It was an innocent enough question. When I did my column comparing Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel and 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 by war and 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 an 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 of his own, but Walker has a few things going for him that Sheffield doesn't: six Gold Gloves, an MVP, and 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:
Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
No, although for a few years he was probably the best player in the National League other than Barry Bonds.
Was he the best player on his team?
Was he the best player in his league at his position?
When healthy, yes.
Was he the best player in baseball at his position?
Best right fielder? Yes, Manny Ramirez might have been the better hitter, and Sammy Sosa has more raw power, but…
Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
No. Just one.
Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Last year, he was third in MLB among right fielders in adjusted OPS (160) and second in RCAP (53) at age 34–so, yes.
If he retired today, would he be the best player in baseball not in the Hall of Fame?
Are most of the players who have comparable triple-crown stats in the Hall of Fame?
No, but he has a few years to get there.
If he retired today, would he be the best player at his position not in the Hall of Fame?
Best right fielder? Ummmmmmm, yes, among those eligible.
Are the player's totals of career approximate value and offensive wins and losses similar to those of other Hall of Famers?
Walker's Offensive Winning Percentage is in the top 60 all time for players with 6,000 plate appearances. Among players eligible for the Hall of Fame (retired five years, not on the commissioner's permanently ineligible list), only about ten of the top 60 are not inducted. In RC/27, Walker is in the top 20 all time. Among eligibles, all of the top 20 are Hall of Famers.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
No (I'm referring to adjusted stats here).
How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
One award, and he finished in the top 10 in voting three other times.
How many All-Star type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most other players at his position who made the Hall of Fame play in a comparable amount of games or have a comparable amount of All-Star seasons?
He's been named to five All-Star teams, not an impressive total for a Hall of Famer. Heck, Steve Garvey played in ten.
If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
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.
So what? Bill Madlock won four–nobody's tripping over themselves to get him a plaque.
He's won an MVP Award and finished top ten in voting three other times.
He's won six Gold Gloves.
He's hit .300 eight times, including three times over .360. He's a lifetime .315 hitter.
Lefty O'Doul hit .300 six times, three times over .365 and hit .349 lifetime. Riggs Stephenson hit .336 in his career–your point?
You're an idiot who spends too much time dissecting stats in front of your computer.
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.