockies hitters face an adjustment when they go on the road due to the altitude. Notably, we’ve had this discussion about Matt Holliday, Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez in recent years. Mike Petriello examined this at MLB.com a year ago today, and that entire piece is worth re-reading. Here’s a key excerpt, regarding the post-Rockies performance of Holliday, Fowler, Clint Barmes, Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta:
Every single one improved, except for Barmes, who basically hit at his established averages no matter where he was. While five players is admittedly not a huge sample, there’s no evidence that a Rockies hitter who goes elsewhere and gets regular playing time is going to fall apart. Unless you think Gonzalez’s entire career to this point is due entirely to Coors Field, which isn’t supported by evidence, he’ll be productive anywhere.
Let’s do the same with Walker. Was Walker aided by Colorado’s thin air in the pre-humidor days? Let’s look at his OPS+ and wRC+ breakdowns by team as well as by pre- and post-humidor for his time in Colorado.
Now, you can see that Walker was at his best in those humidor days. Was the humidor single-handedly responsible for Walker’s better performance? There are reasons to believe otherwise. First of all, Walker was well past his prime by 2002, when he was 35. We wouldn’t expect him to perform as well then as in his late 20s and early 30s. In addition, when Walker was at his best, he was unstoppable anywhere. Check his splits from his 1997 campaign, when he won the NL MVP Award:
sOPS+ = OPS for split relative to league’s split OPS
As you can see, Walker hit just as well on the road as he did at home, and his road stats compared against the league (sOPS+) in that season were exemplary. Combine this with Petriello’s anecdotal evidence and there’s sufficient reason to believe in Walker’s offensive accomplishments. Walker hit well at Coors Field because he was capable of hitting well everywhere. This shows up in the stats that strip out the bias inherent with ballparks, wRC+ chief among them. For their careers, Walker was a better hitter than Guerrero by wRC+, 140 to 136. Whether you want to give full credit to these ballpark adjustments, they’re not so wrong as to be completely discounted. The bottom line is that there is no argument that Walker was a far inferior hitter to Guerrero.
We can also see Walker also stole more bases and was caught fewer times. His +154 SB-CS margin is nearly double Guerrero’s +87. Again, Walker did this with far fewer opportunities. Advanced metrics have him as a better baserunner as well. Walker’s 21.5 BsR is third-best among players on the ballot this year, while Guerrero’s -49.8 is next-to-last, better only than Posada’s. Take it to the full accounting of history, and Walker’s 21.5 BsR is 29th-best among 686 qualified right fielders all-time, while Guerrero’s -49.8 BsR ranks dead last.
There is one piece of evidence that does offer support for why Guerrero is doing so well on ballots. Check out that IBB column in the counting stats table above. If you subscribe to the theory that the most respected/feared hitters are the ones who garner the most intentional walks, then Guerrero is definitely at the cream of that crop.
|IBBs, 1955-Present||IBBs, 1996-2011|
|Barry Bonds||688||Barry Bonds||492|
|Albert Pujols||302||Albert Pujols||251|
|Hank Aaron||293||Vladimir Guerrero||250|
|Willie McCovey||260||Manny Ramirez||206|
|Vladimir Guerrero||250||Todd Helton||183|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||246||Carlos Delgado||182|
|George Brett||228||Chipper Jones||170|
|Willie Stargell||227||Ichiro Suzuki||168|
|Eddie Murray||222||Jim Thome||158|
|Miguel Cabrera||220||Lance Berkman||154|
1996-2011 is the span of Guerrero’s career.
In the non-Barry Bonds division, Guerrero was basically the most respected hitter in the game. Part of that is surely because Guerrero was capable of making contact on any pitch, so you couldn’t just pitch around him in a normal way. But all those IBBs may just be distorting his true value.
Walker was also a far better defender. In the scouting community, they talk of five-tool players. Larry Walker was the quintessential five-tool player who actually exhibited those tools in game action. Guerrero no doubt had all the tools, but he too often wasted them.
Walker suffers a little in this regard because he played so much of his career outside of the “FanGraphs era.” The chief defensive stats we use — UZR and DRS — aren’t available before 2002 and 2003, respectively. Since Walker played from 1989 to 2005, only the tail end of his career is accounted for by these stats, whereas Guerrero — who played from 1996 to 2011 — gets the majority of his career covered. And yet, Guerrero, he of the cannon arm, loses out to Walker in the two Arm components.
|Player||Innings||rARM (DRS)||ARM (UZR)|
Even at the tail end of Walker’s career, when he had endured eight surgeries and it hurt for him to turn his head to the left, Walker still had a better arm than Guerrero. In fact, that table is being generous to Guerrero. If we isolate it to the final four years of Guerrero’s career the way we are for Walker’s, it looks a lot worse for Guerrero.
|Player||Innings||rARM (DRS)||ARM (UZR)|
Pay special attention to the innings column. Guerrero played far fewer innings in the field his last four seasons. In fact, in his final season, he was strictly a designated hitter, whereas Walker played the field right to the end.
The same is true for the older advanced fielding stat, Total Zone. Baseball-Reference has Walker’s TZ at 97, compared to 43 for Guerrero. They also break it down per 1,200 innings, and Walker again grades out twice as well — 8 to 4.
Of course, we don’t even need advanced stats for this comparison. Let’s look at basic statistics.
This is what you call no contest. The notion that Walker was less durable doesn’t exactly square with what we see in the innings played column. Walker played in the field for far longer than did Guerrero, who started 508 games at DH — more than three seasons’ worth. The reason why is clear when you look at the error totals. Guerrero’s 125 errors are eye-popping. During his career, Guerrero was charged with 46 more errors than any other outfielder. In the Integrated Era (1947-present), only eight outfielders have been charged with more errors. To say he was mistake-prone is a gigantic understatement.
So, we’ve established that Walker was a better hitter, fielder and baserunner in the regular season. What about the playoffs?
Walker bests Guerrero here as well. In 67 fewer postseason PAs, Walker racked up four more extra-base hits than did Guerrero. Walker’s .860 postseason OPS was at least in the neighborhood of his .965 regular-season OPS. But there is a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between Guerrero’s regular-season .931 OPS and his .664 postseason OPS. In fact, these overall numbers don’t do the comparison much justice. Walker put up a .389 OBP against one of the best-ever pitching staffs in the 1995 Atlanta Braves, and was the only Cardinals player to hit a home run off of the Red Sox in the 2004 World Series. Guerrero faced those 2004 Red Sox too. How’d he do?
Look, obviously it’d be silly to condemn Guerrero over 14 PAs, but the point is illustrated once again: whether you want to slice it finely, or take the broader view, there are very few ways you can paint Guerrero as a superior player to Walker. Yeah, Guerrero has him on career bulk in some categories, most notably for home runs, because Walker was injured a lot. But that’s about it. And subjectively, if you’re talking about the love of the game, you’re going to have a real hard time convincing me that the guy who endured eight surgeries and kept coming back for more deserves to be punished for his relative lack of career bulk. If anything, he deserves to be applauded. Seems to me that a player who goes under the knife eight times and can still rock a .424 OBP and hit two homers in the World Series at age 37 is about as tough as they come.
If you want to vote for Vladimir Guerrero, that’s totally fine. I would love to see him in the Hall of Fame — I’m not a “Small Hall” guy by any stretch. But if you are voting for Guerrero, you should be voting for Larry Walker, too.