JAWS and the 2019 Hall of Fame Ballot: Larry Walker

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2019 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research, and was expanded for inclusion in The Cooperstown Casebook, published in 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

A three-time batting champion, five-time All-Star, and seven-time Gold Glove winner — not to mention an excellent base runner — Larry Walker could do it all on the diamond. Had he done it for longer, there’s little question that he’d be en route to a plaque in the Hall of Fame, but his 17 seasons in the majors were marred by numerous injuries as well as the 1994–95 players’ strike, all of which cut into his career totals.

Yet another great outfielder developed by the late, lamented Montreal Expos — Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, and Tim Raines being the most notable — Walker was the only one of that group actually born and raised in Canada, though he spent less time playing for the Montreal faithful than any of them. He starred on the Expos’ memorable 1994 team that compiled the best record in baseball before the strike hit, curtailing their championship dreams, then took up residence with the Rockies, putting up eye-popping numbers at high altitude — numbers that, as we’ll see, hold up well even once they’re brought back to earth.

Walker’s relatively short career, high peak, and extreme offensive environment put the JAWS system to the test. His excellence at the plate, in the field, and on the bases compares favorably to the average Hall of Fame right fielder even after all the adjustments are made. But for all of that, he’s been lost in the shuffle on overcrowded ballots. After getting 20.3% of the vote in his 2011 debut and adding a smattering of votes over the next two years, his support plummeted as low as 10.2% in 2014. But after three straight years of modest gains, he added 12.2 points last year — the second-largest jump of any candidate — to climb to 34.1%.

Given the Hall’s 2014 rule change, which truncated candidates’ eligibility periods from 15 years to 10, Walker has only two years remaining on the ballot, and with the slate still overstuffed with strong candidates, he has no plausible path to 75% before time runs out. That said, a push towards 50% would certainly make him stand out as a Today’s Game Era Committee candidate, just as Lee Smith does this year.

2019 BBWAA Candidate: Larry Walker
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Larry Walker 72.7 44.7 58.7
Avg. HOF RF 72.7 42.9 57.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,160 383 .313/.400/.565 141
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Walker was born in Maple Ridge, British Columbia in 1966, the offspring of Larry Sr. and Mary, who gave birth to sons Barry, Carey, and Gary — I’m not making this up — before Larry Jr. As a youngster, he was more focused on playing hockey than baseball. In fact, he aspired to be an NHL goalie, and honed his skills by blocking the shots of friend and future Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely. Given that his high school didn’t even field a baseball team, the sport was a secondary focus, something he’d play for 10-15 games a year, until he was cut from a pair of Junior-A hockey teams.

Walker wasn’t drafted by a major league club, but while playing for the Canadian team at the 1984 World Youth Championships in Saskatchewan, he caught the eye of Expos scouting director Jim Fanning; his impressive home run with a wooden bat stood out among so many aluminum-swinging players. Particularly willing to take a chance on a Canadian kid, the Expos signed Walker in November 1984 with a $1,500 bonus — paltry but not inappropriate given the rawness of his game. Walker described his background to Jonah Keri for the latter’s 2014 history of the Expos, Up, Up, & Away:

“I played more fast-pitch [softball] than I did baseball for a little while there [as a teenager] … My approach to hitting was, ‘Guy throws the ball, I try to hit it. If I hit it, I run.’ But the hard part was hitting something with a wrinkle in it. I had never seen a forkball before. Sliders and curves killed me.”

Walker’s outstanding athleticism, freakish hand-eye coordination, and mental approach stood out to his first minor league manager, Ken Brett (older brother of Hall of Famer George Brett), who oversaw him in Utica in 1986. “He was just so tough,” recalled Brett in 1993 of the 18-year-old who hit just .223 with two homers in 62 games. He had yet to master basic rules; once he cut across the diamond from third to first after a hit-and-run resulted in a fly out, failing to stop and re-touch touch second. “He was as fast a learner as I’ve ever seen. He never made the same mistake twice,” said third base coach Gene Glynn.

Because of his inexperience, Walker took some time to rise through the minors, and his progress was further slowed by a cartilage tear in his right knee, suffered while playing winter ball in Mexico in the 1987-1988 offseason. Reconstructive surgery cost him all of the 1988 campaign, and even in the final year of his career, the knee still bothered him. After hitting .270/.361/.421 with 12 homers and 36 steals at Triple-A Indianapolis in 1989, he made his major league debut on August 16 of that year, singling off the Giants’ Mike LaCoss, walking three times and scoring twice. Walker could have retired with that 1.000 on-base percentage, but instead he pressed on. He hit just .170/.264/.170 in his 56-plate-appearance cup of coffee that season, finishing in a 1-for-22 slump.

