|7 Gold Gloves|
|5 All-Star Games|
For years, I have written off Larry Walker’s accomplishments. After all, how much credit can you give a guy for hitting .366 with 49 home runs when he played half his games at Coors Field (pre-humidor) at the height of the steroid era? I mean, who gives Harry Heilmann credit for hitting .403 in 1923 (the beginning of the Live Ball Era)? How many people even know his name?
But now that Walker is entering the last part of his eligibility range on the Hall of Fame ballot (this will be his 7th year), I think we should take another look at him. One of the perspectives we can take is the “relative stats”. All this means is the handful of valuable stats that rate a player compared to others in his league, in his era, and accounting for ballparks. Ideally, this approach would cancel out the effects of Coors Field and steroid-fueled home runs. Realistically, it gives us an imperfect yet better idea of his accomplishments. We’ll use wRC+, OPS+ and various versions of WAR.
JAWS is a fairly well-known rating system for prospective Hall of Famers. It uses rWAR, and calculates a combination of a player’s 7-year peak rWAR and career rWAR, which allows us to compare them to actual Hall of Famers who played the same position. With the exclusion of steroid-users, it’s a pretty good indicator. If we look at Walker’s score, we see a couple of things: first, his JAWS score (58.6) is higher than any other Outfielder on the ballot besides Barry Bonds. Second, we see that the average HOF outfielder has a JAWS score of 58.1, meaning that Walker’s score is very much on par for the Hall.
So far, he looks good.
Next, we’ll take a look at fWAR. Walker had 68.7 fWAR for his career. That puts him at #66 all-time (1871-present), #58 since 1900 and #39 since 1947. He’s higher on the list than HOFers Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Gwynn. He is also higher on the list than Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez, two players that I have had on my ballot for several years now.
Again, things are looking good.
We can also take a look at his performance before he played in Coors Field, and before what is generally considered to be the steroid era. From 1989-1994, he had 2690 plate appearances for the Montreal Expos. He had a slashline of .281/.357/.483, good for a 128 wRC+. Standing out specifically was his 1992 season (a year before league-wide power numbers started to suspiciously rise), in which he slugged .506 and hit for a 142 wRC+. In his final one and a half seasons, he slugged .560 in 178 PA for STL in 2004, and .502 in 367 PA in 2005, again for STL. He was 38 years old that year.
And check this out: his power numbers with the Rockies indicate that, while he unequivocally benefitted from Coors Field, he wasn’t dependent on that infamous dry air to be an excellent power hitter.
His four best home run years with Colorado:
Those “Away” SLG numbers range from good to excellent to truly great. To be thorough, we need to look at Walker’s career numbers in Coors and in other ballparks.
So we see that yes, Coors made a big difference. In Coors, Walker was Babe Ruth. Everywhere else, he was an all-star. Yet it still isn’t so simple. In the aggregate, he was just an all-star “everywhere else”. But take a look at how he performed in these other particular ballparks:
For quick reference, Eddie Mathews’ career SLG was .509, Mike Schmidt’s was .527 and Mickey Mantle’s was .557. So at least in these 3235 non-Coors plate appearances, Walker was a serious HOF-caliber slugger.
But let’s say you aren’t impressed by his .282/.357/.496 slashline in non-Coors games. Does an .853 OPS mean much in the 1990-2005 run scoring environment? Well, of the 318 players who came to the plate at least 3000 times between 1990-2005, Walker’s .853 would have landed him 59th. That’s in the top 20% of hitters, and probably something like a 120-125 wRC+ (based on the wRC+ of players with a similar OPS). Of course, while top 20% is nice, it’s not overly impressive, putting him right next to guys like Trot Nixon and Cliff Floyd (though higher than Kirby Puckett and Derek Jeter within that period). Here is where the other aspects of his game might make his case.
Walker was an excellent right fielder. So much so that, from 1990-2005, he was 3rd among all RF (min 4000 innings) in Total Zone Fielding, and won seven Gold Gloves. Unfortunately, we don’t have the improved metrics UZR or DRS for his prime years, but he had extraordinary Arm ratings and positive UZR in his final two seasons with the Rockies (age 35 and 36 years). We can extrapolate from those late-career numbers and high Total Zone rates that he was an exceptional fielder with a truly great arm. Baseball Prospectus supports this argument, giving Walker a positive FRAA score in every season except 1997 and his final two years with St. Louis, ranking him 10th in career FRAA among all RFers since 1950.
He was also an outstanding baserunner. He stole 230 bases in his career at a 75% success rate. At his peak (1993-1999) he ran at an 80% success rate (slightly higher than the speedster Kenny Lofton had during that same stretch). Again, we don’t have the advanced base running data for those prime years, but we know that he ranked 13th in all of baseball in UBR in 2002 (age 36), hinting that he was probably a valuable base runner during his prime (i.e. running 1st to 3rd, 2nd to Home, etc.) Baseball Prospectus ranks him ahead of Tony Gwynn in Base Running Runs, and very close behind Hank Aaron.
Since we don’t have any evidence that Coors Field is beneficial for fielding or base running, we have to give Walker full credit for these accomplishments.
On a lighter note, when we talk about the Hall of Fame, we sometimes shy away from players who racked up stats but didn’t do anything memorable. Well, Walker was not one of those guys. Check out his famous All-Star Game backwards helmet stunt.
I think what we see here is a player who, no matter where he played, would probably have been a career .500 slugger with all-star level fielding, an outstanding throwing arm, and above average base running. Stats that adjust for ballpark and scoring environment indicate that he was one of the top Right Fielders of the last 50 years. He impressed contemporaries enough to win seven Gold Gloves and an MVP award. I believe he belongs in the Hall of Fame.