Slugger's advanced stats, all-around game show he's worthy of Cooperstown plaque
By Andrew Simon
Even though seven players have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame over the past two years, many strong candidates remain on the ballot. With Baseball Writers' Association of America voters able to pick a maximum of 10 players apiece, and 75 percent of the vote required for enshrinement, several worthy candidates must travel a difficult road.
Results of this year's BBWAA vote will be revealed on MLB Network on Jan. 6, with a news conference involving any electees to be held the following day.
One player facing an uphill battle amidst an overcrowded ballot is Larry Walker. Over 17 seasons, Walker won a Most Valuable Player Award (National League, 1997), three batting titles, three Silver Sluggers and seven Gold Gloves, while making five All-Star teams. Hurt by a relatively short, injury-marred career and the perception of his time playing in Colorado, Walker has received a high of 22.9 percent of the vote over five years on the ballot, dropping to 10.2 and 11.8 percent the past two times around.
But beyond the awards and accolades, a strong numbers-based case can be made that Walker deserves to have his ticket to Cooperstown punched. Here is a look at the argument.
• Ultimately, Hall of Fame worthiness should rest largely on value, and Walker probably fares better here than many would expect. His 72.6 career Wins Above Replacement (WAR), per Baseball-Reference.com, puts him behind only 40 Hall of Fame position players, including 18 outfielders. Walker comes in just behind legends such as Joe DiMaggio and Reggie Jackson and beats out a host of outfielders who have plaques in Cooperstown, including Tony Gwynn, Duke Snider, Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield, Willie Stargell, Kirby Puckett, Ralph Kiner and Jim Rice.
Walker's peak was impressive as well. He cleared the 4.0-WAR mark 10 times, the same as Jackson, Stan Musial and fellow 2016 candidate Ken Griffey Jr. Over a six-season stretch, from 1997-2002, he averaged 6.0 WAR, fifth in the Majors during that time. And in his crowning season, 1997, he became one of 14 outfielders in history to produce at least 9.8 WAR.
• JAWS, a system developed by Jay Jaffe, measures a player's Hall credentials by comparing his career and peak production to others at his position. Walker's 58.6 JAWS score is 10th among all right fielders, with each of the nine above him already enshrined. The average for the 24 Hall of Famers at that position is 58.1.
• Let's deal with the elephant in the room when it comes to Walker -- the 10 seasons he spent playing half of his games a mile high in Denver. Did all of that time at Coors Field boost Walker's numbers? Absolutely. He hit an astronomical .381/.462/.710 (1.172 OPS) in 597 career games at Coors.
But keep two things in mind. First, most players perform better at home. For example, Major League batters had a .739 home OPS in 2015, compared with .704 on the road. Second, Walker still was an excellent hitter away from his home park. During his nine full seasons with the Rockies, he produced an .890 road OPS, and his career .865 mark is 39th all-time among players with 1,000 road games. Griffey, a lock for induction this year, notched an .860. And when Walker was at his absolute best, in 1997, he hit .346/.443/.733 with 29 homers in 75 road games, slightly better than he did at home. So no, he wasn't just a product of altitude.
• FanGraphs' weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) allows us to measure Walker's production with the bat, while adjusting not only for his ballpark, but also his offensively robust era. Over his career, Walker put up a 140 wRC+ that ranks 34th in history among players to record at least 8,000 plate appearances, putting him ahead of a group that includes Snider, Jackson, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero and Griffey.
Except for his 20-game debut with Montreal in 1989, Walker always was an above-average hitter, putting up a 109 wRC+ or better each year. Even in his final season, at age 38 with St. Louis in 2005, he posted a 135 over 100 games.
• Those who know Walker mostly from the end of his career might not remember what a dynamic power-speed threat he was. In fact, Walker slammed 383 home runs and stole 230 bases; only 10 players in history have more of both. In 1997, Walker hit 49 homers and swiped 33 bags, one of just two 45-30 seasons in history. He authored seven 15-15 campaigns and reached double digits in both categories 11 times.
• After whiffing a lot early in his career, Walker mastered the strike zone, averaging 60 walks and 70 strikeouts over his final 13 seasons. That included five years in which he piled up more free passes than K's.
• Walker was blessed with a terrific arm, racking up 150 career assists from right field, which ranks 17th all time. He led the Majors or tied for the lead in that category twice and finished in the top five on five other occasions. Walker's cannon helped him end his career with 96 Total Zone runs, eighth-most for a right fielder in the stat's history, going back to 1954.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.