Larry Walker

Larry Walker, courtesy of iccsports on Flickr.

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.

Rk Player Rbat Rbaser Rfield
1 Barry Bonds 1128 44 175
2 Hank Aaron 876 42 98
3 Willie Mays 808 75 183
4 Larry Walker 420 39 95
5 Kenny Lofton 141 80 104
6 Ichiro Suzuki 138 55 96
7 Willie Randolph 121 43 114
8 Willie Davis 42 61 104
9 Pee Wee Reese 32 44 117
10 Devon White -9 40 135
11 Willie Wilson -57 120 108
12 Ozzie Smith -118 79 239
13 Luis Aparicio -198 92 147
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/18/2013.

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

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.

Rk Player Rbat Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS ▾
1 Larry Walker 70 1997 30 COL 153 664 568 143 208 46 4 49 130 78 90 .366 .452 .720 1.172
2 Jim Thome 70 2002 31 CLE 147 613 480 101 146 19 2 52 118 122 139 .304 .445 .677 1.122
3 Ed Delahanty 70 1896 28 PHI 123 574 499 131 198 44 17 13 126 62 22 .397 .472 .631 1.103
4 Jimmie Foxx 69 1934 26 PHA 150 652 539 120 180 28 6 44 130 111 75 .334 .449 .653 1.102
5 Arky Vaughan 71 1935 23 PIT 137 609 499 108 192 34 10 19 99 97 18 .385 .491 .607 1.098
6 Barry Bonds 70 1996 31 SFG 158 675 517 122 159 27 3 42 129 151 76 .308 .461 .615 1.076
7 Albert Pujols 69 2004 24 STL 154 692 592 133 196 51 2 46 123 84 52 .331 .415 .657 1.072
8 Mike Piazza 70 1997 28 LAD 152 633 556 104 201 32 1 40 124 69 77 .362 .431 .638 1.070
9 Stan Musial 69 1951 30 STL 152 678 578 124 205 30 12 32 108 98 40 .355 .449 .614 1.063
10 Stan Musial 69 1949 28 STL 157 722 612 128 207 41 13 36 123 107 38 .338 .438 .624 1.062
11 Shoeless Joe Jackson 70 1911 23 CLE 147 641 571 126 233 45 19 7 83 56 43 .408 .468 .590 1.058
12 Frank Robinson 71 1966 30 BAL 155 680 576 122 182 34 2 49 122 87 90 .316 .410 .637 1.047
13 Carl Yastrzemski 69 1967 27 BOS 161 680 579 112 189 31 4 44 121 91 69 .326 .418 .622 1.040
14 Shoeless Joe Jackson 69 1912 24 CLE 154 653 572 121 226 44 26 3 90 54 19 .395 .458 .579 1.036
15 Al Rosen 69 1953 29 CLE 155 688 599 115 201 27 5 43 145 85 48 .336 .422 .613 1.034
16 Dan Brouthers 69 1886 28 DTN 121 555 489 139 181 40 15 11 72 66 16 .370 .445 .581 1.026
17 Ty Cobb 71 1917 30 DET 152 669 588 107 225 44 24 6 102 61 34 .383 .444 .570 1.014
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/18/2013.

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.

Rk Player Rbat OPS PA Year Age Tm G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG
1 Babe Ruth 97 1.195 663 1931 36 NYY 145 534 149 199 31 3 46 163 128 51 .373 .495 .700
2 Lou Gehrig 95 1.194 703 1930 27 NYY 154 581 143 220 42 17 41 174 101 63 .379 .473 .721
3 Rogers Hornsby 95 1.181 704 1922 26 STL 154 623 141 250 46 14 42 152 65 50 .401 .459 .722
4 Lou Gehrig 93 1.172 690 1934 31 NYY 154 579 128 210 40 6 49 165 109 31 .363 .465 .706
5 Lou Gehrig 88 1.174 719 1936 33 NYY 155 579 167 205 37 7 49 152 130 46 .354 .478 .696
6 Ted Williams 87 1.164 672 1946 27 BOS 150 514 142 176 37 8 38 123 156 44 .342 .497 .667
7 Ted Williams 87 1.147 671 1942 23 BOS 150 522 141 186 34 5 36 137 145 51 .356 .499 .648
8 Stan Musial 85 1.152 698 1948 27 STL 155 611 135 230 46 18 39 131 79 34 .376 .450 .702
9 Babe Ruth 85 1.172 684 1928 33 NYY 154 536 163 173 29 8 54 142 137 87 .323 .463 .709
10 Sammy Sosa 84 1.174 711 2001 32 CHC 160 577 146 189 34 5 64 160 116 153 .328 .437 .737
11 Mickey Mantle 84 1.177 623 1957 25 NYY 144 474 121 173 28 6 34 94 146 75 .365 .512 .665
12 Mickey Mantle 84 1.169 652 1956 24 NYY 150 533 132 188 22 5 52 130 112 99 .353 .464 .705
13 Jimmie Foxx 81 1.153 670 1933 25 PHA 149 573 125 204 37 9 48 163 96 93 .356 .449 .703
14 Norm Cash 76 1.148 673 1961 26 DET 159 535 119 193 22 8 41 132 124 85 .361 .487 .662
15 Hack Wilson 76 1.177 709 1930 30 CHC 155 585 146 208 35 6 56 191 105 84 .356 .454 .723
16 Hugh Duffy 75 1.196 616 1894 27 BSN 125 539 160 237 51 16 18 145 66 15 .440 .502 .694
17 Jimmie Foxx 74 1.166 685 1938 30 BOS 149 565 139 197 33 9 50 175 119 76 .349 .462 .704
18 Larry Walker 70 1.172 664 1997 30 COL 153 568 143 208 46 4 49 130 78 90 .366 .452 .720
19 Todd Helton 63 1.162 697 2000 26 COL 160 580 138 216 59 2 42 147 103 61 .372 .463 .698
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/18/2013.

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.

2001

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.

1999

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).

1998

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.

2002

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.

Rk Player Rbat PA OPS From To G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG
1 Dan Brouthers 686 7676 .942 1879 1904 1673 6711 1523 2296 460 205 106 1296 840 238 .342 .423 .519
2 Mark McGwire 547 7660 .982 1986 2001 1874 6187 1167 1626 252 6 583 1414 1317 1596 .263 .394 .588
3 Joe DiMaggio 530 7673 .977 1936 1951 1736 6821 1390 2214 389 131 361 1537 790 369 .325 .398 .579
4 Johnny Mize 505 7370 .959 1936 1953 1883 6443 1118 2011 367 83 359 1337 856 524 .312 .397 .562
5 Todd Helton 430 9011 .964 1997 2012 2123 7565 1360 2420 570 36 354 1345 1295 1088 .320 .419 .545
6 Lance Berkman 425 7520 .953 1999 2012 1806 6235 1119 1843 412 29 360 1200 1163 1248 .296 .409 .544
7 Larry Walker 420 8030 .965 1989 2005 1988 6907 1355 2160 471 62 383 1311 913 1231 .313 .400 .565
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/19/2013.

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.

My Verdict

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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