JAWS and the 2020 Hall of Fame Ballot: Larry Walker

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research, and was expanded for inclusion in The Cooperstown Casebook, published in 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

A three-time batting champion, five-time All-Star, and seven-time Gold Glove winner — not to mention an excellent base runner — Larry Walker could do it all on the diamond. Had he done it for longer, there’s little question that he’d already have a plaque in the Hall of Fame, but his 17 seasons in the majors were marred by numerous injuries as well as the 1994–95 players’ strike, all of which cut into his career totals.

Yet another great outfielder developed by the late, lamented Montreal Expos — Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, and Tim Raines being the most notable — Walker was the only one of that group actually born and raised in Canada, though he spent less time playing for the Montreal faithful than any of them. He starred on the Expos’ memorable 1994 team that compiled the best record in baseball before the strike hit, curtailing their championship dreams, then took up residence with the Rockies, putting up eye-popping numbers at high altitude — numbers that hold up well even once they’re brought back to earth.

Walker’s relatively short career, high peak, and extreme offensive environment put the JAWS system to the test. His excellence at the plate, in the field, and on the bases compares favorably to the average Hall of Fame right fielder even after all the adjustments are made. Even so, he spent the first seven years of his candidacy lost in the shuffle of overcrowded ballots. He debuted at 20.3%, in 2011, plummeted as low as 10.2% in ’14, just before the Hall’s rule change wiped out five years of his eligibility. After three years of very modest gains, he was still just at 21.9% in ’17, but thanks to the coattails of Raines and ’19 honoree Edgar Martinez, as well as the increasing acceptance of advanced statistics in Hall of Fame debates, he’s gathered serious momentum. Adding 12.2% in 2018 (the second-largest gain of any candidate) and then 20.5% in ’19 (the cycle’s largest jump) has pushed him to 54.6%.

However, this is Walker’s final year on the ballot, and it would take a leap approximating last year’s to get him to the requisite 75%. Even if he falls short, he’ll be well positioned for the 2022 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, just as Lee Smith was last year, but given the wild uncertainty of that process, it would be better if he follows Raines and Martinez by reaching Cooperstown via the writers’ vote.

2020 BBWAA Candidate: Larry Walker
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Larry Walker 72.7 44.7 58.7
Avg. HOF RF 71.5 42.1 56.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,160 383 .313/.400/.565 141
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Walker was born in Maple Ridge, British Columbia in 1966, the offspring of Larry Sr. and Mary, who gave birth to sons Barry, Carey, and Gary — I’m not making this up — before Larry Jr. As a youngster, he aspired to be an NHL goalie, and honed his skills by blocking the shots of friend and future Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely. Given that his high school didn’t even field a baseball team, the sport was a secondary focus until he was cut from a pair of Junior-A hockey teams.

Undrafted by a major league club, Walker caught the eye of Expos scouting director Jim Fanning while playing for the Canadian team at the 1984 World Youth Championships in Saskatchewan; his impressive home run with a wooden bat stood out among so many aluminum-swinging players. Particularly willing to take a chance on a Canadian kid, the Expos signed Walker in November 1984 with a $1,500 bonus — paltry but not inappropriate given the rawness of his game. “I’d never seen a forkball, never seen a slider,” Walker told Sports Illustrated’s Leigh Montville in 1993. “I didn’t know they existed. I had never really seen a good curveball. In Canada, as a kid, we’d play 10 baseball games a year. Fifteen, tops.”

More from Montville:

Walker’s first real look at the mysteries of the thrown baseball came at the Expos’ 1985 minor league camp. He swung at everything. He swung at balls that bounced on the plate. He swung at balls that bounced 10 feet in front of the plate. He told himself every pitch would be a fastball and swung accordingly. Once in a while he actually saw a fastball.

For as raw as he was, Walker’s outstanding athleticism, freakish hand-eye coordination, and mental approach stood out to his first minor league manager, Ken Brett (older brother of Hall of Famer George Brett), who oversaw him in Utica in 1986. “He was just so tough,” recalled Brett in 1993 of the 18-year-old who hit just .223 with two homers in 62 games. He had yet to master basic rules; once he cut across the diamond from third to first after a hit-and-run resulted in a fly out, failing to stop and re-touch touch second. “He was as fast a learner as I’ve ever seen. He never made the same mistake twice,” said third base coach Gene Glynn.

