Larry Walker and the Hall of Fame

Let me first preface this column by suggesting that I’m no great Hall of Fame historian; I don’t know as much about the history of this great game as my colleagues.

Today I seek to get a good feel whether or not Larry Walker is a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. Indeed, much of my gravitation towards Walker is derived from his playing era; my baseball formative years started around 1993, which incidentally coincides with almost the exact time Walker rose to prominence.

Prior to researching for this column, in my view, Walker was a Hall of Famer. I guess you could say I’m going to either convince myself he belongs, or disband my #Walker4HOF campaign altogether. Nonetheless, it’s a case study in journaling the progress of determining one’s HOF credentials. Let us begin.

Monday’s BBWAA announcement that Barry Larkin would join Ron Santo in the 2012 class in the Hall of Fame brought few surprises in terms of overall balloting. Indeed, it’d be nice if Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell, among others, would be joining Larkin and the spirit of Santo on that glorious late-July afternoon, but that’s neither here nor there.

Caught somewhere between the Raineses and Radkes of the world was Larry Walker, whom in his first year of eligibility had garnered just under a quarter of the vote (22.9 percent). It’s certainly not the kiss of death for the burly British Columbian; there’s a growing sentiment that Raines will eventually get the call as one of the best leadoff hitters in recent memory, and he too was featured on fewer than a quarter of the ballots in his first dance back in 2008.

But rather than getting caught up too much in comparisons, let’s really dig into where Walker stands among his comrades — those residing in Cooperstown or elsewhere — before letting the reader decide which route they’d take as a voter.

The BBWAA dictates the following:

“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

Now certainly there are only a few of these things we can tangibly confabulate about. Of the six, the latter four are awfully difficult to quantify. It would seem likely that if any of them were an issue, the public would know about it, no? By all indications, those whom I’ve spoken to within the industry indicated no reports of character issues with Walker, though his affinity for hockey may have outweighed that for baseball. Nonetheless, no noteworthy strikes against his record here.

Now as a brief aside, there are certainly a number of arbitrary factors a writer could use to define their personal ballot. Whether or not a player truly dominated his era — in which Jack Morris need not apply — tends to be one bandied about ad nauseum. The more I think about it as I research the candidates, the more I truly ask myself, “Was the candidate elite in any facet of the game?” I think the answer almost always has to be yes, and has to be accompanied by at least one or two well above-average skills. As your hypothetical, yet literal writer here, I seem to recall Walker’s elite talent to be hitting, while his fielding and speed/baserunning both would grade out well above-average. As a studious, if unspectacular sabermetrics guy, I then take to the my mother’s basement and the spreadsheets to help develop/repair my notion.

Meanwhile back on the Walker case, one thing writers look for is longevity, and he doesn’t exactly have it. Sure, Walker played parts of 17 seasons, and that alone is superficially impressive, but subtract his 20-game cup of coffee in 1989, and we’re left with 1,986 games over 16 seasons, which averages out to about 124 per year. As a result, the counting stats don’t really benefit Walker. His 57th-place ranking in extra-base hits all time is his highest ranking among any counting stat, which certainly doesn’t recommend him in the eyes of many traditionalist writers. More on his longevity a bit later.

But while the less contemporary stats don’t benefit Walker too much, rate stats and sabermetrics certainly pick up the slack. For one, Walker’s defense is looked upon very favorably, as his 86.1 runs above average mark ranks him among the 10 finest defensive right fielders of all time. Not only was Walker pretty good at running down bird-chasers, but his arm was regarded among the best in the league during pretty much his entire big league tenure. He was also a decent base thief, with a 162-game average of 19 swipes against six denials, for about an average mark of 75 percent.

And this is even before considering what a hitter Walker was; and what a hitter Walker was! To break it down a bit, consider Walker’s triple-slash of .313/.400/.565; he carries that aesthetically — at least to me — pleasing .300/.400/.500 ratio. And 162-game paces would lead us to believe that had his body not betrayed him, he may well have been on the 500 home run, 2,500-plus hits path, both of which might improve his standing as far as otherwise-stodgy Hall voters are concerned.

But how does one figure for time lost due to injury? Since nobody is really of the Cal Ripken/Lou Gehrig mold, 162-game paces are really more just for fun. If we consider someone like Kirby Puckett losing time to injury, and give him the benefit of the doubt regarding how his career would have extrapolated, it’s still really comparing apples to oranges. For one, we don’t know how many seasons and of what caliber production Puckett had left. As a result, we’re left with his relatively solid career numbers left unaffected by the standard decline that pulls down otherwise solid careers, like Harmon Killebrew’s three-year stretch that saw him lose 25 points off his OPS and don a Royals uniform. Blech. For whatever reason, Walker didn’t permit himself to tread those waters, as his final season triple-slash of .289/.384/.502 would indicate. Is he to be punished for not sticking around one more year to poke 17 home runs to meet some sort of arbitrary 400 home run ceiling? And if so, had he done it with a .700 OPS, how would that have affected his overall line?

