The Ballot 7: Larry Walker
Play 17 years with three teams
Five-time All-Star and MVP winner hit .313 with 141 OPS+ over injury-plagued career. 72.6 WAR, 48.2 WAA
Pro Argument: He did everything well.
Con argument: Career numbers were inflated by Coors Field.
Deserves to be in Hall?: Yes.
Will get elected this year?: No.
Will ever get elected?: 5-10%
* * *
Several people have asked what I thought about Tom Verducci’s piece explaining why he will not vote for people he believes were PED users and why he thinks everyone is missing the obvious conclusion that Fred McGriff is a Hall of Famer. Well, of course, I thought it was fantastic. I didn’t agree with all that much of it. And I thought he played a few statistical games in order to make his McGriff point – buyer beware whenever someone focuses entire arguments on one or two stats that measure similar things like home runs and OPS+ and then uses an artificial cutline like 10,000 plate appearances.
You might want to keep that in mind as you read on.
But none of that matters: I loved it just the same. There were good points. There were challenging things to consider. And, more, like all of Tom’s wonderful writing, it was PASSIONATE.
It’s the passion that makes any of this fun. I have a friend who loves baseball but doesn’t care at all about the Hall of Fame, not one bit, never did. And so, we never talk Hall of Fame. Sometimes, I’ll forget and try to engage him on a topic like Edgar Martinez or Curt Schilling; he just shuts down like the robot on “Lost in Space.”
If you have a friend like that (or you are like that) you know: Without the passion, there is emptiness. The Hall of Fame ceases to become a conversation piece. I recently wrote a piece about why I think Lefty Driesell should be in the Hall of Fame. Do you know what the No. 1 reaction to that story has been?
“Oh. I thought he WAS in the Hall of Fame.”
There’s no place to go from there.
So, absolutely, I love Tom’s passion for McGriff, his passion for keeping cheaters out of the Hall.” I see it differently, of course, as I’ve written dozens of times. But that doesn't matter. I appreciate Tom's arguments. And, of course, I love the fury with which he argues.
All of which is to say: My Hall of Fame passion, at the moment, is Larry Walker.
* * *
I came to Walker’s Hall of Fame case a bit later, I admit. I’ve thought from that start he deserves to be a Hall of Famer, but I was busy obsessing over Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell and Mike Mussina and how to handle the PED era players to be too worried about him. Last year, the 10-man ballot crunched me … and I did not vote for Walker. I believed him to be Hall of Fame worthy, absolutely, but he was 11th on my 10-man ballot. I’ve come around to a slightly different view: It's time to fight for Larry Walker. I am thrilled Tim Raines will be elected to the Hall this year; that has been a fight of mine for a long time (though not as big a fight as for others like Jonah Keri).
I think Larry Walker might have been a better player than Raines.
* * *
Baseball has a surprisingly small number of players who were great at everything. I remember reading Bill James’ Historical Abstract the first time around, and he called Barry Larkin one of the 10 most complete players in baseball history. That shocked me. I had covered Larkin, known him to be a fantastic baseball player, but it seemed impossible to me that he could be on a list that exclusive.
And then I thought about it and realized: There probably have not been 10 baseball players with lengthy careers who were great at EVERYTHING.
For fun, I did this a little while ago: I went to Baseball Reference and made a list of the Top 100 players in baserunning runs (including double-plays). I realize that 100 is an arbitrary number but, hey, in the end, isn’t everything at least a little bit arbitrary.
Then I compiled the list of the Top 100 players in defensive runs saved.
Then I compiled the list of the Top 100 players in batting runs.
OK? Now, you might ask: "Wait a minute, those are all just components of WAR, why don't you just look at WAR?" Good question. For this particular exercise, I'm not focused on how GOOD a player was. There's no question that an everyday player can contribute much more with hitting than fielding and, for that matter, much more with fielding than baserunning. Ted Williams was uninterested in playing defense and slow on the basepaths, but it doesn't matter because his hitting was so extraordinary that he is one of the best players who ever lived.