Between his inexperience and the loss of his 1988 campaign to a cartilage tear suffered during winter ball in Mexico, Walker took some time to rise through the minors. Even in the final year of his career, the knee still bothered him. After hitting .270/.361/.421 with 12 homers and 36 steals at Triple-A Indianapolis in 1989, the 22-year-old Walker made his major league debut on August 16 of that year, singling off the Giants’ Mike LaCoss, walking three times and scoring twice. Walker could have retired with that 1.000 on-base percentage, but instead he pressed on. He hit just .170/.264/.170 in his 56-plate-appearance cup of coffee that season, finishing in a 1-for-22 slump.

Ranked 42nd on Baseball America’s top prospects list the following spring, Walker claimed the regular right field job, at times playing in an outfield that featured Raines and Marquis Grissom. His rate stats were modest (.241/.326/.434) but good for a 112 OPS+, to which he added 19 homers and 21 steals en route to a 3.4 WAR season. Walker continued to develop into a potent threat, hitting a combined .293/.366/.501 (134 OPS+) over the next four seasons while averaging 20 homers, 19 steals, +10 runs on defense, and 4.5 WAR — impressive given that he averaged just 130 games due to stints on the disabled list in 1991 and ’93, not to mention the strike-shortened ’94-95 campaigns. Playing on Olympic Stadium’s notorious artificial turf — which as Matthew Trueblood pointed out also took significant bites out of the careers of Dawson, Guerrero, Raines, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, and Rondell White — didn’t help.

In Walker’s 1992 season (.301/.353/.506, 23 HR, 5.4 WAR), his most valuable in Montreal, he made his first All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove. He was en route to a similarly fine season in 1994 despite being limited to first base by a torn right rotator cuff. Before moving from right field, he made one of the season’s most memorable gaffes during an April 24 Sunday night game on ESPN, handing a foul ball caught off the bat of Mike Piazza to a child in the stands, having forgotten that there were only two outs; the two-base error became moot after Pedro Martinez yielded a homer on the next pitch. The Expos lost that night, but the team was a major league best 74-40 (.649) when the players strike began on August 11, with Walker batting .322/.394/.587, running eighth in both batting average and slugging percentage.

Alas, that marked the end of his time in Canada. With general manager Kevin Malone under strict orders to cut payroll in the wake of the strike, the Expos didn’t even offer the 28-year-old Walker arbitration, and traded Grissom, staff ace Ken Hill and closer John Wetteland once the strike ended. Walker signed a four-year, $22.5 million deal with the Rockies, who had joined the NL in 1993, shortly after the stoppage ended.

In Colorado, Walker stepped into the most favorable hitting environment of the post-World War II era. He hit .306/.381/.607 with 36 homers for the wild-card-winning Rockies in 1995, but in an environment that featured 5.4 runs per team per game, his OPS+ fell by 20 points, from 151 to 131. After missing over two months of 1996 due to a broken collarbone, he returned to full strength in ’97 and hit a staggering .366/.452/.720 for a 178 OPS+, leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages as well as home runs (49). Only Tony Gwynn‘s NL-best .372 batting average prevented Walker from the rare slash-stat Triple Crown, but his 409 total bases were the most since Stan Musial’s 429 in 1948. His 33 steals (in 41 attempts) made him just the 18th player in the 30-30 club to that point; his home run total remains the highest of the 64 30-30 seasons thus far. Between his offense (+70 runs), defense (+10 runs), baserunning and double play avoidance (+9 runs), his season was worth an NL-best 9.8 WAR, a mark surpassed by just six players in the past 22 seasons: Barry Bonds and Mike Trout (three times apiece), Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa. Walker won the NL MVP award going away, receiving 22 of 28 first-place votes.

That year also produced one of the indelible highlights of Walker’s career, and a reminder of his reputation as a cut-up. In his second All-Star appearance, he faced Mariners ace (and former Expos teammate) Randy Johnson, whom he had dodged during a recent road trip, taking an off day against a fierce southpaw and avoiding the Kingdome’s artificial turf as well. His absence had made waves when a fan carrying a “WHERE’S WALKER?” sign gained national attention. At the All-Star Game in Cleveland, he stepped in against Johnson, who sailed his first pitch high over Walker’s head and to the backstop as Walker flinched, not unlike John Kruk in the 1993 All-Star game. Trying not to crack up, Walker responded by turning his batting helmet backwards and taking the next pitch as a righty before returning to the left-handed batter’s box and working a walk, as fans and members of both teams laughed. “It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Piazza, an NL All-Star teammate.

