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Larry Walker Belongs in Cooperstown

Sure, he played in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in baseball history, but Walker’s stats stand up — adjusted for any era or park. He deserves his own grassroots Hall of Fame campaign.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Last week’s Hall of Fame voting announcement was a big deal for former Montreal Expos corner outfielders. Tim Raines, in his last year on the ballot, finally made it to Cooperstown, while Vladimir Guerrero’s strong showing — 71.7 percent of the vote — makes him a near-lock to make the cut next year.

But the best former Expos outfielder on the ballot was not Raines or Guerrero; it was Larry Walker. Taking a look at the numbers at Baseball-Reference and on Ryan Thibodaux’s ballot tracker, Walker appeared on 21.9 percent of ballots this past year, finishing 13th on the 2017 ballot with 97 votes out of 442. If Walker is going to get in, he has to get 235 more BBWAA votes in only three years.

Walker appeared on 20.3 percent of ballots in his debut year, 2011, which is similar to Raines, Bert Blyleven, and Jack Morris in their debut years. But unlike those three, Walker got onto the ballot at the worst possible time. As writers were restricted to voting for 10 players at a time, the BBWAA’s collective indecision on players from the 1990s led to years in which there were more than 10 deserving candidates, and Walker got squeezed off. Rather than increasing his vote share over time, he stagnated, then had his total cut in half in the crowded 2014 class, and has only now returned to his the low-20s with just three years left on the ballot.

In order to make it, he’ll need the kind of concentrated lobbying effort that got Raines and Blyleven into the Hall of Fame, and then some. So even though ballots aren’t due for more than 11 months, it’s still a perfect time to start campaigning.

The Case for Walker

Walker was a fairly well-regarded player in his own time — a five-time All-Star and the 1997 NL MVP — but those honors don’t tell the whole story. Walker finished his career with a .313/.400/.565 career batting line, won three batting titles, slugged over .700 twice, posted a .400 OBP eight times, and hit .350 or better four times. His career OPS+ (141) is about the same as Vladimir Guerrero’s (140), and within spitting distance of Edgar Martínez (147) and Jeff Bagwell (149), who got much higher shares of the vote despite playing easier positions. Walker also has more career WAR (72.6) than Raines, Manny Ramirez, Vlad, or Gary Sheffield.

Now, career WAR isn’t a perfect Hall of Fame indicator, because while getting to 60 wins is impressive, it matters how you do it. That’s why Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe created JAWS, which balances peak and staying power. JAWS rates Walker higher than every position player on the 2017 ballot, apart from Barry Bonds — who has his own issues — and Bagwell, who got in. JAWS also rates Walker as the 10th-best right fielder of all time, with career production almost identical, both in peak value and total value, to that of an average Hall of Fame right fielder.

This isn’t necessarily decisive evidence that Walker is way better than Raines, Martínez, Guerrero, or Ramirez. For example, Walker’s WAR edge on Guerrero has a lot to do with about a 12-win edge for Walker on defense, and defensive metrics from the 1990s weren’t as good as they are now. Even so, Walker won seven Gold Gloves and Vlad played over 500 games at DH, so I’m willing to believe Walker had some defensive advantage there.

The point is that Walker is at worst similar to players who are beating him on the Hall of Fame ballot by a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 ratio. In order to reverse those effects, we have to understand them. So why isn’t anyone voting for Walker?

Coors Field

Walker played his best years as a power hitter in one of the most offense-friendly environments in modern baseball history: Coors Field in the 1990s. In Walker’s MVP 1997 season, he hit .366/.452/.720 with 49 home runs and 46 doubles, but his teammate Frank Castillo posted a 5.42 ERA and a 96 ERA+. Compare that to, for instance, San Francisco in 2016, where Jake Peavy’s 5.54 ERA got him an ERA+ of only 74 — that’s how different the run-scoring environment can be over a gap of as little as 20 years. At his peak in Colorado, Walker put up ludicrous rate stats thanks in part to that friendly offensive environment. But while hitters who put up big numbers in friendly environments often get overrated, Coors Field of the 1990s was so extreme it might have actually hurt Walker’s Hall of Fame prospects.

