On this year’s Hall of Fame ballot, four former players saw at least a 10-point increase in their voting share over the previous year. Vladimir Guerrero sailed into the Hall of Fame, Edgar Martinez solidified his status as a near-lock for next year, and Mike Mussina looks like a strong candidate for the 2020 class, if not the 2019 one.
Larry Walker, on the other hand, needs a lot of help. He received just 34.1% of the vote this year, leaving just two more cycles for him to reach the 75% threshold required for election. It’s not just that Walker needs some help to get elected: he wants it, too. And, most importantly, he deserves it.
Paul Swydan previously made a good case for Walker’s inclusion in the Hall, comparing him very favorably to Vladimir Guerrero. Here, though, I’d like to directly address a few points that still seem to cause confusion.
He Wasn’t Just Good Because of Coors Field
A lot of the arguments for Larry Walker’s inclusion in the Hall — including on sites like this one — are based on his very impressive 68.7 WAR. That figure ranks 66th all-time among position players and 39th since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. His WAR is sixth in that time among right fielders, just behind Reggie Jackson and ahead of every other right fielder you can think of except for a handful of all-time greats in Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, and Frank Robinson
Walker doesn’t lack for impressive numbers by traditional measures. He has a lifetime .313 batting average, for instance, behind only Clemente, Vlad Guerrero, Tony Gwynn, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams among outfielders who’ve recorded at least 8,000 plate appearances over the last 70 years.
Walker also fares well by counting stats. He hit a lot of home runs, a ton of doubles, and stole over 200 bases. The list of players with more doubles, triples, homers, and stolen bases is a pretty small group, composed of just Aaron, Carlos Beltran, Barry Bonds, Andre Dawson, and Willie Mays. He won an MVP award in 1997, receiving more than three-quarters of the first-place votes from the writers. He also has seven Gold Gloves, five All-Star appearances, three Silver Sluggers. He earned at least one vote for MVP in eight different seasons.
There are those who might dismiss Walker’s accomplishments out of hand simply because of Denver’s thin mountain air. It’s certainly true that, with regard to the counting stats, some mental adjustment is necessary. As for estimates of his overall value, though, such considerations are irrelevant: WAR already penalizes Walker for whatever benefits he received from playing half his games at Coors Field.
From 1995 to 2004, a period that encompasses the latter half of Walker’s prime and nearly all his decline years, Walker played almost all his home games in Colorado. His overall slash line, home and road, during that time was .332/.425/.616. His wOBA — a metric that incorporates all his singles, doubles, triples, homers, walks, and outs — was .438 during that same period. Only Barry Bonds produced a higher figure among players with at least 4,000 plate appearances in that 10-year timeframe.
Even after adjusting for Coors, however, Walker was still excellent. Weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, is essentially the park-adjusted version of wOBA, and Walker’s 147 wRC+ ranks 10th within the aforementioned sample. Walker, in other words, was still one of the top hitters of his generation.
Or, here’s another way to think of it. Assume, for a moment, that Walker had produced the same numbers while playing at a totally neutral park. In that case, Walker’s line would translate into a 165 wRC+. Accounting both for hitting and baserunning, that translates to 440 runs above average. Walker’s overall career value in that case would have transcended 80 WAR. In reality, of course, that didn’t happen. Walker did play at Coors. So he recorded a 147 wRC+ instead and “only” 316 runs above average on offense. He produced just less than 70 WAR. Coors, in effect, “cost” Walker more than one WAR per season.
Of course it’s appropriate to consider Coors Field when discussing Walker and is necessary to downgrade his numbers somewhat. Don’t do it twice, though. Keep in mind that WAR has already lopped off 20% of Walker’s total value during his time in Colorado. And he was still great. Discounting Walker’s statistics even further is unnecessarily harsh.
He Was on a Hall of Fame Path Before He Arrived in Denver
Walker recorded the best season of his career during his time in Colorado and gained the most notoriety while with that club. That said, Walker was playing on a Hall of Fame level before he even joined the Rockies, while he was still a member of the Montreal Expos.
There are a couple ways to illustrate this while also demonstrating that Walker’s production in Colorado was just a logical extension of his time in Montreal.
Consider: from 1990 to -94 (age 23 through 27), Walker averaged more than four wins per season, with a very good age-27 season in 1994 cut short by the strike. If we take his 14.4 WAR from the three years before he got to Colorado, prorate the strike-shortened campaigned, and weight the years accordingly (50% for 1994, 33% for 1993, and 16.7% for 1992), we come up with an estimated talent level of 5.3 WAR for Walker’s 1995 season, his first campaign in Colorado.
That’s not a bad estimate, turns out: Walker posted a 4.6 WAR in the strike-shortened 1995 campaign. Prorated to a full season, that’s equivalent to… 5.3 WAR exactly. And, assuming a decent aging curve, a player who recorded 5.3 WAR in 1995 would be expected to produce roughly 45 wins over the 10 seasons from 1995 to 2004. That is almost exactly what he actually put up during his time in Colorado.
