Larry Walker and Derek Jeter are Hall of Famers.
This two-person class is the smallest the BBWAA has elected since 2016, and considering that both players were offense-first stars who played at more or less the same time, it represents a fascinating contrast in reputation and path to enshrinement. Jeter, a championship shortstop for the Yankees, has long been credited with influence not captured in his pure statistical record (despite the fact that his statistical record is good enough for enshrinement, with room to spare). Jeter was one of the easiest names the BBWAA has ever had to check off its list. He ultimately ended up one vote shy of a unanimous election on his first ballot.
Walker, on the other hand, played right field for a series of overlooked small-market teams; his stats are his legacy, but thanks to the era and ballpark in which he played, they were impossible to take at face value. Walker languished on the ballot for the maximum period of 10 years before barely scraping into the Hall of Fame by just six votes, an electoral fate that—appropriately enough—understates what he accomplished on the field.
Jeter was the last of his kind.
He arrived in the majors in the uncertain interregnum between the strike and the height of the PED era. He made his debut in 1995, the year that also marked the end of a 13-year playoff drought for the Bronx Bombers, and the end of Don Mattingly’s MLB career. From the moment Jeter pulled on pinstripes, it seemed as if he’d been anointed as some kind of legend in the making.
Jeter hit .314/.370/.430 as a rookie in 1996, started 156 games at shortstop, and earned Rookie of the Year honors. Then, in 15 playoff games, he hit .361/.409/.459 to help secure the Yankees’ first title since 1978. He wasn’t the best player on that team—journeyman second baseman Mariano Duncan outhit Jeter, while 38-year-old Wade Boggs produced more bWAR—but his youth, panache, good looks, and position at the center of the action elevated him to first-among-equals status. Like a Mia Hamm or David Beckham, he was synonymous with the team’s success.
And so Jeter became the face of a Yankee dynasty, a club that from 1996 to 2003 won the pennant six times and in 1998 fielded a 114-win team that has a case for the best single season in MLB history. After a series of false starts and scandals in the 1980s and early 1990s, this run of success returned the Yankees to their traditional glory and represented the club’s last great period of success before George Steinbrenner’s death and rising leaguewide revenues blunted what had previously been a near-insurmountable financial edge.
The parallels between Jeter’s club and the Yankee teams of Mantle, DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, or even Ruth and Gehrig were all too obvious. They radiated old-money glamour, and fended off one challenge after another from more modern (and objectively cooler) American League teams like Seattle, Cleveland, and Boston.
Jeter was the last player the Yankees spent a top-10 draft pick on, and their last star to emerge before sabermetrics, the internet, and MLB.tv democratized baseball fandom and discourse. Like Jackson, he came up big in big moments, and like DiMaggio, he stayed in the headlines—despite not being particularly quotable—because he always had some model or actress on his arm. Jeter was Mr. November, and he used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.
This created an uncomfortable paradox, in which Jeter was next to impossible to see for his on-field accomplishments alone. His status and celebrity, and good taste in teammates, caused the kind of people who worshipped DiMaggio or Mantle to view Jeter as the latest incarnation of the godhead.
But Jeter was also one of the last great contact hitters to establish himself before batting average stopped being the definitive measurement of a player’s offensive quality. And when defensive metrics advanced beyond assists and errors, it quickly became clear that Jeter’s reputation as a stalwart defender—and the five Gold Gloves he won because of it—was all flash and no substance. Baseball-Reference, in fact, rates Jeter as by far the worst defensive middle infielder in history, at minus-243 runs over his 20-year career. For context, Jeter is farther below average than Ozzie Smith is above it, and no other player in MLB history grades out as worse than minus-122. Jeter might have occupied the same cultural position as DiMaggio or Mantle, but he was a far less productive player by any objective standard.
By the end of Jeter’s career, the Yankees had gone from stylish to stodgy, and between his lacking defense, the hero worship around him, and the gift baskets, he became tantalizingly easy to mock. (His second career as a human shield for Marlins owner and private equity vampire Bruce Sherman has not made Jeter any more relatable in retirement.) To anyone who had a Baseball Prospectus subscription or was just sick of the Yankees, Jeter was not only tiresome, but the most overrated player of his era.
It’s a testament to the altitude of the hyperbole around the Yankees shortstop that he could be so overrated while also being one of the greatest all-around players of his era—and one of the least controversial Hall of Fame candidates of the 21st century.
Yes, he won his five titles and seven pennants thanks in large part to the ambition and largesse of baseball’s richest franchise, but Jeter was no mere Robert Horry type. In 18 full seasons, he hit .290 or better 16 times, and produced 14 consecutive seasons of 3.0 bWAR or better. Jeter never won an MVP award but ironically probably would have if the 2006 electorate hadn’t been so enamored with outdated counting stats, specifically the 130 RBI of Justin Morneau, who edged Jeter in a painfully close vote. Over his career, Jeter hit .310/.377/.440, good for a 115 OPS+. That’s the third-highest mark since integration among players who played at least 75 percent of their games at shortstop and had 5,000 or more plate appearances.
Then there are the 158 games—essentially another full season—that make up Jeter’s postseason portfolio. Jeter is the all-time MLB leader in postseason appearances (by 33 games over his teammate Jorge Posada), and his 734 career playoff plate appearances are the most ever by almost 200. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Jeter is the all-time leader in postseason hits, doubles, and runs scored, and despite not being known as a power hitter, he’s third all time in postseason home runs.
