JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Larry Walker
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2015 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2014 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
A three-time batting champion, five-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner — not to mention an excellent baserunner — Larry Walker could do it all on the diamond. Had he done it for longer, there's little question that he'd be en route to a plaque in Cooperstown, but as it is, his 17 seasons in the majors were marked by numerous injuries, as well as the 1994-95 players' strike.
Yet another great outfielder developed by the late, lamented Montreal Expos — Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Vladimir Guerrero being the most notable — Walker was the only one of that group who was actually born and raised in Canada, yet he spent less time playing for the Montreal faithful than any of them. He starred on the legendary 1994 team that compiled the best record in baseball before the strike hit, curtailing their championship dreams, then took up residence with the Rockies, putting up eye-popping numbers at high altitude — numbers that hold up well even once they're brought back to earth.
Walker's relatively short career, high peak and extreme offensive environment put the JAWS system to the test. Via his excellence at the plate, in the field and on the bases, he compares favorably to the average Hall of Fame rightfielder even after all the adjustments are made, but for all of that, he's already been lost in the shuffle on the overcrowded ballot. After debuting at 20.3 percent in 2011 and gaining a few votes over the next two cycles, he crashed to 10.2 percent in 2014. At the very least, he'll need to wait out the traffic to build momentum, but with five fewer years to do so given the Hall's recent rule change, his odds are looking long.
|Avg. HOF RF||73.2||42.9||58.1|
Born in British Columbia, Walker was more focused on playing hockey than baseball as a youth. In fact, he aspired to be an NHL goalie, and honed his skills by blocking the shots of friend and future Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely. Baseball was a secondary focus for Walker until he was cut from a pair of Junior A hockey teams. He wasn't drafted by an MLB team; instead, Expos scouting director Jim Fanning spotted him at a tournament and signed him for a paltry bonus of $1,500 in 1984. At the time, he was unbelievably raw. As he described his background to Jonah Keri for his 2014 history of the Expos, Up, Up, & Away:
"I played more fast-pitch [softball] than I did baseball for a little while there [as a teenager]... My approach to hitting was, 'Guy throws the ball, I try to hit it. If I hit it, I run.' But the hard part was hitting something with a wrinkle in it. I had never seen a forkball before. Sliders and curves killed me."
Because of his inexperience, Walker took some time to rise through the minors, his progress further slowed by a knee injury that he suffered playing winter ball in Mexico and that required reconstructive surgery, costing him all of the 1988 season; even in the final year of his career, he said that the knee still bothered him. After hitting .270/.361/.421 with 12 homers and 36 steals at Triple A Indianapolis in 1989, he made his major league debut on Aug. 16 of that year, going 1-for-1 with three walks and two runs scored against the Giants, with Mike LaCoss surrendering his first base hit. He could have retired with that 1.000 on-base percentage, but he pressed on instead, and wound up hitting just .170/.264/.170 in his 56-plate-appearance cup of coffee.
Ranked 42nd on Baseball America's Top Prospects list the following spring, Walker claimed the regular rightfield job, at times playing in an outfield that featured Raines and Grissom. His rate stats weren't much to write home about at first glance (.241/.326/.434), but that was good for a 112 OPS+, to which he added 19 homers and 21 steals en route to a 3.4 WAR season. He soon emerged as a potent offensive threat thanks to his combination of patience and pop, posting at least a 120 OPS+ four times in his five full seasons with the Expos. He averaged 4.2 WAR per year during that stretch thanks to above-average defense, despite never playing more than 143 games; he served DL stints in 1991 and '93, and probably wasn't helped by playing on Olympic Stadium's artificial turf.
Walker's most valuable season with the Expos was in 1992, when he hit .301/.353/.506 and was 10 runs above average in the field, good for 5.5 WAR. He was en route to a similarly fine season in 1994. Despite a shoulder injury that forced him to first base from late June onward, he hit .322/.394/.587 for the team that was a major league best 74-40 (.649) when the strike hit. Alas, that marked the end of his time in Montreal. With general manager Kevin Malone under strict orders to cut payroll in the wake of the strike, the Expos didn't even offer Walker arbitration, and he signed a four-year, $22.5 million deal with the Rockies shortly after the stoppage ended.
In Colorado, Walker stepped into the most favorable hitting environment of the post-World War II era. He hit 36 homers for the wild-card-winning Rockies in 1995, his first season in Denver, to go with a .306/.381/.607 line, but in a 5.4 run per game environment, his OPS+ fell by 20 points — that's 20 percent relative to the league — from 151 to 131.
Walker missed more than two months of the 1996 season due to a broken collarbone, and his production suffered. He returned to full strength in 1997 and hit a staggering .366/.452/.720 for a 178 OPS+, leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages as well as home runs (49); Tony Gwynn's .372 batting average led the league, preventing Walker from the rare slash-stat Triple Crown. Still, his 409 total bases were the most since Stan Musial's 429 in 1948. Over the next four years, four players — teammate Todd Helton, Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa — would reach the 400 total base plateau six times thanks to favorable home ballparks, the higher offensive levels of the era, juiced baseballs and who knows what else. Even after adjusting for the scoring environment, Walker's season was worth an NL-best 9.8 WAR, and he won MVP honors.
That year also produced one of the indelible highlights of Walker's career, and a reminder of his reputation as a clubhouse cut-up. Facing lefty (and 2015 Hall of Fame candidate) Randy Johnson, Walker watched the Big Unit's first pitch sail over his head and to the backstop. So — reprising John Kruk's similar approach in the 1993 All-Star Game — he turned his batting helmet backwards and took the next pitch as a righty before returning to the lefthanded batter's box and working a walk, to the amusement of fans as well as both teams.