Ranked 42nd on Baseball America’s top prospects list the following spring, Walker claimed the regular right field job, at times playing in an outfield that featured Raines and Marquis Grissom. His rate stats weren’t much to write home about at first glance (.241/.326/.434), but that was good for a 112 OPS+, to which he added 19 homers and 21 steals en route to a 3.4 WAR season. Walker continued to develop into a potent threat, hitting a combined .293/.366/.501 for a 134 OPS+ over the next four seasons while averaging 20 homers and 19 steals. Thanks to excellent defense (+10 runs per year), he averaged 4.5 WAR for that stretch, impressive given that he averaged just 130 games due to DL stints in 1991 and 1993, not to mention the 1994 strike. Playing on Olympic Stadium’s notorious artificial turf couldn’t have helped, either.

Walker’s 1992 season was his most valuable in Montreal; he hit .301/.353/.506 with 23 homers, 5.4 WAR and his first All-Star and Gold Glove honors. He was en route to a similarly fine season in 1994 despite suffering a torn right rotator cuff, which forced him to first base. Before moving from right field, he made one of the season’s most memorable gaffes during an April 24 Sunday night game on ESPN. He handed a foul ball caught off the bat of Mike Piazza to a child in the stands, forgetting that there were only two outs; the two-base error became moot after Pedro Martinez yielded a homer on the next pitch. The Expos lost that night, but the team was a major league best 74-40 (.649) when the players strike began on August 11, with Walker batting .322/.394/.587, running eighth in both batting average and slugging percentage.

Alas, that marked the end of his time in Canada. With general manager Kevin Malone under strict orders to cut payroll in the wake of the strike, the Expos didn’t even offer Walker arbitration, and traded Grissom, staff ace Ken Hill and closer John Wetteland once the strike ended. The 28-year-old Walker signed a four-year, $22.5 million deal with the Rockies shortly after the stoppage ended.

In Colorado, Walker stepped into the most favorable hitting environment of the post-World War II era. He hit 36 homers for the wild-card-winning Rockies in 1995, his first season in Denver, to go with a .306/.381/.607 line. Still, in an environment that featured 5.4 runs per game, his OPS+ fell by 20 points, from 151 to 131. After missing over two months of the 1996 season due to a broken collarbone, he returned to full strength in 1997 and hit a staggering .366/.452/.720 for a 178 OPS+, leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages as well as home runs (49). Only Tony Gwynn’s NL-best .372 batting average prevented Walker from the rare slash-stat Triple Crown, but his 409 total bases were the most since Stan Musial’s 429 in 1948. He also swiped 33 bases in 41 attempts, making him just the 18th player in the 30-30 club to that point; his home run total remains the highest of the 40 players to accomplish the feat.

Even after adjusting for the scoring environment, Walker’s 1997 campaign was worth an NL-best 9.8 WAR thanks to the peripheral value he added via defense (+10 runs), baserunning and double play avoidance (+9 runs). In the 21 seasons since, only Barry Bonds (three times), Mike Trout (three times), Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Alex Rodriguez, and Sammy Sosa have topped that mark. Walker won the NL MVP award going away, receiving 22 of 28 first-place votes.

That year also produced one of the indelible highlights of Walker’s career, and a reminder of his reputation as a cut-up. In his second All-Star appearance, he faced Mariners ace (and former Expos teammate) Randy Johnson, whom he had dodged during a recent road trip, taking an off day against a fierce southpaw and avoiding the Kingdome’s artificial turf as well. His absence had made waves; a fan carrying a “WHERE’S WALKER?” sign gained national attention. At the All-Star Game in Cleveland, he stepped in against Johnson, who sailed his first pitch high over Walker’s head and to the backstop as Walker flinched, not unlike John Kruk in the 1993 All-Star game. Trying not to crack up, Walker responded by turning his batting helmet backwards and taking the next pitch as a righty before returning to the left-handed batter’s box and working a walk, as fans and members of both teams laughed. “It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Piazza, an NL All-Star teammate.