First, Coors Field allowed players like Dante Bichette — who actually wasn’t all that good — to hit .340/.364/.620 in 1995, when he was worth only 1.1 WAR. It’s easy to look at that slash line and that WAR total and wonder how Walker’s MVP season in 1997 wasn’t a similar mirage. Except Walker still outslugged Bichette by 100 points, which is a big difference, and he beat Bichette’s OBP by 88 points, which is an even bigger difference. Walker was also a good defensive corner outfielder and base runner, while Bichette was as bad as you could imagine at both. Coors Field also played better for pitchers in 1997 than in 1995. So you get a 9.8-win season for Walker, which beats anything Raines or Guerrero did by two wins.

If a player’s numbers are skewed by his offensive environment, league-adjusted stats like WAR and OPS+ account for the difference. Besides, Walker hit .346/.443/.733 away from Coors Field in 1997. Just before Walker went to Colorado, he posted a .322/.394/.587 line in relatively neutral Montreal in 1994, and in a season and a half in St. Louis, he hit .286/.387/.520 at age 37 and 38. In other words, he could hit anywhere.

But Walker’s gaudy numbers might have hurt him by changing the contemporary perception of the kind of player he was. Walker led the National League in home runs in 1997, and was the best hitter on the most famous slugging lineup of its era, the Blake Street Bombers. So people think of him as a pure power hitter, and his 383 career home runs, considering where and when he played, look underwhelming.

The problem is Walker was never a pure slugger — at his peak, he was a great all-around player. Bonds and Hank Aaron don’t show up on his top-10 similarity scores, but Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, Lance Berkman, Jim Edmonds, and, funnily enough, Vladimir Guerrero do. Walker wasn’t a great power hitter — he was just a great hitter, period.

The Camouflage Effect

In an essay about former Braves, Tigers, and Giants third baseman Darrell Evans in his The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James listed 10 factors that he believes make a player overrated or underrated. Most of those factors hurt Walker. Specialists get overrated, says James; since Walker was an all-around player with no big milestones under his belt, he didn’t benefit from that boost. Players who play for championship teams get overrated, and Walker had played in only one playoff series by the time he was 37. Players who play in small markets get underrated, and Walker played most of his career in Montreal and Denver.

Finally, James talks about how things that break up a player’s career — changing teams or positions — also break up our mental image of the whole player, the way camouflage breaks up the visual image of a soldier. Walker broke in and had early success in Montreal, then spent his best years in Colorado, but had his first substantial postseason experience in St. Louis.

James, writing before YouTube and MLB Network came to be, doesn’t mention this, but Walker also suffers from his lack of a defining highlight or type of highlight. This places him in stark contrast with Guerrero, who between his throwing arm and penchant for one-handed home runs hit off bouncing forkballs, produced hundreds. In fact, the two most famous videos of Walker are funny rather than impressive.

There’s the video in which he forgets how many outs there are and hands the ball to a fan, then has to retrieve it before José Offerman scores:

And then there’s his prop comedy routine with Randy Johnson at the 1997 All-Star Game:

Knowing nothing but those highlights, you’d probably be inclined to like Walker personally, but not to vote for him for the Hall of Fame.

Walker’s career also got broken up by injury in an odd way. He looks like a full-time player on Baseball-Reference because he reached 500 plate appearances in 10 seasons, but various knocks — to many different parts of his body, so there wasn’t a narrative about Walker fighting through one persistent injury — prevented Walker from ever playing more than 153 games in a season. He missed the equivalent of two-and-a-third seasons from 1996 to 2004, plus another 60 or 65 games because of the strike in 1994 and 1995. That lost time cost Walker a shot at milestones like 500 home runs and 300 stolen bases, and left him with about 1,000 fewer career plate appearances than Guerrero, and 1,700 fewer than Ramirez. Even if Walker had played the exact same number of games as he actually did, he’d be better off if he just missed two or three full seasons and produced the same counting and rate stats over 14 years instead of 17. Maybe he’d have won another home run title, led the league in doubles, runs, or RBI a few times, or even taken home another MVP award. His per-season stats would stand out more, too.

However, the 2017 ballot represented a turning point. Many of the players in Walker’s way made substantial progress toward enshrinement, which could clear room for him on ballots that include 10 Hall of Fame–caliber players already, and don’t have room for an 11th. Even so, Walker’s losses in 2014, and the fact that he’s got only three years left, might be too much to overcome, no matter how persistent the lobbying effort. As we argue over whether the best hitter of all time is a Hall of Famer, it seems like it’ll take a miracle for an ordinary Hall of Fame–quality player like Walker to get his due.