Lest anyone think that Walker habitually dodged lefties, it’s worth noting that he took 30.1% of his plate appearances against them in his career, a comparable rate to Ken Griffey Jr. (30.9%), Wade Boggs (29.1%), and Jim Thome (28.1%) if not Gwynn (34.4%) — the last four lefties elected by the writers, all hailing from an age of increased bullpen specialization. Walker didn’t exactly struggle against Johnson (.393/.485/.571 in 33 PA) or the southpaw he faced most frequently, Tom Glavine (.301/.370/.506 in 92 PA). Among post-1960 expansion-era lefty hitters with at least 2,000 PA against same-side pitching, his .903 OPS (on .306/.385/.518 hitting) is second only to Bonds’ .986, albeit with a push from Coors Field.

Though he couldn’t top his 1997 performance, Walker won batting titles in each of the next two years, hitting .363/.445/.630 (158 OPS+) in ’98 and .379/.458/.710 (164 OPS+) in ’99. All three slash stats led the league in the latter year, putting him in select company as the first league leader in all three categories since 1980 and the first of a new wave of players to do it during the game’s high-offense years. Unfortunately, trips to the DL for elbow and rib cage injuries limited him to 257 games and a combined 10.8 WAR for those two seasons — still All-Star caliber, but not good enough to crack the league top 10.

After signing a six-year, $75 million extension with the Rockies, Walker continued to battle injuries, missing major time in 2000 due to a stress fracture in his elbow. He rebounded in 2001, playing 142 games and hitting .350/.449/.662 (160 OPS+) for his third and final batting title. His 38 homers were the second-highest total of his career, as was his 7.8 WAR, which placed fourth in the league. He played two more relatively full seasons in Denver, but spent the first 11 weeks of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a groin strain; upon returning to play 38 games with Colorado, he was traded to the Cardinals in a waiver-period deal.

Coming down from altitude, Walker hit a robust .280/.393/.560 with 11 homers — including two grand slams in a five-game span — in just 44 games for St. Louis, then hit a combined .293/.379/.707 with a pair of homers in each of the three rounds of the postseason as the Cardinals reached the World Series, where they were swept by the Red Sox. He lasted just one more year, battling a herniated disc in his neck but hitting a very respectable .289/.384/.502 in 100 games, though he went 3-for-28 in the postseason. Nonetheless, his teammates spoke of his career in glowing terms, as did manager Tony La Russa, who said, “Most people know the kind of player that he has been his whole career. I mean, just a gifted, all-around everything. In fact, I think he probably would be in the top three of just about every category: base running, defense, handling the bat.”

Is that a Hall of Fame career? Undeniably, Walker’s key counting stats are low for the hitter-friendly era, even without considering the advantages that came with spending a chunk of his career in Coors Field (more on that in a moment). Due to injuries and the strike, he played more than 143 games just once, and averaged just 123 games a year, excluding his September 1988 call-up. Of the 26 enshrined right fielders, only seven played fewer games, four of whom began their careers in the 19th century; the last of those who didn’t, Chuck Klein, finished his career in 1944. Likewise only six enshrined right fielders had fewer hits, including the same 19th-century quartet and Klein.

More on Klein in a moment, but first Coors Field. Walker took 31% of his plate appearances at the park with the 5,200-foot elevation and posted video-game numbers: .381/.462/.710 with 154 homers in 2,501 PA. Elsewhere, he hit .282/.372/.501, still very respectable. In other words, his performance at Coors added 28 points of on-base percentage and 64 points of slugging percentage en route to his lifetime batting line of .313/.400/.565.