Lest anyone think that Walker habitually dodged lefties, it’s worth noting that he took 30.1% of his plate appearances against them in his career, a comparable rate to Ken Griffey Jr. (30.9%), Wade Boggs (29.1%) and Jim Thome (28.1%) if not Gwynn (34.4%) — the last four lefty-swinging Hall of Famers elected, all hailing from an age of increased bullpen specialization. Walker didn’t exactly struggle against Johnson (.393/.485/.571 in 33 PA) or the southpaw he faced most frequently, Tom Glavine (.301/.370/.506 in 92 PA). Among post-1960 expansion-era lefty hitters with at least 2,000 PA against same-side pitching, his .903 OPS (on .306/.385/.518 hitting) is second only to Bonds’ .986, albeit with a push from Coors Field.

Walker’s 1997 performance proved impossible for him to top, but he did win batting titles in each of the next two years, hitting .363/.445/.630 (158 OPS+) in 1998 and .379/.458/.710 (164 OPS+) in 1999. All three slash stats led the league in the latter year, putting him in select company as the first league leader in all three categories since 1980 and the first of a new wave of players to do it during the game’s high-offense years. Unfortunately, trips to the DL for elbow and rib cage injuries limited him to 257 games and a combined 10.8 WAR for those two seasons — still All-Star caliber, but not good enough to crack the league top 10.

After signing a six-year, $75 million extension with the Rockies, Walker continued to battle injuries, missing major time in 2000 due to a stress fracture in his elbow. He rebounded in 2001, playing 142 games and hitting .350/.449/.662 (160 OPS+) for his third and final batting title. His 38 homers were the second-highest total of his career, as was his 7.8 WAR, which placed fourth in the league. He played two more relatively full seasons in Denver, but spent the first 11 weeks of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a groin strain; upon returning to play 38 games with Colorado, he was traded to the Cardinals in a waiver-period deal.

Coming down from altitude, Walker hit a robust .280/.393/.560 with 11 homers — including two grand slams in a five-game span — in just 44 games for St. Louis, then hit a combined .293/.379/.707 with a pair of homers in each of the three rounds of the postseason as St. Louis reached the World Series, where they were swept by the Red Sox. He lasted just one more year, battling a herniated disc in his neck but hitting a very respectable .289/.384/.502 in 100 games, though he went 3-for-28 in the postseason. Nonetheless, his teammates spoke of his career in glowing terms, as did manager Tony La Russa, who said, “Most people know the kind of player that he has been his whole career. I mean, just a gifted, all-around everything. In fact, I think he probably would be in the top three of just about every category: base running, defense, handling the bat.”

Is that a Hall of Fame career? Undeniably, Walker’s key counting stats (2,160 hits, 383 home runs) are low for the hitter-friendly era, even without considering the advantages that came with spending a chunk of his career in Coors Field (more on that in a moment). Due to injuries and the strike, he played more than 143 games just once, and averaged just 123 games a year, excluding his September 1988 callup. Of the 25 right fielders in the Hall of Fame, only seven played fewer games, four of whom began their careers in the 19th century; the last of those who didn’t, Chuck Klein, finished his career in 1944. Likewise only six enshrined right fielders had fewer hits, including the same 19th-century quartet and Klein.

More on Klein in a moment, but first Coors Field. Walker took 31% of his plate appearances at the park with the 5,200-foot elevation and posted video-game numbers: .381/.462/.710 with 154 homers in 2,501 PA. Elsewhere, he hit .282/.372/.501, still very respectable. In other words, his performance at Coors added 28 points of on-base percentage and 64 points of slugging percentage en route to his lifetime batting line of .313/.400/.565.

Looking at it a different way, Walker owns the third-largest gap between his home OPS (including his time with the Expos and Cardinals as well as the Rockies) and his road OPS among players with at least 7,000 PA:

Largest Home/Road OPS Differentials
Player Years Home OPS Road OPS Diff
Chuck Klein+ 1928-1944 1.027 .813 .214
Bobby Doerr+ 1937-1951 .929 .716 .213
Larry Walker 1989-2005 1.068 .865 .203
Cy Williams 1912-1930 .934 .735 .199
Todd Helton 1997-2013 1.048 .855 .193
Earl Averill+ 1929-1941 1.009 .846 .163
Ron Santo+ 1960-1975 .905 .747 .158
Wade Boggs+ 1982-1999 .934 .781 .153
Jimmie Foxx+ 1925-1945 1.116 .966 .150
Kirby Puckett+ 1984-1995 .909 .761 .148
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 7,000 plate appearances. + = Hall of Famer

Coors Field isn’t the only venue that’s contributed to historically large home-field advantages. Klein and Williams spent the majority of their careers calling the Phillies’ Baker Bowl — where the right field foul pole was 272 to 280 feet away — home, while Boggs, Doerr, and Foxx all spent at least part of their careers hitting in Fenway Park, with its short foul lines and inviting Green Monster in left field. The majority of those on that list are Hall of Famers, and later in this series I’ll be arguing on Helton’s behalf, just as I am Walker’s. Even after adjusting for their environmental advantages using more all-encompassing stats such as OPS+ and WAR, they compare favorably to those in the Hall.