For this, though, I was looking to see how many players were Top 100 (roughly) in more than one category.
Well, it turns out: Thirty-four of the 263 different players showed up in more than one category.
Here, for your enjoyment, are the players who showed up in two categories:
Top 100 in batting and fielding:
Al Kaline: He finished just outside the Top 100 in baserunning (172nd). He’s certainly one of the great all-around players ever.
Albert Pujols: Such an underrated fielder. Pujols is not fast but he has been a smart baserunner throughout his career.
Carl Yastrzemski: Yaz was not fast either and he was a liability on the bases for much of his career, though he added value on the bases in his prime.
Henry Aaron: He was an outstanding baserunner, but he just missed being on all three lists (129th) because he hit into a lot of double plays. There's that arbitrariness again. If I had not included double plays, Aaron would have been on all three lists.
John Olerud: Here’s a nice surprise. Many people know that Olerud’s offense is wildly underappreciated (he got just four Hall of Fame votes even though he's Top 100 in batting runs). I had no idea he would be anywhere close to this list for his defense, though he did win three Gold Gloves.
Mike Schmidt: In the Mike Schmidt-George Brett argument, Brett fans will sometimes make the case for George being underappreciated defensive. That might be so but he’s not in Schmidt’s stratosphere defensively. (See Brett comment below).
Roberto Clemente: Look how many giants are in this category. Kaline. Schmidt. Yaz. Aaron. Speaker. Clemente ranks 131st in baserunning, so if this was Top 150 (remembering that 100 is arbitrary), he’d be one of the chosen few to rank in all three.
Tris Speaker: The Grey Eagle stole a lot of bases; I'm surprised he's not on the base running list too. Then, he was CAUGHT stealing a lot from what we can tell.
Wade Boggs: Great hitter, of course. Thoroughly underrated defender. Couldn’t run a lick.
Batting and Baserunning:
Alex Rodriguez: He was a breathtaking shortstop in his younger days but because he spent half his career as a so-so third baseman, he did not make Top 100 as a fielder.
Derek Jeter: We don’t have to say anything more about Jeter’s fielding.
Eddie Collins: Collins certainly had a reputation as an excellent fielder -- Bill James rated him an A- at second base.
George Brett: He was a really good baserunner. In the never-ending argument between Brett fans and Mike Schmidt fans, the inclination is to give Schmidt the base running edge(or at least call it a draw) because Schmidt stole a few bases when he was young. It’s not a fair fight. Brett was a much better baserunner than Schmidt. (See Schmidt comment about defense above).
Joe Morgan: He was an above average fielder -- and a very good fielder the four years he won Gold Gloves -- but he’s not a Top 100 defender.
Ken Griffey: His defense has been the discussion point in many arguments, but what’s telling here is how good a base runner he was. He didn’t steal a lot of bases, but he stole them at a high rate. And he hit into very few double plays – probably more the uppercut swing than anything else.
Mickey Mantle: Everyone talks about Mantle’s blazing speed before he hurt his knee, but even after the injuries he still ended up being an amazing baserunner. His defense is much debated– I don’t think anyone sees him as an all-time fielder.
Paul Molitor: He is BY FAR the greatest baserunning designated hitter in baseball history. By far.* The reason for the gap is obvious: Athletes like Paul Molitor are not supposed to be DHs. They are supposed to be able to play great defense. For some reason – wear and tear on the body, maybe – Molitor was put at DH.
*Here are the baserunning runs for players who spent at least 30% of their careers as DHs.
Paul Molitor, 83.1 runs
Oscar Gamble, 10.1 runs
Hideki Matsui, 8.8 runs
Mitchell Page, 2.3 runs
Ron Blomberg, 2.1 runs
Rickey Henderson: The greatest baserunner ever, one of the 25 or 30 greatest offensive players ever and an OK fielder, better than OK his first few years in the league.
