Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Walker to Remember

This has been a really long week. My anticipation for Saturday’s showdown has somehow managed to make time screech to a snail’s speed. Every day this week I have woken up thinking that it was actually the next day. I guess the good news is that I should have record time to devote to this post. So, naturally, I’m going to spend it talking about Larry Walker! I bet you didn’t see that coming. I apologize for the somewhat random topic but if you’re a regular reader, you know that’s how I roll. Anyhow, Larry Walker should be in the MLB Hall of Fame and here’s why…

Walker won three batting titles. There have been 17 players in MLB history who have won at least three batting titles. Only two of the 17—Tony Oliva and Bill Madlock—are not in the Hall of Fame. Walker destroys both Oliva and Madlock in a statistical comparison. He has much more in common with the fifteen who are in the HOF than the two who aren't.

Walker hit over .360 in a season three times. In the last 75 years, only two other players—Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs—have accomplished that feat. They were both first-ballot Hall of Famers. He also hit at least .350 four times. In the last 75 years, only four other players—Stan Musial, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, and Tony Gwynn—have accomplished that feat. All four were first-ballot Hall of Famers.

Additionally, Walker has a career batting average of .313. Since 1901, nobody with a batting average of at least .311 has been kept out of the Hall of Fame (min. 2,000 hits).

If you are a baseball fan, chances are you know two things about Larry Walker: 1. He was very good and 2). He played at Coors Field. If Larry Walker doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame, it will be because of #2. There is no question that Coors Field has been a hitter’s park since it opened in 1995. However, that doesn’t mean that a Hall of Famer can’t play there. What if Albert Pujols spent his entire career in Colorado? Nobody would know if he was truly a superstar or simply a product of Coors Field. Walker’s resume cannot be dismissed simply because it was made in Coors Field. By that logic, nobody could ever make the Hall of Fame as a member of the Colorado Rockies and that’s just a silly concept. Plus, Walker won the National League MVP in 1997 with Colorado. If a guy can win an MVP in Colorado, then he can make the Hall of Fame in Colorado.

Thankfully, Walker didn’t play his entire career with the Rockies. The means we can eliminate unsubstantiated assertions on whether Walker was solely a product of thin air and look for ourselves. Walker started off his career with the Montreal Expos in 1989. In just his third full season, he finished 5th in the NL MVP voting with a 142 OPS+. He was even better in his fifth season with Montreal. He hit .322 with a 151 OPS+. He also blasted 44 doubles which led the NL. The Expos played at Olympic Stadium which was in the middle of the pack in terms of Park Factor which essentially means that hitters and pitchers were on equal footing. Before Walker ever stepped foot in Colorado, he was a gold glove, all-star with two seasons of at least a 140 OPS+. He was an elite defensive outfielder and an above average base-stealer making him the quintessential five-tool player.

Walker played 9.5 seasons in Colorado where he was one of the premier players in MLB. In 2004, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals played at Busch Stadium which was also in the middle of the pack in terms of Park Factor. In his first season with the Cards, Walker produced a 143 OPS+. In his second season with the Cards and last in the majors Walker contributed a 130 OPS+.

Walker played in three parks. Two of the three were hitter-neutral parks. The other was, of course, Coors Field. He played in a hitter-neutral park before Coors Field and was a budding superstar. He played in a hitter-neutral park after Coors Field and was well above the league average in production. Clearly, Walker was not a great player because of Coors Field. He was a great player who played at Coors Field.

It would be silly to suggest that Walker’s numbers weren’t aided by playing in the top hitter’s park in the league. However, nobody knows how much of an impact it specifically had on Walker’s production. Considering Walker proved to be a superior hitter both before and after his time in Colorado, it seems pretty reckless to me to simply guess that it had so much of an impact as to keep him from election to the Hall of Fame.

For those unconvinced of Walker’s candidacy as a Hall of Famer, I direct you to his home/road splits from 1997 when he won the NL MVP. Walker was dominating at home with 20 home runs and a 1.169 OPS in 78 games. If he was dominating at home then he was a word that hasn’t been invented yet on the road. In 75 road games, Walker hit 29 home runs with a 1.176 OPS. If we remove known or suspected steroid-users from the equation (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa), Walker’s 1.168 OPS in ’97 is the fourth best single-season mark of the last 52 years. His performance at Coors Field that season--as amazing as it was--actually hurt his OPS that season.

Walker didn't hit better on the road every year. He certainly thrived playing at home as most players do. However, he was always been, at the very least, a very good player on the road. Walker struggled with injuries in both 1996 and 2000 amassing just 83 and 87 games respectively with the Rockies. In his other seven seasons with the Rockies, his road production was at an elite level. Note: "sOPS" refers to his split relative to the league road average. For example, 110 would mean that he was 10% better than the average league road OPS.



Road Warrior





































YearRoad PAsRoad OPSsOPS+
1995285.845127
19973141.176213
1998253.892141
1999240.894131
2001303.965158
2002266.917149
2003270.766109



*Statistics from Baseball-reference.com

Clearly, Walker was no one-venue pony. If someone played 20 healthy seasons and had Walker’s road production only, that player would very likely be a Hall of Famer. Walker was a great road player and a phenomenal home player.

Walker’s career totals aren’t the greatest in large part because of injuries. He didn’t come close to 3,000 hits. He doesn’t have the massive totals that some Hall of Famers do. However, he had a number of elite seasons to go along with fairly impressive career totals. He reached 1,300+ runs and RBIs. He hit 471 doubles and stole 230 bases. Alone, those numbers probably aren’t enough. Combined with his .313 batting average, .400 OBP, .565 SLG%, and 140 OPS+, though, they make him a Hall of Famer. The Hall of Fame Monitor test says he's well above the level of a “likely” Hall of Famer. The Hall of Fame Standards test has him above the “average” Hall of Famer. The three closest players to Walker in Baseball Reference’s Similarity Score—Vlad Guerrero, Chipper Jones, and Duke Snyder—are either in the Hall of Fame or future Hall of Famers.

It’s easy to dismiss Walker as a product of the thin air of Colorado. The same dismissive attitude is going to make it difficult for Todd Helton to get into the Hall of Fame. While Helton doesn’t have the luxury of pointing to success playing for other teams in other ballparks, Walker does. Hopefully, voters have enough respect for him to look beyond the Coors Field stereotype. If they give him that courtesy, then he’ll have no problem getting in. Something tells me that's not going to happen.

2 comments:

billmorran4 said...

And he's Canadian!

Tom G said...

Obviously Walker's hits and homeruns should not be dismissed because he played in Colorado. But they must be put into perspective. Every run he helped the Rockies score did less to help his team win than players who were in lower scoring enviornments

Because of that, though Tim Raines and Dwight Evans didn't do as much to help put runs on the scoreboard, the runs they did put up changed the standings more. And that is what matters. And they did so in 500 and 600 more games. When there are better corner outfielders not in the Hall-of-Fame, Walker does not deserve to go in (though he is more deserving than Rice)

Going back a few years, Dick Allen was a much better hitter, but far less defensive value. Overall Minnie Minoso did just as much to help his team, but for a few years was not allowed to play in the majors because of the color of his skin

 

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