Is any other great baseball player’s Hall of Fame case met with less objective thought than Larry Walker’s?
In 1997, Walker hit .366/.452/.720. He hit 49 home runs and 46 doubles, stole 33 bases, played his typical stellar rightfield defense, and, for good measure, was hit by 14 pitches. Five other times, Walker’s on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) topped 1.000, something no player in either league accomplished in 2014.
As is the case with Barry Bonds’s otherworldly 2001-2004 seasons, any observer’s instinct upon viewing Walker’s monstrous numbers should be to consider context. Balls were flying around, and out of, ballparks at an alarming rate in 1997, and Coors Field, where Walker played half his games, was the primary culprit. To judge Walker against his contemporaries or the greats of yesterday based on the raw numbers cited above would be irresponsible.
Sadly, though, many observers, including those charged with populating the Hall of Fame, take an even less responsible tact, “considering context” by wiping the page clean, as if Rocky Mountain air so profoundly impacts a hitter’s ability to get on base that anyone could have accomplished what Walker did that year.
In truth, no National Leaguer in 1997 matched Walker in home runs, total bases, on-base percentage, or slugging percentage, all of which reflect, to some extent, Walker’s surroundings. Neither, though, did anyone match Walker’s WAR (9.8, per baseball-reference), a figure adjusted for the effects of era and park advantages. Some great hitters have played for the Rockies in their 20+ years. Here are the top OPS marks in Rockies history:
1.172, Larry Walker, 1997
1.168, Larry Walker, 1999
1.162, Todd Helton, 2000
1.116, Todd Helton, 2001
1.111, Larry Walker, 2001
1.075, Larry Walker, 1998
Sure, Walker took advantage of the comforts of Coors in a way that Roberto Clemente and Pete Rose never got to do. But isn’t it illustrative that he put up better numbers there (.381/.462/.710) than any player in team history?
WAR Batting Runs (Rbat) are park-adjusted. Walker accumulated 420 Rbat in his career, more than Hall of Fame rightfielders like Clemente (377), Tony Gwynn (403), or Andre Dawson (234). Walker could also run (40 WAR Baserunning Runs) and field (94 WAR Fielding Runs, more than enough to offset the 75 runs he’s docked for playing right field). Adam’s Hall of Stats, which combines WAR and WAA, both park- and era-adjusted, gives Walker a Hall Rating of 150, seventh all time among rightfielders, right between Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson.
What fans and Hall voters tend to neglect is that Walker was a great hitter, and a great all-around player, for six seasons in Montreal (Expos Booder) prior to becoming Rockies Booger, and parts of two seasons in St. Louis (Cardinals Booger) at the end of his career. Let’s separate Walker’s career into three eras based on the team he played for and find comparable players to the three Larry Walkers (or are they Larrys Walker?).
From 1989 through 1994, Walker kept his passport ready, playing his home games in his native Canada and his road games in the states. During these formative years, Walker batted .281/.356/.509, culminating in a breakout year in which the Expos had the league’s best record at the time of the strike and Walker finished eleventh in NL MVP voting.
Raw comps: In terms of raw numbers, Walker’s age 22 to 27 seasons rival those of two of history’s great rightfielders. Al Kaline, one of the game’s great young players, had an .876 OPS over that age range, while Reggie Jackson‘s was .871 in a period that ended two years into the Athletics’ title threepeat. Both narrowly topped Walker’s .865, while Walker’s 52 Fielding Runs fall right between Kaline’s 89 and Reggie’s 37.
Adjusted comps: Kaline and Jackson both played more frequently than Walker in their age 22 to 27 seasons, so WAR gives them more credit for accumulated accomplishments. If we’re looking for an adjusted comp, Joe Morgan precisely matched Walker’s 81 Batting Runs, and earned 21.5 WAR, to Walker’s 21.2. This predates Morgan’s MVP years with Cincinnati, but it speaks to the quality of Walker’s all-around game that his early years are comparable to those of one of the game’s most rounded players. If you’re looking for an outfield comp, Roberto Clemente fell short of Walker’s Batting Runs (49), but used his lethal arm to match Walker’s WAR (22.8). Walker didn’t need Coors Field to look like an all-time great.
Walker’s Colorado years, during which he was 28 to 37 years old, correspond well with his prime. This is slightly later than the typical player’s prime, but the typical player doesn’t spend his youth dreaming of a career as an NHL goalie. After a slightly late start, Walker joined the ranks of the game’s stars at age 25 in 1992, and maintained that status well into his thirties.
Raw comps: Almost no one has done what Larry Walker did from ages 28 to 37. He batted .334/.426/.618 for a decade, still playing above-average defense and finding time to steal 126 bases. The closest comp I could find was Stan Musial, whose 1.008 OPS from 28 to 37 was .036 points lower, but who kept it up for almost 1,800 more plate appearances. Jimmie Foxx had three 1.000 OPS seasons over that span (Walker had six), but stumbled toward the end of his career and finished the span with a .991 OPS. If you’re looking for better raw numbers than what Walker did in Colorado, you’re in Ruth/Williams territory.
Adjusted comps: Again, Walker had some trouble staying on the field in his late prime, averaging just under 500 plate appearances per season, and Coors Field was obviously more friendly to him than Sportsman’s Park was to Musial. From a value standpoint, Walker’s Rockie years were more akin to those of Mickey Mantle, who earned more Rbat (350 to 313), but fewer WAR (48.2 to 42.4). Willie McCovey, who earned 335 Rbat and 42.6 WAR, is in similar territory.
It comes in a very small sample, but Walker’s final season-and-a-half in St. Louis tells us a lot about what he might have accomplished had he never played in Denver. He batted .286/.387/.521, joining a team loaded with should-be future Hall-of-Famers on the ride to two NLCS and a World Series.
Raw comps: It’s harder than you think to find someone with a .908 OPS at ages 37 and 38, in any era, in any park. Ruth, Aaron, and Bonds were better. Basically everyone else was worse. I’m digging way back to find a comp in Honus Wagner, whose .909 OPS was almost identical to Walker’s. If you’re uncomfortable with the advantage Walker had playing in a hitter’s era, remember that he faced fresh-armed relievers throwing 98 miles per hour in the eighth inning in 2004 and 2005, while Wagner played in an all-white league when tiring starters routinely completed what they started. If you want an outfield comp, you might not do much better than Ty Cobb and his .947 OPS.
Adjusted comps: Busch Stadium didn’t work to Walker’s advantage like Coors did, but he earned fewer WAR (3.2) over his last two seasons because he only came to the plate 545 times and wasn’t the runner or fielder he’d been in his earlier years. That WAR total looks a lot like that of Derek Jeter, who earned 3.3 WAR at ages 37 and 38 with just 15 Batting Runs, benefitting from a 17-run advantage in Positional Runs.
If one doesn’t believe in adjusting for the effects of ballpark and era advantages, Larry Walker was a young Al Kaline, an in-his-prime Stan Musial, and a late-career Honus Wagner. Anyone who’s been paying attention can see that such an assessment oversells Walker’s value. Rather than dismissing those numbers entirely, though, let’s appreciate that Walker was a young Joe Morgan, an in-his-(late-)prime Mickey Mantle, and a late-career Derek Jeter.