Larry Walker Belongs in Cooperstown
The former MVP's numbers are Hall of Fame worthy, and playing at Coors Field shouldn't be held against him.
Photo by Reuters
Where do we put Larry Walker? As a young man the big-shouldered lad from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, put himself on a baseball diamond only part time, as a means of filling the months between hockey seasons; like a lot of Canadian kids he dreamed of playing in the NHL. But fate put the affable Lower Mainlander on the radar of Montreal Expos executive Jim Fanning, who, in 1984, offered Walker $1,500 to sign, and shipped him to Utica, New York, and then to Florida for instruction.
Though Walker was raw, something clicked, and he moved his way up. By 1989 he was in Montreal for a cup of coffee, finally sticking for good in 1990, when he managed 19 homers, 21 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 112 (100 represents league average), all of it good for a WAR of 3.4, per Baseball Reference. Not half bad for a first-year right fielder who'd go on to finish seventh in Rookie of the Year voting.
He was better in '91 (127 OPS+), and even better in '92 (.301/.353/.506, 5.4 WAR), making his first All-Star Game, racking up Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, and finishing fifth in MVP voting. After posting his first 20/20 season and capturing his second Gold Glove a season later, 1994 would be something of a new high water mark for both Walker and the Expos. He hit 44 doubles, with his best career average (.322) and OPS (.981) to date, for an Expos club occupying first place until the infamous work stoppage cut short the season and probably robbed the best Montreal team ever its shot at a World Series.
Having touched the sky, Montreal returned to Earth, which is to say that that was as good as it would get for the Expos. Their dire straits after that scuttled season, and their subsequent choice not to offer Walker arbitration, put the free agent outfielder in Denver, where he slid on a Rockies jersey and immediately took to his new environment.
The numbers jumped. Why deny it? When, in 1991, MLB awarded Denver a franchise, set to begin play in '93, it was certainly not a surprise to baseball's braintrust to learn that the city's elevation would have an effect on the flight of baseballs. That might even have been the point.
But, like performance-enhancing substances, thin air won't turn nothing into something. Larry Walker, as his pre- and non-Denver numbers attest, could hit.
His home/road splits are stark, but not dystopian: In his first year in Colorado, Walker slashed .343/.401/.730 with 24 home runs at Coors Field compared to a mark of .268/.361/.484 and 12 homers on the road. He was then limited to 83 games the following season before going nuclear in 1997.
Walker blasted a career-high 49 homers, hit .366/.452./.720 (the latter two of which were the best marks in the league), while piling up 130 RBI and 409 total bases. He led the majors in WAR (9.8, per Baseball Reference), while ranking third with a personal-best 178 OPS+. Walker's dominant season secured him the NL MVP Award, as well as another All-Star appearance, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger. The sweet-swinging lefty hit a ridiculous .384 at home over 78 games, but his stunning season wasn't the result of his home field, as he bashed 29 bombs and slugged .733 on the road, both better numbers than what he posted at Coors Field. The road version of Larry Walker was every bit as good as the home one in 1997.
In his prime—roughly 1992 through 2002, which included a number of injury-shortened seasons (he played under 100 games in both '96 and 2000)—Walker not only thumped, but he got on base, plus added value with his defence and baserunning. Walker was praised for being a five-tool talent from the outset, someone who could beat you any number of ways.
He went yard 300 times over that time period, stole 179 bases, and hit a robust .327/.410/.602. The five-time All-Star's 53.9 WAR (FanGraphs) from 1992-2002 was sixth best among all position players, while he had the fifth-best average, and fourth-highest weighted on-base average (.428). And while his numbers would inevitably dip as age and injury got the best of him, Walker hit right until the end. In his final three seasons (aged 36-38) following 2002, he had an OPS of .898, 1.013, and .886, respectively.
The story of Larry Walker is as much about what his body didn't let him do as what the altitude of his place of employment did. Injuries—his back, mostly—blunted many of his tools, meaning that swing of his was often all he had left in the shed once he got to St. Louis late during the 2004 season.
In the end, it adds up to a player who, with a career 72.7 WAR (Baseball Reference), compares favourably to his peers—his peers being outfielders of recent vintage. Among those outfielders currently on the ballot, only Barry Bonds (an astronomical 162.4), who'll get in eventually, can boast a higher career WAR. Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, and Sammy Sosa trail Walker in WAR, as do Vladimir Guerrero and Tim Raines, who were both elected to the Hall over the last two years. It's easy for Walker's name to get lost in that star-studded discussion, but his numbers compare favourably to those players by almost any metric.
If you want to place Walker into the greater context of baseball's entire history, regardless of position, there are only 11 players ahead of him in terms of career WAR who haven't had their likenesses cast in bronze at Cooperstown. Of those, you can discount those under the cloud of PED suspicion (Bonds and Roger Clemens, and that unofficial embargo will soon lift and be forgotten, like a gentle fog); players still active (Albert Pujols) or not yet eligible (Adrian Beltre); a few pitchers with strong cases (Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, both of whom could get in any year now), and the tremendously controversial (Alex Rodriguez, who isn't eligible yet, and Pete Rose, who will never get in).
That leaves only Jim McCormick (who pitched from 1878-1887), Bill Dahlen (an infielder who played from 1891-1911), and Lou Whitaker (the Tigers' great second basemen, who has a higher career WAR than Roberto Alomar and who, with Alan Trammell, formed one of the greatest double-play combinations in history).
If we go by position, FanGraphs has Walker 12th among right fielders in career WAR, with all 11 ahead of him in Cooperstown. Basically, nearly everyone ahead of Walker when looking through the WAR lens, either historically or isolated by position, is in the Hall of Fame, or will be one day.
It's true that we don't know what Larry Walker would have done if he'd wound up somewhere else, but the facts as we have them are that Major League Baseball elected to set up shop in Denver, and Walker played there. As such, the spectre of Coors Field clangs noisily behind everything he did. For most of us the noise is just a nuisance, but the germane question right now is whether, for the bulk of Hall of Fame voters, it's more distracting than that. We'll soon find out, as Walker's years of eligibility are dwindling and he faces an uphill climb to get enshrined. His support has increased in recent years (and garnering 34.1 percent of the vote in 2018 was the closest he's come), but that leaves him far from the 75-percent threshold that's required to get in, in a super crowded field, nonetheless.
While he enjoyed a Coors Field bump, perhaps even a sizable one, why should that disqualify Walker from greatness? Babe Ruth had his Yankee Stadium home run porch, and Ted Williams, a left-handed pull hitter, had Pesky's Pole sitting at a tantalizing distance (officially 302 feet) down Fenway's right-field line. Neither of these architectural quirks stained those players' reputations. Why should Walker—one of the best hitters of his generation, and one of the few untainted by the suspicion of steroids—be discounted because of his home-park advantage?
Baseball concedes no level playing field. It never has and never will. Its unique parks are what, in part, make the sport unique among all other games. Some of those parks' quirks help hitters, while other fields offer pitchers an advantage. The question where Larry Walker is concerned, then, isn't whether he was aided by Coors Field, but whether being aided by one's home park should disqualify a player? Historically, the answer has been no. And if that holds, the next question for voters is: What's stopping you from putting him in the Hall of Fame?
[This story was updated Jan. 22/2019 with current stats and Hall of Fame information.]