Again using that 7,000 PA cutoff, Walker’s 141 OPS+ is tied for 43rd all-time with David Ortiz and Hall of Famers Chipper Jones and Slidin’ Billy Hamilton. That’s certainly Cooperstown caliber in and of itself; one point below that group are Hall of Famers Guerrero, Jesse Burkett, and Duke Snider, plus ballot-mate Gary Sheffield and future candidate Alex Rodriguez, while two points below is Reggie Jackson. The problem is that many of the players on that list accumulated around 30% more plate appearances over the course of their careers than Walker.

Moving from a rate stat to a counting stat, batting runs — the component of WAR that measures a player relative to the average hitter in his league — upholds Walker’s elite standing. Walker’s total of 420 ranks 60th, slightly ahead of four players with 3,000 hits (Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Gwynn and Rod Carew), the first two with over 400 homers, the last two with a combined 15 batting titles. Let’s set this next line off in its own paragraph, because it’s the crux of his case:

In less playing time, Larry Walker created more value with his bat than several first-ballot Hall of Famers routinely lauded for their major milestones.

Batting runs is included within WAR, and so are all of the other things that Walker did — and did well. He stole 230 bases in his career at a 75.2% success rate, reaching double digits 11 times. Factoring in advancements and avoidance of running into outs, he was 40 runs above average in baserunning, plus another 10 in double play avoidance. That extra 50 runs — roughly five wins — ranks 53rd among players in the post-1960 expansion period (chosen for its completeness of data in these department), sandwiched between Rodriguez and Bonds, and within 10 runs of five players who stole at least twice as many bases as Walker, namely Bonds, Cesar Cedeno, Roberto Alomar, Omar Moreno, and Delino DeShields. Those players all had more apparent speed, but scouts saw above-average baserunning potential in Walker as early as 1984, and two scouting reports from the 1993-94 period in the Hall of Fame’s Diamond Mines database graded him as a 6 (“plus”) in both speed and baserunning. On the defensive side, according to Total Zone and (from 2003 onward) Defensive Runs Saved, Walker was 94 runs above average for his career thanks to his strong arm, range and instincts, a total that ranks seventh all-time among right fielders.

Add it all up, and Walker’s 72.7 career WAR ranks 11th among right fielders, the highest of any currently outside the Hall of Fame and ahead of 15 out of the 25 enshrined, including 2018 honoree Guerrero. The total matches the average enshrined right fielder because the top-heavy list includes Musial, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, and Frank Robinson, all of whom surpassed 100 WAR; the right field standard is the highest in my system, 1.5 wins higher than the next-highest position (center field, 71.2) and nearly seven wins higher than left field (65.4). Walker’s peak WAR of 44.7 is also 11th, the highest of any right fielder outside the Hall except Shoeless Joe Jackson and 1.8 wins above the standard. He’s 10th in JAWS, again the highest you-know-what and 0.9 points above the standard.

The Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which dishes out credit for things like seasons or careers with batting averages above .300, league leads in key stats and playoff appearances (Walker hit .230/.350/.510 in 121 postseason plate appearances, good but hardly exceptional), places Walker above the bar of the average Hall of Famer; he scores 148 (“a virtual cinch”). But the Monitor wasn’t designed with Coors Field or the sustained scoring levels of the 1993–2009 period in mind. That alone is a major reason why JAWS came into being: I wanted a tool that could adjust accordingly.

Initially, I came down on the side of a “definite maybe” on Walker, but with further study I’ve become increasingly convinced that he is worthy of a spot in Cooperstown. Circa 2015 and 2016, the 10-slot ballot was so crowded that I left him off my virtual one (I don’t get a real one until the 2021 cycle, the first after his eligibility lapses), before finding room again. Even virtually, those were agonizing cuts, because I’m convinced Walker belongs.

