Larry Walker and Responsible Park Factoring
This post was inspired by a comment by a HHS reader a few weeks back. Artie Z, talking about Larry Walker, said:
Walker wasn’t just posting a .300/.370/.500 line in Coors – it was a .381/.462/.710 line in Coors. That’s a higher batting average than Cobb and a higher slugging percentage than Ruth. I think the numbers are so disorienting that it makes people think that Rbat isn’t doing its job, but then when you (1) look at how Rbat adjusts other Coors hitters and (2) look at how much better Walker was than those other hitters (other than Helton) it makes a little more sense.
Now, when Rally’s WAR (which was the basis for Baseball-Reference’s WAR) originally was published, I was a bit surprised by Walker’s ranking. I knew he was great, but I think I just did what everybody else did and dismissed him as a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate based on his home park.
The more I’ve looked into his case, the more I realized he’s a Hall of Famer—and not just by a little bit. We now have the ability to adjust offensive numbers based on thier context (era, park, etc.). Even after adjusting Walker’s numbers, he’s Hall-worthy. Actually, if we didn’t adjust his numbers, he’d basically be Stan Musial. People are dismissing his numbers as being more like Dale Murphy. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.
But Larry Walker did more than hit.
Baseball-Reference’s WAR components say that Walker was 40 runs above average as a baserunner and 94 runs above average as a defender. These numbers certainly don’t face as much skepticism as his batting totals. He was a bonafide force on the bases, stealing quite a few bases (230) at an exceptional clip (a hair over 75%). He also receives extra credit in the advanced categories like taking the extra base. In the field, he received seven Gold Gloves, so he was obviously rated quite highly according to the sniff test.
How many players in history can boast base-running and defensive totals like these? Just thirteen (including Walker). As a hitter, Walker trails only Barry Bonds, Henry Aaron, and Willie Mays on the list.
|9||Pee Wee Reese||32||44||117|
Back to the hitting…
Inspried by Artie Z., I want to take a look at each of Walker’s five best seasons by the batting compoent of WAR (Rbat). I’m using the Top 5 because his sixth and seventh best seasons actually were with Montreal.
1997 was Larry Walker’s MVP season. He hit .366/.452/.720 for an OPS of 1.172, OPS+ of 178, and wRC+ of 177. He also had 99 extra base hits (49 homers, 46 doubles, and 4 triples). He had 409 total bases. I think the only way to describe this season is “Holy shit”. Babe Ruth actually had a 1.172 OPS one season (in 1928). That year, he had 380 total bases (154 game schedule), 54 homers, and a .323/.463/.709 line.
Both played in high offensive eras. Want to see what park factors do to Larry Walker? Ruth gets credit for 85 runs above average. Larry Walker? Just 70.
There have been 17 seasons in history where a batter had between 69 and 71 batting runs above average.
|11||Shoeless Joe Jackson||70||1911||23||CLE||147||641||571||126||233||45||19||7||83||56||43||.408||.468||.590||1.058|
|14||Shoeless Joe Jackson||69||1912||24||CLE||154||653||572||121||226||44||26||3||90||54||19||.395||.458||.579||1.036|
Walker’s OPS is 50 points higher than anyone on the list. The second player on the list (Jim Thome) still played in the steroid era. Let’s take a look at all players with an OPS between 1.142 and 1.202 (30 points above or below Walker) in 600 or more plate appearances. There have been 19 such seasons.
Walker would have ranked dead last, but one of his teammates (Helton) came in just below him. Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, and others were getting 85 runs or more for similar production. Sammy Sosa, playing in the same era as Walker and in a hitter’s park himself, gets credit for 84 runs for similar production.
Walker isn’t just getting dinged for his home park. He’s getting slashed.
In 2001, Larry Walker hit .350/.449/.662 for an OPS of 1.111, OPS+ of 160, and wRC+ of 163. He had 38 homers, 35 doubles, and 329 total bases. 31 players have had a season with an OPS within 20 points on either side of Walker. Among those, Walker ranks dead last in batting runs above average—a full 10 points behind #30. In 1931, Lou Gehrig rode a 1.108 OPS to 85 batting runs. That’s #1. Hank Greenberg is #30 with a 1.122 OPS in 1938. Walker’s 1.111 ranks a full ten runs behind.
This one’s my favorite.
