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March 8, 2002
Larry Walker and the Hall of Fame
From Canada to Cooperstown?It was an innocent enough question. When I did my column comparing Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel as regards their Hall of Fame resumes (or lack thereof), out of the blue the query came: is Larry Walker a Hall of Famer?
My first instinct is "no." Not because of Coors Field, but because of his career-long fragility. Larry Walker has Hall of Fame talent, which is not the same as being a Hall of Famer. Dick Allen had Hall of Fame talent, yet didn't make it to Cooperstown. Ditto Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, Albert Belle, and dozens of other unfortunates. It's one thing to have "the gift." Translating that talent into a plaque is quite another matter.
When I think Larry Walker, I think Pete Reiser, who came on the scene before World War II. In 1941, his first full season, Reiser set the world on fire. He hit .343/.406/.558; reached double digits in doubles, triples, and homers (39/17/14); scored 117 runs; won the batting title; led the league in OPS; tied for first in adjusted OPS, made the All Star team; and was second in NL MVP voting.
His career was derailed due to the war and to injuries. He missed all of the 1943-45 seasons, and had only two seasons after he returned in which he played in more than 100 games. He was out of baseball before he turned 34. While Walker has enjoyed far more success than Reiser did and been far more durable, the fact remains that Walker has only had three seasons (out of 13) in which he's played in excess of 140 games, and only once has he topped 150 (although it should be noted that he played in nearly every Expos game in the strike-shortened 1994 season).
As an Expos fan, I have a bit of an advantage in assessing Walker. I saw first-hand how magnificent he was in Montreal, before he signed with the Rockies as a free agent. He was an elite five-tool player long before he made his way to Colorado. With the Expos, Walker was fifth in National League MVP voting in 1992, and he won two Gold Gloves.
In his seven years in Colorado, Walker has been in the top eight in adjusted OPS four times. Lee Sinins's Runs Created Above Position (RCAP) adjusts for parks; during his time in Colorado, Walker's RCAP is 257--good for third among NL outfielders behind Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield, and first among right fielders--ahead of players like Sammy Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero. Bonds is clearly in a league all his own, but Walker has a few things going for him that Sheffield doesn't: six Gold Gloves, an MVP, more top 10 finishes in MVP voting (Sheffield, however, has played in more All-Star games). The bottom line is that Walker is among the elite National League outfielders, Coors Field or not.
As to his Hall of Fame credentials, Walker looks good in a couple of worthiness tests. He scores a 24 on the Black Ink Test (the average HOFer scores 27); 45.8 on the HOF Standards Test (average HOFer scores 50); and 144 on the HOF Monitor (likely HOFer scores 100). These tests do not adjust for park or era, though, so they don't give a rat's Assenmacher that they're rating someone playing in the greatest hitters' environment in major-league history in an era when the 70-home-run barrier has been breached twice.
In his book The Politics of Glory, Bill James introduced another way of looking at a player's Hall of Fame case: "The Ken Keltner List." It's a series of subjective questions about a player's accomplishments and recognition during his career. The questions are as follows, with answers as they pertain to Walker:
Walker stacks up pretty well on the Keltner list, so, let's play point/counterpoint. I'll mention a point in Walker's favor (as regards the Hall-of-Fame) and counter it:
He's won three batting titles.
Some other points: Walker has just 309 home runs. Two guys who aren't in have 400 round trippers (Dave Kingman and Darrell Evans), while two guys are shooting for 500 who might not make it (Fred McGriff and Jose Canseco). Walker has--over 13 seasons--1,057 runs, 1,029 RBI, 309 home runs, and an adjusted OPS of 141. I know of a guy who played 13 seasons, scored 1,239 runs, racked up 1,283 RBI, 288 bombs, and an adjusted OPS of 138. His name is Robert Lee "Indian Bob" Johnson and you could stump a trivia buff using him.
Okay, now that I'm done crapping on him (well, not really) let's get down to the nitty-gritty. If Larry Walker retired today, he would not be a Hall of Famer. However he does have a shot at the honor. He needs to get healthy and stay healthy. The years he's spent in Coors Field will affect how the BBWAA will regard him. Walker is a terrific ballplayer regardless of how you dissect his stats/career, but many will say "Yeah, but he played in Colorado," when they evaluate him (for the record, his career road percentages are .280/.368/.497).
Sadly, the BBWAA voters aren't big on looking beyond the triple crown stats when evaluating hitters. They like to see if a player has 3,000 hits, 1,600 RBI, 500 HR, or a lifetime batting average of .335 or above. They like to see achievement in a single skill such as a pure home-run hitter, or a big RBI guy, or a singles machine. A well-rounded hitter tends to pass under their radar screen.
That's Walker's problem, his challenge. There are a lot of outfielders with 1,000+ runs/RBI, 300+ HR, 2,000+ hits (yes, I know Walker hasn't reached 2000 yet) that aren't in the Hall of Fame who may never make it: Joe Carter (1170/1445/396/2184), Dale Murphy (1197/1266/398/2111), Dwight Evans (1470/1384/385/2446), Andre Dawson (1373/1591/438/2774), Jim Rice (1249/1451/382/2452), Chili Davis (1240/1372/350/2380), Dave Parker (1272/1493/339/2712), Reggie Smith (1123/1092/314/2020). Just outside that group are notables like Bobby Bonilla, Del Ennis, Bob Johnson, Rusty Staub, Kingman, Jack Clark, Bobby Bonds, and Willie Horton.
So you can see how Walker could get lost in the shuffle. If he has two or three more MVP-quality seasons, and can stay productive and healthy until his late thirties, then he has a chance. Otherwise, he'll have to get in line with the rest of the good-but-not-good-enough outfielders.
John Brattain has covered baseball for About.com, MLBtalk, Yankees.com, TOTK.com Sports, and Bootleg Sports.