Actual BBWAA voters have struggled to find room as well. Walker debuted at 20.3% in 2011, and slipped into the low teens from 2014-2016, but he’s gradually gained ground, helped by the elections of players such as Piazza, Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, all of whom the voters took longer to elect than they should have. But even at 34.1%, he’s in no-man’s land as voting history goes. Since 1966, the lowest percentage any candidate has received in year eight while still being elected by the writers is Bert Blylven (40.8%), who needed 14 years to gain entry, time that Walker doesn’t have. Raines had the lowest such percentage by any writer-elected candidate in his third-to-last year of eligibility, 55.0%. Walker is even further off that pace.

Why so much resistance? Beyond the crowded ballot and the injuries, Walker’s candidacy is something of a perfect storm. As a great all-around player, a significant chunk of his value — the part stemming from on-base percentage, base running, and defense — isn’t reflected in his traditional counting stats, and even in this day and age, some voters never get beyond those. Candidates as varied as Santo, Bobby Grich, Kenny Lofton, and Jim Edmonds have struggled for voters’ attention to an even greater degree, falling off the ballot with less than 5% in their first years of eligibility. To be fair, offense is more easily measured than defense, which helps to explain why Edgar Martinez, who spent 72% of his career as a DH, has gotten two or three times as much support as Walker and is poised for election this year.

Then there’s the Coors effect, which is adds its own unique wrinkle. Voters — particularly those on the Veterans Committee — used to be easily suckered by shiny offensive stats from the 1920s and -30s, but today they’re more wary, in part because of the inflated offensive levels throughout the game during Walker’s time as well as the presumption that PEDs had something to do with it. Walker, it should be noted, has never been connected to such allegations, but his numbers may not pop next to contemporaries who have.

While 75% is beyond his reach via the writers, getting to 50% — gaining eight points a year over the next two — could make his candidacy stand out among those eligible for the Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, particularly given that the pool of eligible players will largely consist of those who received single-digit support during short stays on the ballot. Last year’s Modern Baseball Era Committee election of Jack Morris (who peaked at 67.7%) and Trammell (who peaked at 40.9% in his final year) marked the first living former players elected by the small-committee process since Bill Mazeroski in 2001; the latter spent his first 14 years on the ballot with support ranging from 13.4% to 36.8%, a similar ballpark as Walker. Thus there’s hope that in time Walker gets his due. But even on a Today’s Game ballot, so long as the Hall insists upon considering executives and managers side-by-side with players, the danger is that the voters’ focus will always fall there first. In other words, any road Walker travels to Cooperstown is likely to be a rocky one.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Earl of E
Member
Earl of E

Jay, this is an awesome series. Well researched, superbly written, and – at least in this piece on Walker – highly illuminating.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

I always enjoy reading a case for the HOF. I imagine he will make it at some point – if not, then he will be at the front of the group that never quite made it… which is fantastic company in its own right. Heck that group includes Barry Bonds, Pete Rose and Roger Clemens! There are a lot of legitimate reasons that Walker was always overlooked, but he was certainly a heck of a player. I think of Jim Edmonds and Andruw Jones as his contemporaries as great players that were not really considered the best players of their generation – they all have reasonable arguments for the HOF, but they all can’t make it probably. The 90s was one of the great groups of offensive players – Griffey, ARod, Bonds, Piazza, Frank Thomas, Chipper Jones just to name a few along with guys like Albert Belle and Juan Gonzalez that were absolute monsters yet have no real HOF case as well as the juiced stars of the era in Sosa and Big Mac. In the end, I don’t know who belongs in and who doesn’t, but everyone should be able to agree that Larry Walker was a fantastic player. Regardless of where he ends up, celebration of his excellence is all that really matters.

olethros
Member
olethros

“players that were not really considered the best players of their generation”

The Hall is absolutely full of players like that. “best of a generation” is not a prerequisite for induction. And by any stretch of the imagination, Edmonds, Walker, and Jones are far and away worthy of induction based on their stats vs. the stats of the other players at their positions in the Hall. The ONLY argument against all three (along with Rolen) is counting stats, largely due to injury. There’s a guy named Koufax who might have a thing or two to say about that.

pickleRick
Member
pickleRick

They certainly are not” far and away” worthy by “any stretch of the imagination”, hence the vote and just about any other reasonable argument. The fact is that offensive eras compare favorably to non-offensive eras in terms of counting stats. You are doing it wrong if you are comparing counting stats from the 1990-2000s to those of nearly any other era.

olethros
Member
olethros

“in terms of counting stats.”

Did you read my comment? Because I said that counting stats was the only mark against them, not a point in their favor.

gahet232
Member
gahet232