Walker hit .379/.458/.710 with an OPS of 1.168, an OPS+ of 164, and a wRC+ of 167. He hit 37 homers and collected 311 total bases. The ridiculous part is that he did all this in just 513 plate appearances. He was given credit for 48 batting runs.
48. Let me remind you—he hit .379/.458/.710 in 513 plate appearances. There have been 40 seasons where a player has been worth 48 batting runs in 500 or more plate appearances:
- Walker’s OPS is first on that list.
- It is first by one hundred and three points.
- There have been four players within 30 plate appearances of Walker with the same number of batting runs. Walker’s OPS is 62 points ahead of Ruth’s 1922, 102 points higher than Ty Cobb’s 1925, and a full 245 points higher than Pete Browning’s 1885.
16 players have hit .370 while slugging .700 in a season. Walker’s season is dead last by a large margin (15 runs behind Al Simmons’ 1930 and 35 runs behind the next match).
The last two seasons on the list for Walker are also injury-shortened ones. He still had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, which he won in 1998 (and two other times). In 1998, he had 524 plate appearances while hitting .363/.445/.630 for an OPS of 1.075, OPS+ of 158, and wRC+ of 159. His slugging dipped because of “just” 23 homers, but he also had 46 doubles. His RBI total also took a tumble from 130 to 67. He still scored 113 runs (in 130 games). For this effort, he was given just 43 batting runs.
- Jacoby Ellsbury’s .321/.376/.552 showing in 2011 was worth 43 runs.
- Ty Cobb (.382/.440/.515 in 1918) and Shoeless Joe Jackson (.341/.393/.495 in 1916) had 43 batting runs despite only three home runs each.
- Jose Canseco had 43 batting runs while hitting .266/.359/.556 in 1991.
- Walker actually doesn’t have the highest OPS among players with 43 batting runs. Al Simmons had a 1.081 OPS in 1927 while Ken Griffey, Jr. had a 1.076 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994. While many players on this list had more plate appearances than Walker, Simmons and Griffey actually didn’t. They just played in high-offensive eras as well.
At age 35, Walker had his final truly magnificent season (though he was exceptionally productive right up until the day he retired). He made 553 plate appearances while hitting .338/.421/.602 with a 1.023 OPS, 151 OPS+, and 150 wRC+. This was worth only 38 runs.
To show how big the park adjustment is, I should just compare Walker to the other player who was +38 runs in 2002:
- Larry Walker: 553 PA, .338/.421/.602/1.023 OPS, 40 2B, 4 3B, 26 HR
- Bernie Williams: 699 PA, .333/.415/.493/.908 OPS, 37 2B, 2 3B, 19 HR
While both players accumulated the same number of batting runs, their raw stats are clearly different—particularly when it comes to slugging. It also took Williams 146 additional plate appearances to reach 43.
Comparisons to Larry Walker
Using OPS and plate appearances, I tried to find hitters comparable to Walker. Only six players come within 1,000 plate appearances of Walker with an OPS 25 points higher or lower.
Walker, of course, is last in batting runs. The two players closest to him are Todd Helton and Lance Berkman, peers who were also aided by hitter’s parks in the steroid era. Helton, of course, has played in Coors his entire career. Berkman played in Minute Maid Park while it was favoriting hitters by quite a bit. Both of these players are generally seen as hovering around the Hall of Fame borderline. But Walker actually has the defense and baserunning going for him, making him a much better candidate than both.
Brouthers’ OPS was astronomical for his day. That’s why he has 686 batting runs. McGwire’s career more or less overlapped Walker’s. McGwire’s OPS is 17 points higher, but he had almost 400 fewer plate appearances. Still, his 127 batting run advantage on Walker is a clear indication of the hit Walker is taking because of park factors.
If Larry Walker was a weak-fielding first baseman, I would say that his offense, once park-adjusted, would make him a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. But he played right field. He was a force on the bases. He was an even bigger force defensively, both by the new metrics and by the awards of his day.
By Hall Rating, Walker’s 151 ranks behind only Barry Bonds (364) and Jeff Bagwell (164) among hitters outside of the Hall of Fame. That’s ahead of Pete Rose (150), Shoeless Joe Jackson (129), McGwire (123), and many, many more.
Larry Walker should be in the Hall of Fame. Yes, his park aided his numbers. But his park didn’t completely erase his numbers.
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