Looking at it a different way, Walker owns the third-largest gap between his home OPS (including his time with the Expos and Cardinals, as well as the Rockies) and his road OPS among players with at least 7,000 PA:

Largest Home/Road OPS Differentials
Player Years Home OPS Road OPS Diff
Chuck Klein+ 1928-1944 1.027 .813 .214
Bobby Doerr+ 1937-1951 .929 .716 .213
Larry Walker 1989-2005 1.068 .865 .203
Cy Williams 1912-1930 .934 .735 .199
Todd Helton 1997-2013 1.048 .855 .193
Earl Averill+ 1929-1941 1.009 .846 .163
Ron Santo+ 1960-1975 .905 .747 .158
Wade Boggs+ 1982-1999 .934 .781 .153
Jimmie Foxx+ 1925-1945 1.116 .966 .150
Kirby Puckett+ 1984-1995 .909 .761 .148
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 7,000 plate appearances. + = Hall of Famer

Coors Field isn’t the only venue that’s contributed to historically large home-field advantages. Klein and Williams spent the majority of their careers calling the Phillies’ Baker Bowl — where the right field foul pole was 272 to 280 feet away — home, while Boggs, Doerr, and Foxx all spent at least part of their careers taking aim at the Green Monster and the short foul lines of Fenway Park. The majority of that list is Hall of Famers, and later in this series I’ll be arguing on Helton’s behalf, just as I am Walker’s. Even after adjusting for their environmental advantages using more all-encompassing stats such as OPS+ and WAR, they compare favorably to those in the Hall.

Again using that 7,000 PA cutoff, Walker’s 141 OPS+ is tied for 43rd all-time with David Ortiz and Hall of Famers Chipper Jones and Slidin’ Billy Hamilton. That’s certainly Cooperstown caliber in and of itself; one point below that group are Hall of Famers Guerrero, Jesse Burkett, and Duke Snider, plus ballot-mate Gary Sheffield and future candidate Alex Rodriguez, while two points below is Reggie Jackson. The problem is that many of the players on that list accumulated around 30% more plate appearances over the course of their careers than Walker.

Moving from a rate stat to a counting stat, batting runs — the component of WAR that measures a player relative to the average hitter in his league — upholds Walker’s elite standing. Walker’s total of 420 ranks 64th, slightly ahead of four players with 3,000 hits (Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Gwynn and Rod Carew), the first two with over 400 homers, the last two with a combined 15 batting titles. Let’s set this next line off in its own paragraph, because it’s the crux of his case:

In less playing time, Larry Walker created more value with his bat than several first-ballot Hall of Famers routinely lauded for their major milestones.

Batting runs is included within WAR, and so are all of the other things that Walker did — and did well. He stole 230 bases in his career, reaching double digits 11 times, and succeeding 75.2% of the time. Factoring in advancements and avoidance of running into outs, he was 40 runs above average in baserunning, plus another 10 in double play avoidance. That extra 50 runs — roughly five wins — ranks 53rd among players in the post-1960 expansion period (chosen for its completeness of data in these department), sandwiched between Rodriguez and Bonds, and within 10 runs of five players who stole at least twice as many bases as Walker, namely Bonds, César Cedeño, Roberto Alomar, Omar Moreno, and Delino DeShields. Those players all had more apparent speed, but scouts saw above-average baserunning potential in Walker as early as 1984, and two scouting reports from the ’93-94 period in the Hall of Fame’s Diamond Mines database graded him as a 6 (“plus”) in both speed and baserunning. On the defensive side, according to Total Zone and (from 2003 onward) Defensive Runs Saved, Walker was 94 runs above average for his career thanks to his strong arm, range, and instincts, a total that ranks ninth all-time among right fielders.

Add it all up, and Walker’s 72.7 career WAR ranks 11th among right fielders, the highest of any currently outside the Hall of Fame and ahead of 16 out of the 26 enshrined, including 2018 honoree Guerrero. At a position where the standard is the highest of any in my system due to the five players with at least 100 WAR (Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Musial, Mel Ott, and Frank Robinson), Walker still clears the bar by 1.2 WAR. His peak WAR of 44.7 also ranks 11th, the highest of any right fielder outside the Hall except Shoeless Joe Jackson and 2.6 wins above the standard. He’s 10th in JAWS, again the highest you-know-what and 1.9 points above the standard. Again, those below him include four of the position’s eight 3,000 hit club members: Paul Waner (11th), Gwynn (14th), Ichiro Suzuki (17th), and Winfield (19th).

The Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which dishes out credit for things like seasons or careers with batting averages above .300, league leads in key stats, and playoff appearances (Walker hit .230/.350/.510 in 121 postseason plate appearances, good but hardly exceptional), places Walker in “virtual cinch” territory with a score of 148. That said, the Monitor wasn’t designed with Coors Field or the sustained scoring levels of the 1993–2009 period in mind. That alone is a major reason why JAWS came into being: I wanted a tool that could adjust accordingly.

