The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Why Larry Walker Deserves to be in the Hall of Fame

Larry Walker

‘Tis the Season.

This is the time of year when the Baseball Writers of America (BBWA) submit their final ballots for the players they think are deserving of induction into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Among the eligible inductees this year are Bert (haven’t I been here before?) Blyleven, holdovers from last year Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin and Edgar Martinez (shame on you, BBWA,) and first-time eligibles Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmiero, Mark McGwire, Kevin Brown, Juan Gonzalez, John Olerud, Bobby Higginson, and Larry Walker.

If baseball Hall of Fame history provides any lessons, then Blyleven, Alomar and Bagwell are the most likely candidates for Hall enshrinement in 2011.

But an equally deserving candidate for HOF enshrinement is Larry Walker.

Walker was overshadowed in his day (1989-05) by players like Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa.  But, with the tainted exception of Barry Bonds, Walker was arguably a more complete player than any of the others.

In fact, only Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell were truly comparable to Walker as  complete Major League players.

One way to go about evaluating a potential Hall of Famer is to start with his weaknesses (or at least his perceived shortcomings.)

Thus, one can argue that Edgar Martinez, for example, was “only” a DH, and therefore, because he seldom played in the field, his Hall credentials are penalized.

As for Sammy Sosa, (aside from the steroid issue,)  he was neither a great base-runner, nor was he a legendary defensive outfielder.  And in many seasons, his batting average wasn’t all that fantastic, either.

Barry Bonds, even before he ever (allegedly) used steroids, was nearly a complete player, but his throwing arm was just average.  If he could really throw, he would have played right field.

Jeff Bagwell was as close to being as complete a player as you could find during this era, but first basemen have to be exceptionally superior around the bag to win a reputation for defensive excellence.  Bagwell won just a single Gold Glove, and his throwing arm was considered average.

Ken Griffey was a sleek, graceful defensive outfielder and an excellent power hitter who won 10 Gold Gloves, had an average arm, and who never led his league in OBP, OPS, OPS+, hits, doubles, or walks.  His base-running skills were considered solid, but not fantastic.

Frank Thomas was a devastating hitter for both power and average, walked a lot, but was a poor defensive player and a below average base-runner.

I’m not arguing that the aforementioned players have questionable Hall of Fame credentials.  If any of them don’t make it into The Hall, it will be due to the taint of steroids.

But suppose you can find a truly flawless player?  Doesn’t it stand to reason that this player, given enough time on the baseball diamond to prove himself, would be a Hall of Fame quality player?

Enter Larry Walker.

Every player has at least one minor shortcoming, right?  I’ve listed the relative shortcomings of several Hall of Famers already.

But as I searched for Larry Walker’s hidden weakness, I kept coming up empty.

Let’s start with a couple of traditional stats: batting average, and its sexy younger sister, on-base percentage.

Batting average is overrated, I know.  But a player with a career .313 batting average who happened to win three batting titles (as many as George Brett,) has certainly demonstrated at least one strength.   And for those of you who snicker at the very mention of batting average, Walker posted an On-Base Percentage in his entire career of exactly .400.

By way of comparison, Derek Jeter, whose specialty is getting on base, has posted an OBP of .400 or better in just four of 16 seasons.  Brett reached that magic number in just three of 21 seasons.  Walker topped .400 in eight consecutive seasons.

Fine.  He got on base a lot.  But what about hitting for power?  Let’s look at homers and RBI’s.  Acknowledging (again with a nod to the sabermetric crowd) that RBI’s are overrated, Walker drove in 1,311 runs, topping 100 RBI five times.  He drove in over 90 runs for the first time, while playing with the Montreal Expos, at the age of 25.  He drove in over 90 runs (104, actually) for the last time, playing for the Rockies, at age 35.  Thus, for a solid decade, he was a serious middle of the order masher.

As for home runs, he hit 383 in his career, topping 30 homers four times.  He topped the N.L. in homers with 49 in 1997, and he averaged 31 per 162 games in his career.  Albert Pujols, who, if he quit playing tomorrow, would be a definite inductee into The Hall, also reached 49 homers just once.

In addition to Walker’s 383 homers, he also produced 471 doubles and 62 triples.  His 916 extra base hits are 56th all-time, more than Hall of Famers Paul Waner, Joe DiMaggio, Harmon Killebrew and Duke Snider, and just four fewer than Willie McCovey.

Impressively, Walker’s career slugging percentage is a remarkable .565, good for 14th best all-time.  Virtually every single player ahead of him on this list is either in the Hall of Fame already, or will be elected eventually (Pujols) unless their alleged use of steroids keeps them out (A-Rod, Bonds, Manny Ramirez.)

