Someday, there will be a baseball Hall of Famer whose bronze cap is decorated with the Rockies’ logo. It might not happen soon, but it will happen. The most deserving possibilities right now are Larry Walker, who is currently eligible, and Todd Helton, who will be in 2019.
Walker and Helton both have great cases for enshrinement, although they are a bit different. Comparing their careers and the stories each one tells reveals the inescapably broad scope of Hall of Fame consideration. It’s not just statistics that matter. The stories players carry with them matter, too. Numbers and narratives have to be put in dialogue with one another, and this is particularly true when it comes to borderline candidates like Walker and Helton.
Larry Walker was a better baseball player than Helton. In fact, he might have been the best player to ever wear a Rockies’ uniform. Todd Helton, however, was the greatest Rockies player in history. These are two different things. Understanding the distinction and relating them to how voters have voted, in Walker's case, and how they might vote, in Helton's case, illuminates the necessarily expansive lens through which Hall of Fame chances are judged.
The macro view of Walker’s Hall of Fame case is rock solid. Because entrance into the Hall of Fame is the joining of a new group of peers, that is one context in which the question should be viewed. The best way to do that is to go to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system. This system relies on a simple concept: Eligible players should be compared to individuals already in the Hall of Fame who played the same position. There are two ways to do this. The first is to compare a player’s total career value, and the second is to isolate a player’s seven-year peak. The measure the system uses to do both is Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR).
From this perspective, Walker should be a shoe-in to be the 25th right fielder to enter the Hall of Fame. His career rWAR of 72.6 is exactly in line with the average Hall of Fame right fielder’s, 73.2. The same goes for his peak, 44.6 against a 43 average, and his total JAWS score, 58.6 against a 58.1 average. Most impressively, this view places Walker’s career as the tenth best among right fielders. Here’s that top ten (courtesy of Baseball Reference):
Despite his august company, Walker has seen his vote total decline since he debuted with 20.3 percent of the vote in 2011 (75 percent is needed for election). In 2012, the total was upped to 22.9, but it fell to 21.6 in 2013. In 2014, with a very crowded ballot, his total was more than halved to 10.2 percent of the vote. He saw a marginal increase to 11.8 last season. With just five years of eligibility left, Walker looks like a long shot for election.
That’s a tough reality to confront for the best player in Rockies history, which brings us to the micro-view of Walker’s case. Walker posted two-thirds of his career 72.6 rWAR as a member of the Rockies, which took place from his age 28 to 37 seasons. In Rockies history, Walker’s 48.2 rWAR is second only to Helton’s 61.2; however, Walker played half as many games as a member of the Rockies as Helton did.
Walker’s best seasons took place while he played in "the most favorable hitting environment of the post-World War II era" and in the midst of a hitter’s era. These facts have worked against Walker’s Hall of Fame case. Other factors might also have worked against him. Walker’s career was fragmented at the wrong times. In his five years playing for the Expos, Walker was extremely good and a model of consistency. In his five full seasons, he posted rWARs of 3.4, 3.4, 5.4, 4.4, and 4.7. He also won two Gold Glove Awards and had one top five MVP finish. Through the lens of Coors Field, this portion of Walker’s career becomes opaque.
That Walker was the best player in Rockies history is not likely a question voters ask themselves. And yet, without even asking the question, the "Rockies" element unbalances the view of Walker as a Hall of Famer.
From the global view, Helton’s case isn’t quite the slam-dunk Walker’s is. Helton’s 61.2 career rWAR is a bit off the 65.9 average produced by the 19 Hall of Fame first baseman; however, his 46.7 peak is higher than the 42.4 average. Both figures combine to result in a JAWS score that is right in line with other enshrined first baseman: Helton’s 53.8 about matches the 54.2 score. In order to use this as an argument for Helton’s entrance into the Hall of Fame, peak has to be privileged over career.
As it is, Helton ranks 14th among first baseman. Five players ahead of him are not in the Hall of Fame, but only two of those players are possibilities to either not make it in at all or to squeak in with a future Veteran’s Committee vote: Jim Thome and Rafael Palmeiro. Helton is ranked higher than Hall of Famer’s Eddie Murray and Hank Greenberg. Greenberg, however, comes with an asterisk because he lost seasons due to the Second World War. Murray had more career rWAR than Helton, but he had a weaker peak.
As it is, the only other integration era first baseman Hall of Famers below Helton are Harmon Killebrew (who hit 573 home runs), Orlando Cepeda (voted in by the Veteran’s Committee), and Tony Pérez. Helton’s numbers are there, but they aren’t quite there like Walker’s are.
And yet, it looks like Helton will receive entrance into the Hall of Fame before Walker. He probably will never receive a vote total as low as Walker’s 10.2 percent in 2014. Instead, he will probably a debut with anywhere from 25 to 35 percent before breaking the 75 percent threshold sometime after his fifth year of candidacy.
One of the reasons he might receive this fair treatment is not despite, but because of, his association with the Rockies. Helton is a lifer. His story begins and ends with the Colorado Rockies. I suspect that the different treatment that Helton gets by Hall of Fame voters will reveal that the altitude penalty is selective, even though Helton’s peak was also situated in an unprecedented hitter’s era, and even though he will likely lose votes from those who don't believe Coors Field stats from the turn-of-the-millenium. Ultimately, though, Helton’s status as the greatest Rockies player will probably overshadow those other details. In other words, Helton has career traits that transcend his statistics that might lead to his entry into the Hall of Fame before Walker, even though Walker was the superior player.
None of this points to defects of the Hall of Fame process, though it doesn't necessarily identify a feature, either. Instead, it's acknowledging reality, context based as it is. Hall of Fame voters should consider more than just statistics when casting votes. Narratives aren’t objective, sure, but neither are statistics. Not only that, but these two factors are interrelated.
If the interpretations and predictions here are accurate, they reveal a paradox: With regard to the Hall of Fame, Walker’s time with the Rockies has and will work against him, while Helton’s time with the Rockies will enhance his prospects. The stories might overcome the stats, but the stats are the only reason they're both in this conversation. One of these two players should be the first Rockies Hall of Famer, and right now, it looks like the first won't even be the best player in Rockies history. And there's nothing wrong with that.