It’s not as though a Hall of Famer can’t play under 2,000 games, either. The average Hall of Fame hitter only has played 2,073 games in his hypothetical career, which really means Walker only trails by about half a season or so. In terms of plate appearances, Walker would be in the company of old-timers Hugh Duffy, Kiki Cuyler, and Bobby Doerr, all of whom played in the 154 game era, leaving Larry about 800 trips to the dish off the average pace. Still, there are a number of viable Hall of Famers near Walker’s playing time ledger, including Duke Snider. Joe DiMaggio also appears, but like many others of his era, took time off to serve in the military. Overall, playing time is probably one of the bigger detriments to Walker’s case.

Of course, there’s always the proverbial elephant in the room: Coors Field. During the steroid era, it wasn’t unusual for the park factors at Coors to reach the high 120s. But still, despite Walker’s overwhelming splits at Coors (.381/.462/.710 triple-slash), he was able to pull a 147 OPS+ as a member of the Rockies, where he spent 10 glorious seasons, thus fulfilling any notion that a player needs a decade at the top, regardless of it was atop a mountain. And lest one thinks Walker’s best seasons were solely buoyed by the Coors launchpad, his 1997 MVP campaign came at a time when the run environment had dipped a bit, with a 113-113 park factor. Furthermore, Walker carried a 141 OPS+ at Coors Field; not only is this in line with his career production, but also shows he was still head and shoulders above the competition, regardless of where he played. He wasn’t a total schmuck on the road, either.

Another thing to consider is Walker’s 1994 season (his age-27 campaign) with the Expos. Stade Olympique certainly played into the hitter’s favor that season (107-105 single-season factor), but Walker basically had very similar seasons in ‘94 and ‘95 despite moving to Coors the following campaign (128-128 park factors). It’s awfully difficult to extrapolate how his career path might have gone had he remained in Montreal, but it’s not as though he had a .683 OPS entering Colorado like his bushy-browed bash brother, either. Additionally, it’s hard to credit Walker’s improved walk rate to a ballpark, considering he often registered in the single-digits percentage-wise before settling in the 12-13 percent range as his career waned. This also includes the intentional free pass, where Walker actually registered his highest season rate of 20 with the Expos in 1993, a full season before moving onto the Mile High City.

To put it simply, Walker’s place in history resides here:

*12th among right fielders all time in WAR (73.2)
* Top-25 among all outfielders in wOBA (.414)
* Top-30 among all outfielders in wRC+ (142)
* Top-10 among all outfielders in WPA (48.9) – stat only goes back to 1974.
* Top-20 among all hitters in career OPS (.965)
* Top-75 among all hitters in career OPS+ (140)

The WAR places him ahead of Manny Ramirez, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Andre Dawson, and Vladimir Guerrero, all of whom are Hall of Famers or considered on the periphery. Similarly, his wOBA places him ahead of Willie Mays, Jesse Burkett, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Big Poison himself, Paul Waner. Interestingly, Walker trails Raines, Lance Berkman, and Bobby Abreu in Win Probability Added; I’m all for Raines entering the Hall and think Berkman and Abreu will be interesting debates. But as laid out here, both in stats that equate for quantity of quality playing time, and in terms of quality play in the short-term as well, I’m starting to be convinced. Even when adjusting for the offensive context in which he played, have there been at least 75 viable Hall of Fame hitters? Absolutely.

B-Ref’s similarity scores are a bit more bearish on Walker, as his comparables are a veritable plethora of fringy Hall of Very Good candidates (Moises Alou, Jim Edmonds, and Ellis Burks) sandwiched by a number of Hall of Famers (Johnny Mize, Snider, and J. DiMaggio) and some very interesting future cases (Albert Pujols, Guerrero, and maybe Edmonds fits here). So while B-Ref doesn’t really have Walker in the company of the aforementioned stars like Mays or Aaron, he’s still in pretty solid company.

Essentially, you have a lethal, if a bit fragile hitter with a cannon right arm, a solid set of wheels, and some very good comparables. I don’t have a BBWAA badge — though that’s somewhere on the list of dreams to attain — but if I did you can bet I’d be voting yes for Mr. Walker.

In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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11 years ago

Wow, when I read the title I was like “seriously?”. But top 20 among ALL hitters in career OPS…..that’s nothin to sniff at.