Likewise, Walker’s OPS (on-base + slugging) of .965 ranks 16th best all-time, just below Stan Musial, and just ahead of Johnny Mize.  He posted an OPS north of 1.000 six times in his career.  By contrast, Hank Aaron reached that level five times in his career.

Enough already, you say.  So he was basically just a big, slow-footed Canadian who could slug the ball.  There have been lots of sluggers.  What else does he bring to the table?

How about seven Gold Gloves?  And how about 150 outfield assists?  Walker led the N.L. in assists three times, and his career total of 150 assists ranks seventh best, just four behind Jesse Barfield, and only five behind the legendary Dwight Evans.

Clearly, Walker was an excellent defensive right fielder with a gun for an arm.

Base-running skills?  Check.  In poll after poll of managers and of his peers, Walker was consistently on the short-list of best base-runners in his league.  Only Jeff Bagwell and a couple of other players were considered comparable to Walker during the entire decade of the ’90’s.

Not only was Walker extremely adept at turning singles into doubles, and reading the ball off the bat so that he knew when to score from second base, but he was an underrated base-stealer, too.

Larry Walker stole a surprising 230 bases in his career, and was caught 76 times.  His career stolen base percentage of 75% was about the same as Lou Brock’s and better than Maury Wills’.  Walker set a career high with 33 stolen bases in 1997, and topped 20 steals in two other seasons.

In his base-running prime, over a seven-year period (1993-99), Walker’s stolen base percentage, in 153 attempts, was an even more impressive 81%.

So Larry Walker could hit for average and for power, he could field his position with the best of them, and he was an excellent base-runner.

Oh, and due to his great base-running and his excellent power, he scored 1,355 runs in his career, topping 100 runs scored four times, and 90+ runs scored in two other seasons.

But I’ll bet he hit into a ton of double-plays, right?  Sluggers like him, even if they are smart on the base-paths, are susceptible to the old 4-6-3 double-play. And hitting into double-plays is an underrated killer of a player’s total value.

Even here, however, Walker’s career numbers are fantastic.  He hit into just 153 double-plays in his career.  Cal Ripkin is the all-time leader, having hit into 350 double-plays.  Jim Rice and Eddie Murray each hit into 315.  Frank Robinson checks in at 270.  Willie Mays hit into 251.  Charlie Hustle himself grounded into 247 twin-killings.  Derek Jeter clocks in at 235.

Walker was about as difficult to double-up as Craig Biggio (150), and Biggio once went an entire season (1997) without grounding into a double-play.

Larry Walker was a five time All-Star.  He won the N.L. MVP award in 1997.  He won three Silver Slugger awards.  He had a 200 hit season.  He won three batting titles, a home run title, and he led his league in OPS twice.

Now this is where you pull out your trump card.  Walker played his home games for nine+ seasons in the most favorable hitters park ever constructed, Coors Field in Denver, Colorado.

There is no doubt  his overall career numbers were given a boost by this ballpark.  But in the last of his five seasons with his first team, the Montreal Expos, (1994) Walker posted an OPS+ of 151, a number he surpassed just four times in nine full seasons in Colorado.

Walker’s career OPS+, which takes into account a players’ home ballpark as well as the era in which he played, sits at 140, the same as Hall of Famer Duke Snider.

Moreover, while in Montreal, he had already established himself as a fine defensive outfielder by winning two Gold Gloves.  He had also already demonstrated fine base-running skills by swiping 29 bases in 36 attempts in 1993, and he led the N.L. in doubles with 44 in ’94.

As for his home-road splits, consider the following.  In Walker’s finest season, 1997, he slugged .709 at home, and .733 on the road.  He belted 20 homers at home, and 29 on the road.  He drove in 68 runs at home; he drove in 62 runs on the road.  His home on-base percentage was .460; his road OBP was .443.  So his numbers, in some cases, were actually better on the road, and even the stats that were better at home were not vastly superior.

Other Hall of Fame ball players certainly benefited tremendously from their home ballparks.  Mel Ott, for example,  hit 323 of his 511 career homers (63%) at the Polo Grounds.  If Jim Rice had played his entire career in Houston, there would have been little difference between him and Jimmy Wynn.

Finally, a few of you may even pull out the “whiff of steroids” excuse to besmirch his reputation.  But no credible evidence exists to suggest that Walker ever used steroids.  Frankly, as intelligent adults, we need to move beyond the perversely gratifying,  sensationalist rumor-mongering on this issue.