Rod Carew: Even now it isn’t clear if Carew was a second baseman or a first baseman; he played almost exactly the same number of games at each. He was an average fielder at both, probably.
Ty Cobb: Defensive WAR suggests Cobb was not a good fielder. I’ve read in various places that he was an excellent defender but then people tended to credit great offensive players with great defense. This is a bit less true now with Statcast and various advanced defensive stats.
Baserunning and Fielding:
Brett Gardner: An average hitter, Gardner can fly and play some defense.
Chase Utley: Irony here – Utley is really known for his hitting, for that sthort, beautiful batting stroke. He never won a Gold Glove (and was often called an average or below average fielder) and never stole more than 23 bases (though that year he stole 23 without getting caught). And yet, here he is, Top 100 in baserunning and fielding but not hitting.
Darren Erstad: He was a great athlete – a superb outfielder and baserunner. He was a below average hitter over the length of his career, but he had one extraordinary season where he hit .355 with 240 hits.
Devon White: So happy to see him on this list … one of my favorites. Won seven Gold Gloves – and deserved at least seven – and stole 348 bases. As a hitter, he was limited. He struck out a lot, walked not at all, but he did hit more than 200 homers.
Ichiro Suzuki: Certainly one of the most complete players in baseball history. He’s not in the Top 200 in batting runs, but if you included his years in Japan, he’d be on the list.
Kenny Lofton: The only question about Lofton coming up was: Can he hit? Everyone knew he could be a fantastic defender and all-time great base runner – and he was both those things. Lofton turned out to be an above average hitter, which is why some people believe he has a compelling Hall of Fame case.
Luis Aparicio: He’s in the Hall of Fame because of his fielding and base running – Aparicio was a well-below-average hitter.
Ozzie Smith: Of course.
Pee Wee Reese: He was an average hitter, but a good hitter for a shortstop in his day.
Willie Davis: Often gets overlooked, but he was an all-time base runner – better, over the length of his career than his more celebrated teammate Maury Wills – and a terrific defender. He was a pretty good hitter, too. If I asked you how many hits he had, would you come anywhere near 2,561? But he could not quite get on base enough.
Willie Wilson: Fastest man in the history of Major League Baseball, in my view, and a really good fielder. Hit for very high averages in his prime but, like Davis didn't walk and he slugged .376.
* * *
OK, that was a LOT of effort to get to where I was going. But I wanted to give you a long look at just how hard – and rare – it is to be an all-time great in even TWO of the three baseball categories. There are any number of AMAZING players not on any of these lists. Ruth. Williams. Musial. Gehrig. Hornsby. On and on. Even players who WERE great at all three categories, like Barry Larkin and Joe DiMaggio, still did not get on more than one Top 100 list for various reasons.
Let's repeat the premise again: We’re not looking purely at greatness here. We’re looking at “completeness.” Gene Kelly could sing, dance and act. Humphrey Bogart could just act. I still think Bogart was greater than Kelly. But we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about versatility and how rare it really is.
So, you look up at that list, you see players who were amazing at more than one thing, it’s kind of staggering how few there are.
And we come to the punch line. Only three players rank in the Top 100 in all three categories.
One is Willie Mays, which of course you knew.
Two is Barry Bonds, which of course you knew, even if you don’t like it.
And three is … Larry Walker.
* * *
OK, now – and only now – you can start screaming about the absurdity of Coors Field … I know you’ve been dying to do that ever since you saw where this thing was going.
Larry Walker hit .381/.462/.710 at Coors Field.
Larry Walker hit .282./.372/.500 away from Coors Field.*
*By the way ... Walker's road numbers are pretty darned good.