On a rate basis, Jeter hit .308/.374/.465 in the postseason, meaning he was almost exactly the same player when the pressure was highest and the lights were brightest as when he was playing out the string on the 10th game of a west coast road trip. If you want to know the impact of that kind of play over a large sample of postseason games, well, you can count the rings.
Jeter also posted 3,465 hits in his career, the sixth most ever. He suffered by comparison to Ichiro, but Jeter was one of the greatest contact hitters baseball has ever seen. His hit total makes him the 26th player with 3,000 hits to make the Hall of Fame out of the 27 who have appeared on the ballot. And despite losing more than 200 runs of defensive value, he ended his career with 72.4 bWAR.
Or almost exactly the same career bWAR as Larry Walker.
By WAR, Larry Walker and Derek Jeter had careers that were nearly identical in value. pic.twitter.com/v76uaotOGH— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) January 21, 2020
Contrary to what some would have you believe, most Hall of Famers never had a credible claim to the title of Best Player in the Game. Not Jeter, not Craig Biggio, not Edgar Martinez. In fact, if you want to be really picky, even Hank Aaron never led all MLB position players in bWAR, though he was one of the five-to-10 best players in baseball for about 15 years running.
For a brief time, however, Larry Walker was the best position player in baseball. From 1997 to 1999, Walker hit .369/.451/.689 with an average of 36 home runs, 39 doubles, and 19 stolen bases per season, and while he was rewarded with the NL MVP award in 1997, Walker’s dominance still was not fully appreciated in his time.
In 1997, Walker hit .366/.452/.720 with 49 home runs and 33 stolen bases, a 9.8 bWAR campaign. That’s comparable to the best season ever produced by Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Albert Pujols, Rickey Henderson, Duke Snider, or Tris Speaker. In three of the four seasons that followed, Walker hit at least .350/.440/.630. In the one exception, 2000, an injury-plagued Walker hit .309/.406/.506 in 87 games.
Still, it’s easy to see why he flew under the radar. Walker played for an average team in Denver, one of MLB’s most remote markets, at a time when home run records were falling like dominoes. That sapped attention from the great all-around right fielder in Colorado. And while Jeter was on TV every October, Walker never won a World Series. The two best teams he played on were the 1994 Expos, who were famously in first place when the strike canceled the postseason, and the 2004 Cardinals, who won 105 games but got torched by the miracle Red Sox in the World Series.
More important for his legacy, Walker played his best years in Coors Field in the late 1990s, which might have been the most hitter-friendly environment since World War II. Coors Field during the height of the PED era was like an unofficial NASA launch site, and Walker’s Rockies were known as the Blake Street Bombers: a group of beefy, mulleted mashers who hit home runs at record rates.
Dante Bichette, who’d never made so much as a ripple on the MLB landscape before he was traded to the Rockies, hit .340 with 40 home runs and 128 RBI in the strike-shortened 1995 season. In the process, he came within a few batting average points of winning baseball’s unlikeliest Triple Crown. Three different Rockies, Bichette not among them, hit 40 or more home runs in each of the next two seasons, which is something only the 1973 Braves had done before and no team—not even in today’s record home-run-hitting landscape—has done since.
It seemed reasonable at the time, then, to lump Walker in with his teammates as a good player made to look great by the thin Colorado atmosphere. But as statistical analysis became more advanced, that’s been revealed to be an oversimplification.
Walker posted an OPS+ (which adjusts for league and park factors) of 147 over 10 seasons with the Rockies. That’s better than Griffey’s OPS+ with the Mariners, Sammy Sosa’s with the Cubs, or Chipper Jones’s with the Braves. Crediting Walker’s production to his home ballpark also ignores the six seasons Walker spent in Montreal, where he posted 21.1 bWAR and finished fifth in MVP voting in 1992, or the productive season and a half he spent in St. Louis at the end of his career. On Tuesday, before the vote totals were announced, Jayson Stark of The Athletic adjusted Walker’s career stats to the level of an average National League ballpark in 2019 and found that he would have hit .305/.390/.547.
Walker had a better peak and similar overall career numbers to most Hall of Fame corner outfielders, but it took a decade after his retirement for him to build any kind of voting momentum. Four years ago, Walker was buried on a ballot overcrowded by the PED-era logjam. He finished 15th, with just 15.5 percent of the vote, behind Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff. In 2017, he got all the way to 21.9 percent, not even a third of the way to the induction threshold of 75 percent. That January, I wrote a desperate plea outlining Walker’s case and the reasons he’d been historically underrated, but never expected him to come close to enshrinement.
After that, though, the ballot started to clear. The BBWAA elected three candidates in 2017 and four each in 2018 and 2019, and Walker crept all the way up to 54.6 percent of the vote last year—which still represented a gigantic deficit as he entered his 10th and final year of eligibility. When he was finally elected, it was with just 76.6 percent of the vote. If he’d been named on just 297 ballots instead of 304, he would have lost his chance forever.
It’s a narrow victory for a player who was—if only briefly—the best in the world. But Walker, who got in by about as slim a margin as the system allows, will be honored in just the same fashion as Jeter, whose election has been a foregone conclusion for more than a decade. They took differing paths to Cooperstown, but their plaques, appropriately, will look the same.