Baseball 75: Larry Walker

This is probably a good time to very briefly explain how I ranked these players. Together with Tom Tango (though he might not want credit), I developed a WAR ranking system that is adjusted by era and the quality of competition. I don’t want to get into the weeds here because the system is not the point, the rankings themselves are not the point. The point, as you undoubtedly know, was just to get a list of 100 players that I felt good about and then do my best to tell their stories.

But I bring up the system here because when I first started, I spent a lot of time futzing around with the system. You know you’ll never get it perfect. One player seemed too high on the list. Another seemed too low. Etc. I moved players up a few places, down a few places, and then at some point I realized that I really needed to TRUST the system because:

  1. I very much like the tools we used to build it.

  2. It gave me a great list that I intuitively agree with 95% of the time.

  3. It’s never going to be EXACTLY right anyway because there is no such thing as EXACTLY right. One day I might have a player at 61. The next day, it seems like he should be at 65. The target never stops moving.

All of which is to say: I stopped futzing. The system has Larry Walker as the 75th best Major League Baseball player ever. And so, I’m listing Larry Walker as the 75th best Major League Baseball player ever.

Best I can tell, people take issue with Walker’s career for three reasons. One, nobody seems quite sure what to make of his Coors Field inflated numbers. Two, he only played 150 games in a season once. And three, in a related criticism, he developed a reputation — rightly or wrongly — as a player who would too readily sit out games, either because of a slight injury or, more glaringly, because he didn’t want to face a tough lefty pitcher.

I haven’t done the deep-dive research to see how much truth there is to the last complaint. He got 30 percent of his at-bats against lefties which is, best I can tell, higher than the historical average for a left-handed batter. Rather than do the full-length study, I just thought of five terrific left-handed hitters with long careers; these are the first five I thought about the percentage of left-handed pitchers they faced:

Reggie Jackson: 34.3%
Carl Yastrzemski: 24.4%
Jim Thome: 28.1%
Harold Baines: 23.6%
Fred McGriff: 31.3%

So, Walker seems in that same range. Maybe he would occasionally sit out against a tough lefty, but I sort of doubt it. The pitcher he faced most — righty or lefty — was left-hander Tom Glavine. And, anyway, he RAKED against lefties. He hit .306/.385/.518 against lefties in his career. And while it’s hardly a conclusive point, he did hit .393 and slug .571 against Randy Johnson, probably the toughest lefty of them all.

Here are the highest OPS totals for lefty batters against lefty pitchers (min. 1,000 plate appearances). 

  1. Babe Ruth, 1.128

  2. Lou Gehrig, .999

  3. Barry Bonds, .986

  4. Ted Williams, .931

  5. Stan Musial, .917

  6. Larry Walker, .903

  7. Joey Votto, .884

  8. Mo Vaughn, .884

  9. Chuck Klein, .881

  10. King Kong Keller, .878

This only goes back so far — so no Ty Cobb, for instance — and it is missing some of the early data for Babe Ruth and such. But I think this paints an interesting picture. There are six lefties won the list with a .900 or higher OPS against lefties and they are the Babe, the Iron Horse, Bonds, the Splinter, the Man. and Larry Walker.

With Walker, it seems like this is the constant story — the closer you look, the better he looks. 

But … Coors Field.

That’s always the retort from Walker critics. But … Coors Field.

And in this, I’ve come to a basic theory: There’s no point in fighting the Coors Field fight. You can’t ever because the rules aren’t fair. There have been sound and determined efforts to fairly put Walker’s performance in context — which is to say that it takes into account the absurdity of Coors Field. And people who don’t want to buy it just don’t buy it.

bWAR and fWAR both take into account the hitting atmosphere of Coors Field. Walker’s bWAR (72.7) and fWAR (68.7) are Hall of Fame quality and among the best in baseball history (56th among everyday players in bWAR; 68th in fWAR). 

Adjusted OPS+ takes into account Coors Field, and Walker’s 141 OPS+ is there with Chipper Jones and David Ortiz.

