‘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.
Posted in baseball
, Baseball Analysis
, Baseball Commentary
, Baseball Players
and tagged Barry Bonds
, Barry Larkin
, Baseball Hall of Fame
, Bert Blyleven
, Jeff Bagwell
, Larry Walker
, Mark McGwire
, Rafael Palmeiro
, Roberto Alomar
, Sammy Sosa
Player Narratives, and the Hall of Fame
Do me a favor. Take a look at these final career numbers, and tell me if you think the player who compiled these numbers is probably in the Hall of Fame or not. Do not try to guess who the player is, because we’ll come back to that later. Please allow the numbers to speak for themselves:
493 Home Runs (27th)
1,550 RBI (42nd)
4,458 Total Bases (50th)
1,704 Runs Created (49th)
Triple Slash Line: .284 / .377 / .509
1,447 Assists (10th at his position)
1,775 Double Plays Turned (5th at his position)
I’m choosing not to include this player’s WAR because it has become too easy to simply go directly to that one statistic and form one’s judgment based on that stat alone. I will tell you that it is better than some HOF’ers, and not as good as some others.
At this point, you are probably withholding your final judgment based on who the player is. I would probably do the same. But why do we do that? Why does the player’s identity matter so much in our final evaluation as to whether or not he belongs in The Hall? Shouldn’t the numbers speak for themselves?
The truth is, we tend to place a great deal of weight on the player’s particular narrative. Did he play for one team his entire career? Was he beloved by millions, or was he a surly jackass who alienated press and public alike.
Certainly, we want to know, too, in which era the player performed. Were his numbers special for their time, or were they more representative of a good but not necessarily a great player?
What about intangibles such as playoff performance, overcoming significant personal or professional handicaps, being a suspected cheater, or suffering a tragic, career-ending injury at a relatively young age?
What position did he play? Historically, more offense has always been expected from outfielders and first basemen than from middle infielders or catchers.
If I told you the numbers listed above belonged to Duke Snider, (they do not, but they plausibly could have), you, too, would probably choose to enshrine the well-respected slugger from the legendary Boys of Summer. The Brooklyn narrative and the lure of baseball’s so-called Golden Era would be too strong to resist. Mickey, Willie and The Duke, and all that.
Similarly, if I told you those are Willie Stargell’s numbers, (again, they are not), once again, you would allow that those statistics are sufficient to make the case that “Pop” Stargell, the lifelong Pirate and spiritual leader of the 1979 We Are Family championship ball-club, belongs in the Hall of Fame.
On the other hand, if I told you that these numbers belonged to Dick Allen, Jose Canseco, Carlos Delgado, or Joe Carter, for various reasons, you might very well come to an opposite conclusion regarding their HOF-worthiness.
The truth is, when it comes to whom we deem to be HOF-worthy, we love our narratives. We tend to work backwards, I think, and use statistics to rationalize our preconceived prejudices regarding who does or does not belong in The Hall.
Certainly, there are a handful of players who obviously belong in The Hall, are there not? Lou Gehrig comes to mind. Gehrig slugged 493 home runs, (as many as the player whose stats are listed above.) He died young and tragically, and was a fabled member of the ’27 Yankees.
Mike Schmidt also comes to mind. A dominant player in his era, Schmidt compiled 54 fewer total bases than did the mystery player joining us today.
No one I’ve ever heard of has ever argued that Willie “Stretch” McCovey doesn’t belong in The Hall. A tremendous run producer, McCovey drove in just five more runs in his career than did our soon-to-be revealed player. McCovey topped 30 homers seven times. Our Mystery Player accomplished that feat ten times in his career.
Here’s another example. When I was a kid growing up in the 1970’s, it was clear and obvious to all of the neighborhood boys that Catfish Hunter was a Hall of Famer long before he became eligible, while Bert Blyleven was merely a fine pitcher, but not a particularly interesting one.
For those of us now in our early 50’s, that narrative remains powerful to this day. While more recent stats point to Blyleven being far more valuable than Hunter, all I remember about Blyleven is that he pitched in Minnesota for lots of bad Twins ball clubs. It wasn’t until later that I became aware of his reputation as a great prankster, though I doubt even that information would have been enough to sway my opinion of his worthiness for the Hall of Fame.
I now see that as far as his numbers are concerned, Bert Blyleven does belong in the Hall of Fame. Yet, although I recognize that Hunter’s numbers may ultimately appear to be lacking, his narrative remains superior. He was the mustachioed ace of first the great A’s clubs of the early ’70’s, then the ace of the fine Yankees teams of the later ’70’s. He had a great nickname, was always good for a quote, won at least 20 games five consecutive seasons, and died relatively young at age 53.
Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that there’s room for both pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Sometimes, if we remain open-minded enough, life can be a win-win.
O.K., enough of that. Who is our Mystery Player?
He is none other than Fred “Crime Dog” McGriff.
Fred McGriff was well-respected, and generally well-liked, and his numbers appear to be worthy of HOF induction, but there are a few problems with his narrative.
For one thing, unlike Schmidt, McCovey, Gehrig, Gwynn, Ripkin, Kaline, Clemente and so many other Hall of Famers, it is difficult to associate McGriff with any one team. He started out as an extremely productive Toronto Blue Jay, became a highly productive Padre, then moved on to become a reliably productive Brave. Once he left Atlanta, he moved on to Tampa Bay, where, now in his mid-30’s, he provided solid punch in their batting order.
At age 38, clearly his best years behind him, all he did was slam 30 homers, drive in 103 runs and slug .505 with the Cubs. He hit his 490th home run as a Dodger, then retired as a Devil Ray at age 40 in 2004.
McGriff also had the misfortune to have his best seasons in the first half of his career (pre-1994), when hitting 35 homers per season still meant something. By the time he got the opportunity to play before a national audience on TBS with the Braves, every third player seemed to be enjoying 30 homer seasons. His production began to be viewed by that point as ordinary, the norm of what a first baseman should be producing.
That McGriff finished in the top ten in MVP voting six times, that he reached an OPS+ of at least 140 in ten seasons, and that the first time he went on the Disabled List was in his 18th season at age 39 (talk about an Iron Man) is apparently no match for the overall lack of gripping drama, personal tragedy, or single-uniform predictability that sports fans love.
Fred McGriff has now been on the HOF ballot five years. Last year, he was named on just 11.7% of all votes cast. At this point, it seems unlikely that McGriff will be voted into the HOF anytime soon. You, too, may believe that McGriff just doesn’t quite belong in the Hall of Fame.
But if that’s the way you feel, ask yourself this. Is it the numbers or is it the narrative that prevents you from considering him to be a worthy Hall of Famer?
Tampa Bay Devil Rays first base coach Fred McGriff during a Devil Rays/New York Mets spring training game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)