Initially, I came down on the side of a “definite maybe” on Walker, but over the years I’ve become increasingly convinced of his Hall-worthiness. Circa 2015 and ’16, the 10-slot ballot was so crowded that I left him off my virtual ones (I don’t get a real one until the 2021 cycle, a year too late to help him), before finding room again. Even virtually, those were agonizing cuts.

Actual BBWAA voters have struggled to find room as well. Walker debuted at 20.3% in 2011, and slipped into the low teens from 2014-2016, but he’s gained ground as the ballot has thinned out via the long-overdue elections of Piazza, Raines, Jeff Bagwell, and Craig Biggio. He was in no-man’s land as far as modern voting history (since 1966) goes, but with the fifth-largest three-year gain (39.1%) and the fourth-largest two-year gain (32.7%), he’s rocketed past the 50% threshold, significant because Gil Hodges is the only candidate besides those on this ballot who reached that point but never got elected. There’s a damn good chance Walker will be in the Hall of Fame some day.

Will that day come in 2020? It’s a tall order. Walker needs 20.4%, almost exactly what he gained last year; if he gets it, it would be the second-largest two-year gain since 1966 after Luis Aparicio, who gained 42.7% (from 41.9% to 84.6) from 1982 to ’84. Only two players in that span have gained at least 20% and crossed the 75% threshold, namely Barry Larkin (+24.3% in 2012) and Guerrero (+21.2% in ’18), and both had gathered greater consensus by that point (Larkin 62.1%, Guerrero 71.7%). Only one candidate in this period has climbed from below 60% to above 75%: Ralph Kiner, who went from 58.9% in 1974 to 75.4% in ’75, his final year of eligibility. That’s more than a four-point head start on Walker.

Why has there been so much resistance to Walker? Beyond the crowded ballot and the injuries, his candidacy is something of a perfect storm. As a great all-around player, a significant chunk of his value — the part stemming from on-base percentage, base running, and defense — isn’t reflected in his traditional counting stats, and even in this day and age, some voters never get beyond those. Candidates as varied as Santo, Bobby Grich, Kenny Lofton, and Jim Edmonds have eluded voters’ attention to an even greater degree, falling off the ballot with less than 5% in their first years of eligibility. To be fair, offense is more easily measured than defense, which helps to explain why Martinez, who spent 72% of his career as a DH, often received two or three times as much support as Walker and was elected last year.

Then there’s the Coors effect, which is adds its own unique wrinkle. Voters — particularly those on the Veterans Committee — used to be easily suckered by shiny offensive stats from the 1920s and ’30s, but today they’re more wary, in part because of the inflated offensive levels throughout the game during Walker’s time as well as the reality of widespread PED usage. Walker, it should be noted, has never been connected to such allegations, but his numbers may not pop next to contemporaries who have.

While 75% may be a stretch, Walker has already positioned himself well for the 2022 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, where he’ll be alongside players who received far less support from the writers, most of them in the single digits and on shorter stays. Yes, that’s the province of 2019 honoree Harold Baines, who never received more than 6.1%, but the other three players elected in the past two years received much more substantial BBWAA support, namely Smith (who peaked at 50.6%), Jack Morris (67.7%), and Trammell (40.9%), all of whom remained on the ballot during their full run of eligibility, a consideration that clearly matters to Era Committee voters. The support that Walker received is well ahead of another likely 2022 candidate, Fred McGriff, who got 39.8% in his final year but had never received more than 23.9% prior. In such a format, Walker would still compete for space with the just-retired Bruce Bochy and at least a couple other managers from among the likes of Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, Jim Leyland, Charlie Manuel, and Lou Piniella.

Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. Walker needs to gain 87 votes, assuming an electorate equal to last year’s 425. Via Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker, last year, eight voters said that if they had room for more than 10 names, they would have included Walker, suggesting they’re primed to add him for 2020. Additionally, one other voter wrote on Monday of his intention to add him this year. That’s a start, and you can bet that his supporters will be keeping their eyes peeled for other converts to the cause. Here’s hoping there are enough to send him to Cooperstown next summer.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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DustyColorado
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DustyColorado

This is a very good article, but I think the people would prefer something geared towards Wander Javier being in the upcoming Rule 5 draft.