And so on. It’s one thing to try and figure out how Coors Field affected Larry Walker’s career and his raw numbers. It’s quite another to negate everything Walker did because he pounded the hell out of the baseball at Coors Field. Some people want to do that. You can’t stop them. You can’t even hope to contain them.

So, instead of fighting that fight, I think the best way to explain the brilliance of Larry Walker is to, well, explain the brilliance of Larry Walker. 

He did everything well. As I have written before, one of the most striking statements I’ve ever read from Bill James was that time that he remarked: “Barry Larkin is one of the ten most complete players in baseball history.”

I covered Barry Larkin on a daily basis in the mid-1990s while working for The Cincinnati Postand while I appreciated his skill and talents, I never quite thought of him as one of the ten most complete players ever. I never thought of him that way because I did not fully appreciate that there simply haven’t been many players who did everything well. Even the greatest ones, the Hall of Famers, generally only did one or two things well. 

Let’s look at the last 10 everyday players elected to the Hall of Fame:

Harold Baines: Well, he was a controversial Hall of Fame selection, so we don’t need to go deep into this. You already know he was a good hitter, but he couldn’t field and he couldn’t run.

Edgar Martinez: Finally elected. What a hitter. Couldn’t field, couldn’t run.

Alan Trammell: He was an all-around talent like Larkin — which is why it is a shame that he wasn’t elected much earlier. But compared to Walker? He couldn’t hit like Walker. He couldn’t slug like Walker. He ran better but Walker was a great baserunner. He played a more demanding defensive position, but they were both great fielders.

Jim Thome: What a hitter. Couldn’t field, couldn’t run.

Chipper Jones: An extraordinary hitter. Was an average baserunner over his career, and a so-so fielder who was adaptable.

Vladimir Guerrero: In the Hall because of that bat. He was flashy in other parts of his game — he stole as many as 40 bases in a season and he had some kind of arm. But he was so inconsistent (he was also caught as many times as 20 in a season trying to steal) that he came out about average as both a fielder and a baserunner.

Ivan Rodriguez: Amazing defender. Not a bad baserunner. Hit .300 for his career with some power but wasn’t a great hitter in total.

Tim Raines: Could really hit, could really run, was an OK outfielder, some years a bit above average, some years a bit below.

Jeff Bagwell: He really was a terrific all-around player, a lot like Walker. Hit into many more double plays than Walker.

Mike Piazza: What a hitter. His defense has been much argued about, but he was likely not very good behind the plate. Couldn’t run.

So that gives you a pretty good idea how rare the player who could hit, slug, field, run and play great percentage baseball is. Barry Larkin really might be one of the ten most complete players in baseball history — but it might be instructive to see how Larkin compares point by point. Let’s use bWAR runs above average.

Batting runs:
Walker: 420
Larkin: 200
— So that’s not close.

Base-running runs
Walker: 40
Larkin: 80
— Larkin has a sizeable advantage — he was a truly fantastic baserunner — but both are well above average.

WAR Double Play Runs
Walker: 10
Larkin: 3
— Walker was very good at avoiding the double play.

Fielding Runs
Walker: 94
Larkin: 18
— Larry Walker was an EXCEPTIONAL outfielder. You will shout, “But Larkin was a shortstop!” That comes in the next component.”

Fielding Positional Adjustment
Walker: minus-70
Larkin: 124
— Larkin gets a 194 run advantage by playing shortstop compared to Walker’s right field. 

And even with that positional advantage, Walker finishes almost 70 runs ahead. If Larkin is one of the 10 most complete players in baseball history, Walker is as well … and a little bit higher on the list.

As I’ve written before, only three players — Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, and Larry Walker — rank in the War Runs Top 100 in all three of the major categories — hitting, fielding and base running. Mike Trout might be on that list someday too, but he has a way to go on defense and even as a base runner (as a hitter, he’s ALREADY 55th all-time which is insane).

Coors Field might have been a huge advantage for Walker as a hitter, but it has been a huge disadvantage in his post-baseball career. People don’t see him for what he was — which is the 75th best baseball player in Major League history.