Walker won batting titles in each of the next two years, hitting .363/.445/.630 (158 OPS+) in 1998 and .379/.458/.710 (164 OPS+) in '99; all three triple-slash stats led the league in the latter year, putting him in select company as the first player to lead the league in all three categories since 1980, and the first of a new wave of players to do it during the game's high-offense years. Missing about 30 games a year in each of those seasons limited him to a combined 10.8 WAR — still All-Star caliber.
After signing a six-year, $75 million extension with the Rockies, Walker continued to battle injuries, missing major time in 2000 due to a stress fracture in his elbow but rebounding in '01 to hit .350/.449/.662 (160 OPS+) for his third and final batting title. His 38 homers were the second-highest total of his career, as was his 7.8 WAR. He played two more relatively full seasons for the Rockies, but spent the first two and a half months of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a groin strain; he came back and played 38 games with Colorado before being traded to the Cardinals in a waiver-period deal.
Coming down from altitude, Walker hit .280/.393/.560 with 11 homers in just 44 games for St. Louis, then hit a combined .293/.379/.707 with a pair of homers in each of the three rounds of the postseason as St. Louis made it all the way to the World Series before being swept by the Red Sox. He lasted just one more year, battling a herniated disc in his neck but hitting a very respectable .289/.384/.502 in 100 games.
Is that a Hall of Fame career? Walker's key counting stats (2,160 hits, 383 home runs) are low for the era, particularly when one considers the advantages gained from taking 31 percent of his career plate appearances at Coors Field, where he put up video-game numbers: .381/.462/.710 with 154 homers in 2,501 PAs. Elsewhere, he hit a still-respectable .282/.372/.501. In other words, Coors added 28 points of on-base percentage and 64 points of slugging percentage to his lifetime batting line.
Baseball-Reference.com has a statistic called AIR that indexes the combination of park and league offensive levels into one number to provide a measure of how favorable or unfavorable the conditions a player faced were, as just OPS+ or ERA+ adjust a player's stats for his environment. According to the site's definition, AIR "measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to an all-time average of a .335 OBP and .400 Slugging Percentage. Over 100 indicates a favorable setting for hitters, under 100 a favorable setting for pitchers." Walker's AIR is the fifth-highest among players with at least 4,000 plate appearances, and all of the top five have a distinctly purple tinge to their careers:
Once you let the AIR out of Walker's hitting, he's tied with Chipper Jones for 36th all-time in OPS+ at 141 (8,000 plate appearance minimum). That's certainly Cooperstown caliber in and of itself; he's right ahead of Hall of Famers Duke Snider (140) and Reggie Jackson (139), for example. The problem is that many of the players on that list have around 30 percent more plate appearances over the courses of their careers than Walker, who just couldn't stay on the field consistently enough. He topped 143 games just once (153 in 1997), and even excluding the strike years, averaged just 129 games a year from 1990 through 2003 before he really started to break down at age 37. In his seven best seasons according to OPS+, he averaged just 125 games.
Even given all of that, Walker's all-around greatness added a considerable amount of hidden value that helped him make up for lost time. Via Total Zone and (from 2003 onward) Defensive Runs Saved, he was 94 runs above average for his career thanks to his strong arm range and instincts, a total that ranks eighth all-time among rightfielders. His base running and ability to avoid double plays were worth another 50 runs — roughly an extra five wins — over the course of his career. Add it all up, and his 72.6 career WAR ranks 11th among rightfielders, the highest of any outside the Hall of Fame and ahead of 14 out of the 24 enshrined; it's 0.6 below the average enshrined rightfielder because the top-heavy list includes Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Musial, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott, all with over 100 WAR. Walker's peak WAR of 44.6 ranks 11th as well, the highest of anyone outside the Hall except Shoeless Joe Jackson and 1.7 wins above the standard. He's 10th in JAWS, the best rightfielder outside Cooperstown by this measure, and 0.5 points above the standard.
Beyond the areas that JAWS covers, Walker's credentials are good but not exceptional; backed by WAR, his MVP award appears to be on solid ground, the batting titles less so. For 1997, Walker's 178 OPS+ is seven points behind that of Mike Piazza, who hit .362/.431/.638 while playing in parks that depressed scoring by five percent, compared to the ones that Walker played in that increased scoring by 21 percent. The Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor stats — which dish out credit for things like seasons or careers with batting averages above .300, leagues led in key stats and playoff appearances (Walker hit .230/.350/.510 in 121 postseason PA, good but hardly exceptional) — place Walker above the bar of the average Hall of Famer. Those metrics, though, weren't designed with Coors Field or the sustained scoring levels of the 1993-2009 period as a whole in mind. That alone is a big reason why JAWS came into being: I wanted a tool that could adjust accordingly.
Initially, I came down on the side of a "definite maybe" on Walker, though I've grown more convinced the more I've studied his career. Given unlimited space on the ballot (a virtual one, alas — not until the 2021 cycle will I have an official vote), I'd have no hesitation in checking his name. But in a battle for space on the ballot, I'd have to consider him alongside Edgar Martinez, who played in a tougher hitting environment (105 AIR) but nonetheless built the bulk of his case on his offense, which is less ambiguously measured than defense, and I'd probably say the same for Craig Biggio given the full context of his career.
Actual BBWAA voters are similarly struggling to find a spot on the ballot for Walker. He debuted at 20.3 percent in 2011, climbed to 22.9 percent in 2012, then fell back to 21.6 percent in 2013 before crashing to 10.2 percent in 2014. He's in real danger of falling off the ballot before traffic thins out, which would be a travesty, and after this election cycle will have just five years of eligibility remaining instead of 10. It's going to take quite a climb for him to claim his plaque.