There can be absolutely no question at all that Coors Field helped Larry Walker put up numbers previously unimaginable. Do you know how many players since World War II have hit .360 or better for three consecutive seasons. Well, of course you know, I just used a little stat magic (.360 instead of .350; since World War II instead of since 1901, etc). It has to be Larry Walker. But it’s still true – Ted Williams didn’t do it, Stan Musial didn’t do it, even Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs and Rod Carew didn’t do it. Heck, only 23 players have hit .360 even once since World War II.
Right: One guy, Larry Walker.
But even with misdirection, it's still true that Walker's five-season run from 1997 to 2001 -- he hit .357/.445/.658 -- is pretty close to unprecedented in modern times.
So how much did Coors Field have to do with it?
A lot. Of course it did. Coors Field, in the pre-humidor days, was an absurdity. Todd Helton hit .372 with 42 homers there. Andres Galarraga hit .370 there -- this after hitting .246 the previous four seasons. Coors Field was ridiculous.
Still, that said: Larry Walker did put up those numbers. And the question to ask here is: At what juncture does Larry Walker become UNDERRATED because of Coors Field instead of OVERRATED?
I think we’re at that point.
Two reasons … well, three reasons but I’ve already discussed Walker’s unique versatility which places him, unquestionably, as one of the most complete players ever. His Hall of Fame does not rest entirely on his offensive contribution the way it does for many others.
But let’s get to the two Coors Field reasons I think he’s underrated.
1. Even after you adjust Walker's numbers ... they're still awesome.
Walker’s 141 OPS+ takes into account the time he played at Coors Field. It’s still third highest among all Hall of Fame eligible and non-PED related hitters (with 7,500 PAs) behind only Jeff Bagwell, who should get elected this year, and Edgar Martinez, who should get elected at some point or other.
Walker’s WAR – also ballpark adjusted – is certainly Hall of Fame worthy. His 48.2 Wins Above Average are also ballpark adjusted. There are only seven every day players with 45 or more Wins Above Average who are not in the Hall of Fame.
Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez you know all about.
Jeff Bagwell will go in this year.
Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre are still playing and will be Hall of Famers.
Chipper Jones will go in first ballot.
And then there's Walker.
Now, you could make a pretty strong argument that his numbers have not been adjusted enough. Mitchel Lichtman makes the compelling case that Coors Field really needs two ballpark adjustments (especially in the pre-humidor days), one for road players and the other for home players. The evidence suggests that playing in Coors Field all the time allows players to make batting adjustments that road players simply cannot make.
But if you want to dive that far into it, Lichtman and Tango both make the point that while Coors Field helps players immensely at home, it hurts them a lot on the road because what works at Coors doesn't work as well anyplace else.
As Lichtman says: It’s a quagmire. And I think that's the key. I think people see the quagmire, it's too befuddling to figure, and they kind of give up and decide that Walker's numbers are basically rubbish. And so Walker gets less than 25% of the vote.
2. Walker took advantage of Coors Field to put up legendary numbers -- isn't that a GOOD thing?
There are two basic ways to look at Walker. You can look at his numbers, say they are absurdly inflated, and just write him off. Or you can look at his numbers and say that Larry Walker did exactly what a great player should do: He played the cards dealt.
You know, sometimes in poker, you really will get a royal flush. A bad card player will win nothing because everyone else will fold. A good card player will win some money. A great card player will find a way to win a lot of money. Larry Walker made the most of his royal flush.
Yes, there are other problems with Walker’s Hall case. he played so hard that he was injury prone – he only had one season of more than 150 games. He only got about 8,000 plate appearances and so his career counting numbers – 2,160 hits, 383 homers, etc. – don’t blow anybody’s mind.
But .313/.400/.565 ... three time batting champ and twice led league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage ... seven Gold Gloves .. 230 stolen bases at 75% success rate ...
No, maybe he’s not Bogart or Paul Newman, Charlie Chaplin, or Grace Kelly, John Wayne or Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine or Audrey Hepburn.
But he is Gene Kelly. I think there should be a place in the Hall of Fame for Gene Kelly.