So, yes, alternate realities are impossible to predict. On the other hand, it seems that, even if Walker had gone to someplace that wasn’t Colorado, he could have been expected to perform as he actually did perform — which is to say, at a Hall of Fame level.
But that’s not the only way to arrive at that conclusion. Perhaps you prefer to answer the question using comps instead. With that in mind, I searched for outfielders from 1947 to -92 with 20-25 WAR from the age of 23 to the age of 27 who, like Walker, had at least 400 PA and a 120 wRC+ at 27. There were 14 outfielders who match those criteria. Of those 14, five are in the Hall of Fame. Of those 14, eight were corner outfielders and half of them (Jim Rice, Harmon Killebrew, Billy Williams, and Dave Winfield) are in the Hall of Fame. Another group (Roger Maris, Dave Parker, Reggie Smith, and Darryl Strawberry) were also impressive, if not Hall-worthy.
Of the players who played like Larry Walker when he was in Montreal, those who aged well made it to the Hall of Fame. Those who did not, fell short. Walker aged well and fits in nicely with the former group.
His Peak Compensates for His Lack of Longevity
WAR already does a pretty good job making the point above, but let’s take a look at the last 10 corner outfielders inducted into the Hall of Fame. Here they are, along with Walker.
I’ll note, first of all, that comparing Walker’s numbers to the average line produced by this group of 10 might actually be unfair to Walker himself. Yastrzemski and Henderson rank second and fourth in plate appearances, respectively, since 1947. They very possibly skew the average upwards. In terms of median performance, Walker actually compares even more favorably than this.
Even so, Walker makes up the performance gap relative to this group. His wRC+ is worse only than Willie Stargell’s. In terms of runs above average, he is right there with the Hall of Famers. He doesn’t have the same playing time as the rest, but he still comes out the same in total WAR, and that’s because of Walker’s defense.
Look at that list above and ask how many of those players were good at defense. Yastrzemski was, and that’s what helped him to become an inner-circle Hall of Famer. Andre Dawson spent a bunch of time in center field to help his numbers. Guerrero had a good reputation but never won a Gold Glove and ended up spending nearly a quarter of his career at designated hitter.
Walker ends up at the same place value-wise because he was better on offense and defense than most of the guys above. That helps him compensate for the relatively shorter career, for retiring at 38 after an above-average season (135 wRC+) instead of hanging around a few more years without putting up much value. Edgar Martinez has a better batting line (147 wRC+) with around the same number of plate appearances as Walker and he is likely to be elected next year. Voting for a slightly worse hitter with vastly superior defensive skills hardly seems like a stretch.
Larry Walker needs a 41-point jump in the next two years to make the Hall of Fame. It would be a rare feat, but not an unprecedented one. Around 50 players since World War II have been elected in their third ballot or later, and roughly 10% made the same jump Walker requires in just two years time. The average jump from two cycles prior (where Walker is now) to getting elected (where Walker hopes to be in two years) is 24 points, which would put Walker at around 58% in two years.
Since the end of World War II, eight players have gone from under 50% to the Hall in two years, four players have gone from under 40% to the Hall in the same timeframe, and five players have added more than 40 percentage points in just two election cycles. Below is collection of the biggest two-year jumps since 1946.
|Voting % Two Years
|HOF Election %||Change|
Hank Greenberg, Joe Cronin, and Pie Traynor didn’t face the sort of circumstances in their own candidacy as Walker does in his, but there they are. None of the modern players here, meanwhile — Bagwell, Larkin, and Raines — benefited from quite the boost that Walker requires, but they came pretty close.
Even if Walker’s potential move up were unprecedented, it might make sense: the backlog of deserving candidates and the influence of the 10-vote limit on support for Walker are also unprecedented in their way. In many years past, if a player received 34% of the vote, it is because only 34% of the voters have felt that he deserves one. Because of the high number of potentially deserving candidates over the past decade, however, it would be rather presumptuous to assume that only 34% of the voters believe Walker is a Hall of Famer given. Half of the voters fill out a full ballot and are prevented by the Hall from voting for all candidates they feel are deserving.
A fair number of voters will certainly have to change their mind on Walker before he is enshrined. After a couple larger Hall of Fame classes, however, and the subsequent clearing of the backlog, he likely already has a decent number of voters who might be able to vote for him for the first time next season.
Larry Walker has done everything that is generally expected of a Hall of Fame player performance-wise. He has solid counting numbers, hardware, and great WAR numbers as well. He was already on his way to a Hall of Fame career before he went to Colorado. He had 11 more great years after that and went out near the top of his game without padding a few worthless seasons to the end of an already great career. Walker needs some big gains the next two years to get into the Hall of Fame, but he deserves it.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.