Not everyone who hit 25 or more home runs in a season in the ’90’s and early 2000’s used PED’s.  Unless credible evidence has come to light regarding a particular player, we have no choice but to extend to them the benefit of the doubt on this issue.

According to baseball-reference.com, of the ten players whose careers were most similar to Walkers, four of them, (DiMaggio, Snider, Chuck Klein and Johnny Mize) are already in the Hall of Fame.  Another close comp., Vlad Guerrerro, will be once he becomes eligible.

Taken as a whole, then, Larry Walker clearly produced Hall of Fame numbers.  Whether or not the BBWA sees it this way, and I suspect many of them won’t agree with me, Walker deserves enshrinement in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

Yesterday, December 1st, was Larry Walker’s 44th birthday.  Consider this blog-post a birthday present, Larry.  You deserve it.

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13 thoughts on “Why Larry Walker Deserves to be in the Hall of Fame

  1. Great article. I assume William Miller is the author from the comments. Did not see an author named at start or end of article. I don’t know the stats as well as you and the commenters (thought I was reading Bill James) but he is definitely the best COL player in their short history. When he retired I assumed he would be in easily. I don’t remember any rumors of roid use or being in trouble for anything. Maybe he is overlooked for playing in Montreal and Denver (but Elway is in FB HOF) instead of NY or BOS. Rockies are not my favorite team but I loved watching Larry Walker. If he would have played two more years, COL would have won more than 0 games in the WS against BOS and he probably would be in next year. Oh well, Mr. Miller keep writing and persuading your dumbass colleagues to put Larry Walker in the Hall of Fame.

    • Hi Shawn, Thanks for visiting my blog and reading my article. I think Larry Walker was one of the most under-appreciated players of the past 20 years. I have my doubts that he’ll ever get into The Hall, but who knows, anything’s possible.
      I appreciate the comment, and hope you come back for more.
      Thanks, Bill Miller

  2. My take on the article and the comments following:

    1) I think there is a tendency to have a knee-jerk reaction to players who played in Coors along the line of “He played in Coors Field, therefore all his numbers are phony.” Remember, OPS+ is a ballpark-adjusted stat–that’s why guys like Bichette, Castilla, and Andres Gallaraga have OPS+ numbers for their seasons in Colorado, which fall in the “good, but ordinary” range for their seasons there. Walker is a different case; during his time in Colorado he had five seasons and parts of a sixth with OPS+ numbers over 150. That’s impressive anywhere, and his WAR totals reflect that.

    2)Calling Jim Rice a “great comparison” to Larry Walker simply doesn’t hold water. Walker’s career OPS is 141. Rice matched that figure only four times in 16 seasons. Rice’s career WAR (per B-R) was 44.3, while Walker’s was 69.7. That’s a HUGE difference, a more than Rick Burleson’s career total difference. I’m not going to even bother addressing any implied comparsions between Walker and the Ruben Sierras of the world.

    3) All the questions along the line “Does X belong in the Hall of Fame are subsets of the bigger question “What constitutes a Hall of Fame career?” If Jim Rice is the line of demarcation between in and out, Walker is clearly and unquestionably a Hall of Famer. If you make that line, say, Harry Heilmann, it starts to become a tricky call. Me? I think Larry Walker was good enough for long enough to deserve his plaque.

    • Thanks for taking a look back at this post. To be honest, I had to go back and re-read it myself, as well as the comments others left, to understand the full context of your comments. The essential question, as you pointed out, is what constitutes a HOF career? There is general agreement on only about 40-50 players, or only about a quarter of the players in The Hall. Other than that, the question becomes a bit more subjective, and, let’s face it, everyone has their favorites.
      I’m glad you see things regarding Larry Walker pretty much as I do. By the standards of Hall voting over the past 75 years, his career was clearly solid enough to merit Hall induction. The advantage of having played at Coors Field, while not entirely untrue, is overblown by his detractors. By their standards, I don’t think anyone who has ever or who will ever play their home games at Coors Field will ever be worthy of The Hall. That’s simply unfair and illogical.
      Another one of my favorite stats for Walker: Grounded Into Double Play Percentage: Derek Jeter – .025% of his at bats; Willie Mays – .023% of his at bats; Larry Walker – .019% of his at bats, meaning Walker was tougher to double-up than either Jeter or Mays. Not too shabby.

