Friday December 11th, 2015

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. 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 base runner—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 the Hall of Fame, but his 17 seasons in the majors were marred by numerous injuries as well as the 1994–95 players’ strike.

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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 Expos' memorable 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, as we'll see, 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 getting 20.3% of the vote in his 2011 debut and gaining a few votes in '12 and '13, his support plummeted over the past two cycles, down to 11.8% in '15. Waiting out the traffic to to get to 75% will be a tall task, as the Hall’s 2014 rule change means that he’ll have just four turns on the ballot after this year.

Player Career peak jaws h hr sb avg/obp/slg ops+
Larry Walker 72.6 44.6 58.6 2,160 383 230 .313/.400/.565 141
Avg. HOF RF 73.2 43.0 58.1          

Born in British Columbia in 1966, Walker was more focused on playing hockey than baseball as a youth. In fact, he aspired to be an NHL goalie, and he 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 a major league club; instead, Expos scouting director Jim Fanning spotted him at a tournament and signed him in 1984 for a paltry bonus of $1,500. At the time, he was unbelievably raw. Walker described his background to Jonah Keri for the latter's 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 was further slowed by a knee injury he suffered playing winter ball in Mexico in the 1987–88 off-season that required reconstructive surgery and cost him all of the '88 campaign; 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; that first hit was a single off Mike LaCoss. Walker could have retired with that 1.000 on-base percentage, but instead he pressed on. He wound up hitting just .170/.264/.170 in his 56-plate-appearance cup of coffee that season.

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Ranked No. 42 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 Marquis 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. Walker 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 he probably wasn't helped by playing on Olympic Stadium's artificial turf.

Walker's most valuable season with Montreal 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 before the strike hit. 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 season ended prematurely. Alas, that marked the end of his time in Canada. 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. Still, in an environment that featured 5.4 runs per game, his OPS+ fell by 20 points—that's 20% relative to the league—from 151 to 131.

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Walker missed more than two months of the 1996 season due to a broken collarbone, hurting his production, but he returned to full strength in ’97 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). Only Tony Gwynn's NL-best .372 batting average prevented Walker from the rare slash-stat Triple Crown, but his 409 total bases were the most since Stan Musial's 429 in 1948. Even after adjusting for the scoring environment, Walker's 1997 campaign 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 Famer) Randy Johnson in the All-Star Game, Walker watched the Big Unit’s first pitch sail over his head and to the backstop. Reprising John Kruk’s similar approach in the 1993 All-Star Game, he turned his batting helmet backward 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, which was still All-Star caliber.

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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 in Denver, but spent the first 2 1/2 months of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a groin strain; upon returning to play 38 games with Colorado, he was traded to the Cardinals in a waiver-period deal.

Coming down from altitude, Walker hit a robust .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% of his career plate appearances at Coors Field, where he put up video-game numbers: .381/.462/.710 with 154 homers in 2,501 plate appearances. 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 tied for the fifth-highest among players with at least 4,000 plate appearances, with everyone above him carrying a distinctly purple tinge to their careers:

Player PA AIR
Neifi Perez 5,510 123
Todd Helton 9,453 122
Vinny Castilla 7,384 120
Dante Bichette 6,856 117
Larry Walker 8,030 116
Earl Averill 7,221 116
Rip Radcliff 4,436 116

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 accumulated around 30% more plate appearances over the courses of their careers than did 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, he averaged just 129 games a year from '90 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.

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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. Consider, for instance, his defensive statistics. According to 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. Then there's his work on the base paths: Walker's base running and ability to avoid double plays was worth another 50 runs, roughly an extra five wins.

Add it all up, and Walker's 72.6 career WAR ranks 11th among rightfielders, the highest of any player from that position who is currently outside the Hall of Fame and ahead of 14 out of the 24 who are enshrined. It’s 0.6 below the average enshrined rightfielder because the top-heavy list includes Musial, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott and Frank Robinson, all of whom are over 100 WAR. Meanwhile, Walker’s peak WAR of 44.6 ranks 11th, the highest of any rightfielder 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.

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 plate appearances, 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.

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Initially, I came down on the side of a "definite maybe" on Walker, but with further study I've become increasingly convinced that he is worthy of a spot in Cooperstown. I won't have a BBWAA vote until the 2021 cycle, by which time he'll have either been elected or aged off the ballot. If he were still eligible and I had unlimited space on the ballot, I’d have no hesitation voting for him. In the meantime, even I've had a hard time finding space for him on my virtual ballot. Last year, he was an agonizing cut, in part because I 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.

Actual BBWAA voters are similarly struggling to find a spot on the ballot for him. He debuted at 20.3% in 2011, with subsequent percentages of 22.9, 21.6, 10.2 and then 11.8 in '15. That’s no-man’s land when it comes to voting history. Since 1966, when the Hall returned to annual voting, only three players who received less than 25% of the vote have eventually made it to the Hall of Fame: Richie Ashburn, Nellie Fox and Bill Mazeroski, all of whom were elected via the Veterans Committee. (Joe Torre made a similar jump, but he was ultimately elected for his work as a manager, not as a player.)

If the polling thus far is any indication, Walker will need to go that route as well, as he’s in grave danger of falling below the 5.0% this year and thus off the ballot. Of the 36 voters who have publicly revealed their ballots, just one (2.8%) has found a spot for him. Even if Walker manages to stay on the ballot, he’ll have just four more election cycles remaining instead of nine. It will be the steepest of climbs for him to claim his plaque.

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