The Cooperstown case for… Larry Walker   Leave a comment

Full disclosure: I’m an Expos fan.  I also have a soft spot for baseball players with strong arms – catchers, infielders, and outfielders alike.  And Larry Walker had a cannon for an arm.  It was strong, accurate, and he had a quick release.  He was a tough guy to run on, and every once in a while, he’d even try to throw out a hitter at first base if the conditions were right for it – slow runner, sharply-hit ball, playing shallow… he’d try.

So one point for him there.  Walker recorded 150 assists from right field, and 154 in total.  The guy could flat-out throw.  He was also an excellent fielder, period.  He won seven Gold Gloves, and was certainly good enough to play centerfield on a regular basis if the manager wanted him to.  From a purely defensive perspective, Larry Walker was one of the best right fielders of the last half-century.

I haven’t mentioned the hitting part yet.  The numbers should speak for themselves, and if you’d like to take a gander at them, here you go:

A .313 lifetime batting average, a .400 on-base percentage, and a .565 slugging percentage.  His lifetime OPS of .965 ranks sixteenth all-time.  383 home runs, 1,311 runs batted in, 916 extra-base hits, and 230 stolen bases.

His accolades?  The Gold Gloves.  Three batting titles, five All-Star appearances, and an MVP award.

Walker’s numbers don’t put him in the Aaron-Ruth-Mays pantheon, but they don’t have to.  Aaron is not the Hall of Fame standard.  Walker’s contributions to the game have to be weighed against those of his peers, his contemporaries, and – in the Cooperstown context – every member of the Hall.

Generally speaking, that resume puts a player in the Hall of Fame conversation.  However, there are two things that don’t help his case: his Coors Field numbers are freakishly good, and his career wasn’t exceptionally long.

Let’s tackle the Colorado factor first.  Coors Field was an outstanding hitters’ park for about 15 years.  (It still is very good, thanks to the air and its size, but the batter’s advantage has been neutralized a bit.)  Home runs flew out of that park at a ridiculous rate.  It helped make mediocre hitters look good, good hitters look great, and great hitters awesome.  Just about every Rockie during that stretch of time hit better – usually, a lot better – at home.

Thus, a lot of people looked at the video-game-sized numbers Walker and his ilk put up back then and dismissed them.  Only one player – Walker, in 1997 – won an MVP award.  His teammates, good to great players like Todd Helton, Dante Bichette, Ellis Burks, Vinny Castilla, and so on… none of them were similarly honored.  Collectively, that lineup was given little credit for their hitting prowess, because of the ballpark.  And because of this, Walker (and the rest of them) didn’t earn a lot of All-Star nods, or top-five placings in MVP balloting… things voters tend to look for during Cooperstown debates.

Also, because Walker did so much damage at home during that time, it’s easy to dismiss him as a Coors-manufactured talent.  One common argument is that he hit better during this time than he did in Montreal or St. Louis… this is true.  Measurably true.  Of course, he was a Rockie during the prime of his career; he got his start, young, in Montreal, and ended in St. Louis.

So he was a terror at home.  A five-tool fiend.  But we can also check how he hit, in his prime, on the road as well.  Let’s take a look, shall we?  Taken from baseball-reference.com :

600 games played, 550 starts.   If you broke that into four seasons, he averages 27.5 home runs, 85.5 RBI, 14 steals, 88 runs, while playing Gold Glove defense.  His hitting line is .280/.384/.515, with an OPS of .899.  Those are pretty good numbers if you have the benefit of 75 home games under your belt, let alone a full slate of road games.  His road OPS during that stretch would put him in the top 70, all-time, of players with more than 3,000 plate appearances.  It’s better than the career OPS put up by no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famers such as Willie McCovey, Eddie Mathews, Willie Stargell, and Harmon Killebrew.  Was he helped by Coors?  Sure.  But could he hit?  Absolutely.

I also took his career statistics and compared them to the last ten outfielders elected into Cooperstown: Andre Dawson, Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice, Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield, Robin Yount, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, and Willie Stargell.  A good cross-section of sluggers, pure hitters, defenders, great peaks, and longevity, and in my mind, a very fair representation of the peer group Walker should be compared to.

So how does he do?  His career totals don’t rank very well – the only player to accumulate fewer games was Kirby Puckett, who played only twelve full seasons before retiring at the age of 35 due to an eye injury.  (He was also still playing near his peak.  Walker’s final year wasn’t too shabby, either – a .289/.384/.502 line in 100 games.)  Walker was tenth in total games and plate appearances, eleventh in hits, sixth in home runs, eighth in RBI, and tenth in total bases, amongst other things.

However, his non-counting stats stack up extremely well compared to this group.  Third in batting average, second in OBP, first in slugging and OPS, and second in OPS+.  When I averaged the stats put up by the other ten, his average is 22 points better, his on-base is 92 points better, and his slugging is 133 points better.  Looks pretty darn good, doesn’t it?

It does point out the fact, though, that Walker’s career is comparitively short.  (It doesn’t help his case that four of the players I just compared him to – Yaz, Rickey, Winfield, and Yount – rank in the top 15, all-time, in games played.  But that’s just the way it is.)  He played less than 2,000 games, primarily due to injury.  Some of the fellows that played more during his era include Ellis Burks, Wally Joyner, and Jay Bell – good players all, but no one’s breaking their back making a Cooperstown case for them.  And aside from Puckett, there hasn’t been an inductee voted in by the BBWAA that played in the last 30 years or so that played fewer games than Walker.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Hall of Fame players that did log less starts than Walker.  While he didn’t have the durability of Cal Ripken, he played, and played exceptionally well, for many years.  As of this writing, he ranks 87th all-time in games played by an outfielder, and 14th all-time for defensive games as a right fielder (though that last stat is skewed by the fact that baseball-reference.com only goes back as far as 1954 to record actual outfield positioning).  Isn’t that long enough?  One argument used against certain players is that they played too long – past their prime, just hanging on, accumulating stats.  It’s difficult to please both camps, where you have to play a very long time, yet get out at the right time.  Walker played well enough in 2005 that I’m sure he could have found a job the next season if he wanted to – right field, first base, maybe even DHed if he wanted to switch leagues.  But he didn’t.  Depending on your camp, so to speak, that matters… or doesn’t.

Larry Walker had several fantastic years, and an excellent career, certainly one worthy of putting him into a serious conversation about being inducted into the Hall.  I can see where some writers will hold his years in Colorado against him, as well as his relatively short care
er.  I tried to do this as dispassionately as possible, but in the end, in my eyes, he is a Hall of Famer.

Walker_debut

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Posted December 29, 2011 by JasonMacAskill in Uncategorized

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