  3. Jack Straw on said:

    You haven’t done the obvious, which is to let the air out of Walker’s Coors Field stats and show why he’s still a HOFer. That Mel Ott hit a lot of his HRs at home isn’t an argument in Walker’s favor. Besides, Ott was seriously overqualified for the Hall–a career OPS+ of 155 in 11337 PAs versus 140 and 8030 for Walker–and much more qualified than Walker. Until Walker’s advocates address his vastly inflated home numbers, the BBWAA isn’t going to vote him in.

    The definitive article showing Walker is a HOFer in spite of Coors has yet to be written.

    • Jack, There is no doubt that Mel Ott is highly qualified to be in the Hall of Fame (though I’m not sure you can be overqualified.) While it is true that he greatly benefited from playing in his home park, the Polo Grounds, it is also true, as you correctly point out, that his career OPS+, which adjusts for ballpark factors, was a very nice 155.
      Larry Walker was not as good as Mel Ott. But Larry Walker doesn’t have to be as good as Mel Ott was to be a legit Hall of Famer. Using OPS+ once again, (which let’s the air out of Walker’s Coors Field stats, does it not?) Walker’s score of 140 ranks him ahead of a long list of players who are already in The Hall, including Paul Waner, Al Simmons, Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Rod Carew, and Roberto Clemente, among others. And as I stated in the post, his OPS+ of 140 is the same as Duke Snider’s who also played in a nice hitters park in an era favorable to hitters.
      Therefore, if we are going to be fair and objective, and if OPS+ is a legitimate stat to use, then regardless of the fact that Walker called Coors Field home for several years in his career should not result in an anti-Coors bias as far as Walker is concerned. While there are players who owe virtually all of their career success to Coors Field (Dante Bichette, career OPS+ 106 comes to mind), Walker isn’t one of them.
      Finally, Coors didn’t make Walker the great fielder, thrower, or base-runner that he was, attributes that should also be considered here.
      While I wasn’t trying to write the definitive article in favor of Walker’s HOF eligibility, I do think the case I laid out for the objective fan just may cause them to reconsider Walker’s worthiness for The Hall.
      Thanks for reading, Bill

      • Paul on said:

        His away stat averages and career totals are very comparable to Kirk Gibson’s or Reggie Smith’s or Ellis Burks careers. None of whom even came close to being selected for the HOF.

        avg 278 to 268 to 287 to 291
        oba 370 to 352 to 366 to 363
        hr per 162 games 27 to 25 to 26 to 29
        sb 18 to 25 to 11 to 15

      • See my previous comments below.
        Thank you,
        Bill

    • Paul on said:

      Walkers career BA and OBA were 100 points lower when not at Coors field, and his SLG was over 200 points lower. If you take just the away game stats and double them, you find a good player, not a HOF.

      • That may be true, but lots of HOF players took advantage of their home parks and were not penalized for it. For example, here are Ernie Banks home / road splits: .344 / .388 / .521 at home and .291 / .331 / .430 on the road. That’s quite a huge difference, but I’ve never heard anyone say Banks benefited too much from Wrigley Field. Mel Ott hit 323 of his 511 homers at home. Chuck Klein hit .354/ .410 / .618 at home, and .286 / .346 / .466 on the road. Jim Rice hit much better at home than on the road.
        And none of this even begins to measure Larry Walker’s great defense and base-running skills, which are obviously not park-dependent. So I’m not sure why Larry Walker (and probably, in the future, Todd Helton) is held to a much higher standard than so many other HOF players who simply took fair advantage of the time and place in which they played.
        I do appreciate the comment, however.
        Bill

      • Paul on said:

        Good points and would apply the same criteria to the players you mentioned. Ernie Banks would still qualify because he would have still hit 444 hrs, if you double his away totals. That is stellar and original for a shortstop during that era. Chuck Klein absolutely should not be in the HOF. He is an above average player who played in a hitters ballpark in a juiced ball era. If you double his away totals, they are not impressive at all. Mel Ott is a unique player and difficult to compare to because he was a very productive hitter whether at home or away. However, he definitely was able to take advantage of the 290 foot fence on the right field line at the Polo Grounds for more HRs.

        Jim Rice is great comparison. When you compare their away totals you have two comparable players. I don’t think that Jim Rice should have been inducted. He benefited from playing in Fenway and playing for a high publicity team, the Red Sox. As you mentioned Walker was a better fielder and baserunner. This brings up a whole lot of other borderline players; Steve Finley, Joe Carter, Fred Lynn, Ruben Sierra, Dave Parker, Chili Davis, Rusty Staub, Dale Murphy among others who had great careers, but who will probably not be inducted.

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