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Baseball Hall of Fame: Larry Walker belongs despite confusion over Coors Field and steroids era

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Larry Walker should be a slam-dunk Hall of Fame inductee according to literally every single objective measure available to us today.

Larry Walker should be a Hall of Famer.
Larry Walker should be a Hall of Famer.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

After seeing the results of yesterday's Hall of Fame vote, there is only one reaction: Larry Walker should be a no-doubt, surefire, slam-dunk Hall of Fame inductee. His case is complicated, but his credentials are not. No matter how exclusive you believe Cooperstown should be, the former Colorado Rockies outfielder deserves a place there.

This year, we saw some changes to the voting process including that included dumping approximately 100 voters — mostly writers who don't follow baseball anymore, and who also tend to be less analytically inclined. This is probably part of why Walker rose from 11.8% of the vote last year to 15.5% this time around. But it isn't nearly enough of an increase.

The four reasons to keep him out — his limited durability, Coors Field, his relative lack of fame, and the steroid-infested era in which he played — can all be answered and accounted for by examining advanced, and sometimes not-so-advanced statistics. Though admittedly an approximation, these numbers reveal a player who is being criminally underrated by the Baseball Writers' Association of America and the wider media.

Walker was, by any objective measure, a better player than many who have already entered the Hall and compares favorably to all the players who received a higher percentage of the vote this time including the two newest inductees: Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza:

Player

WAR

WAR7

wRC+

fDEF

HR

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

fBsR

GP/PA

JAWS

Ken Griffey Jr.

77.7

53.9

131

-39.6

630

.284

.370

.538

.384

-7.3

2671/

11304

68.8

Larry Walker

68.7

44.6

140

3.5

383

.313

.400

.565

.412

21.5

1988/

8030

58.6

Mike Piazza

62.5

43.1

140

20.7

427

.308

.377

.545

.390

-31.6

1912/

7745

51.2

Edgar Martinez

65.5

43.6

147

-133.5

309

.312

.418

.515

.405

-21.0

2055/

8672

56.0

Fred McGriff

56.9

35.8

134

-186.3

493

.284

.377

.509

.383

-8.6

2460/

10174

44.1

Tony Gwynn

65.0

41.1

132

-92.2

135

.338

.388

.459

.370

11.3

2440/

10232

54.9

The players on this table all received more votes than Walker. Tony Gwynn was included here because he is the last player to enter Cooperstown at Walker's position. Now, keep all of these numbers in mind as we look at the case against No. 33:

1. Did he play enough?

Walker's unfortunate injury history robbed him of an obvious Hall of Fame career. Former Rockies and current Denver Broncos beat writer Troy Renck, who included Walker on his Hall of Fame ballot, explains:

Walker is the most talented player I have ever covered. His 1997 National League MVP season was breathtaking in every way from baserunning to defense to his rifle arm and 49 home runs. I said no to Walker in the past because his statistics fell short because of missed games. He averaged 124 a season. Had he avoided injury or played more when the Rockies were eliminated Walker would have posted no-doubt Cooperstown numbers.

The right fielder finished 17 home runs shy of 400 and barely eclipsed the 2,000 hit mark at 2,160. Having individual seasons, and ultimately his career, cut short meant he would not cross historically important statistical landmarks for Hall inclusion. He played in only 1,988 games in his career. You have to go back to Kiki Cuyler and Chuck Klein to find HOF right fielders with fewer games played. Piazza did play less, but that is to be expected from the demanding catcher position. Either way, though, there is a precedent as recent as yesterday for position players with less time accrued than Walker entering Cooperstown.

The problem with the counting stats isn't just a missed number of games; Walker is a victim of being a well-balanced player. Tony Gwynn hit 248 fewer home runs than Walker but far surpassed 3,000 hits. Craig Biggio, inducted last year, shares this dynamic but to a less extreme extent. On the other end of this spectrum, Andre Dawson is -23 to Walker in wRC+ and only has a few hundred more hits, but blasted 438 home runs — 55 more than Walker.

All three of those players have lower career wRC+, WAR, and WAR7 (seven-year peak) while rating lower on Jay Jaffe's JAWS system for identifying true Hall of Fame talent. But they crossed magical counting number barriers. No one under consideration, or who has recently been admitted, ranks higher in WAR, WAR7, or JAWS than Walker, with the lone exception of Griffey Jr.

The presence of, and voter support for, Trevor Hoffman (67.3 percent) and Edgar Martinez (43.4 percent) adds another interesting wrinkle to this conundrum. Closers and designated hitters should be understood in the context of their positions but it just doesn't seem right to punish Walker for not tallying enough games when he played in 899 more of them than the number of innings Hoffman pitched in his career. Walker also played 10,849 more innings of defense than Martinez.

Every one of those innings was an opportunity for Martinez to hurt his WAR. His negative defensive ratings suggest this is exactly what would have happened had he been on a National League team. But he had the luxury of being able to sit on the bench in the American League. Even though sitting instead of playing helped his WAR, he still finished more than three points lower than Walker's career total. Amassing so much WAR with only his bat is a testament to Martinez's offensive ability, which is why the designated hitter deserves entry to the Hall of Fame as well, but this argument requires an understanding of cumulative value over sheer innings logged.

Walker should be afforded the same logic.

This whole argument falls apart when you consider all of this plus the modern understanding of the value of on-base percentage and defense as opposed to just the traditional counting stats. Walker walked more times total in his career than the last two right fielders inducted (Gwynn, Dawson) despite playing less, he had a better on-base percentage than all the players discussed except Martinez, and he was the best defender and base runner of the bunch.

If you are casting a vote for Martinez or Hoffman, it would be intellectually inconsistent to leave Walker off of your ballot because he didn't play enough. The argument, then, has nothing to do with durability and everything to do with counting stat achievements. It's the only thing they have that Walker does not.

An interesting question now arises about the virtue of compiling these stats. Walker's WAR7 shows that at his best he was better than everyone in this article except for Griffey, but he also had a higher floor than all of these guys, including Griffey, which is important to understanding the context of all these counting statistics.

Over the final 10 years of his career, Griffey posted a cumulative total of 2.2 WAR, or an average of 0.2 WAR a season. He posted lower than a 100 wRC+ — making him a below average hitter — in four of those last 10 seasons. Biggio got 12.3 WAR out of his last eight campaigns for an average of 1.5 per season. He only managed better than a 101 wRC+ three times in his last eight years and was only over 110 once. The other five years he was below the average at the plate.

Tim Raines accumulated 6 WAR in his last eight seasons, an average of 0.75 WAR a year. Gwynn aged more gracefully but still only put up just one WAR per season over his final four.

Walker, in his final six seasons accumulated 23.1 WAR, averaging 3.85 a season. In the first year of his career, a 20-game cup-of-coffee in 1989, Walker's wRC+ was a paltry 34. The next year it was 109. He never posted anything lower than 110 for the rest of his baseball life, including 135 wRC+ in his final year in baseball.

Griffey, Biggio, Dawson, and Raines weren't really helping their teams in their final seasons, but they were helping themselves. That just wasn't the case with Walker.

It wouldn't have been better for his team, so it was an unlikely thing for him to do, but Walker could have solidified his Hall of Fame case by simply hanging around the game for even a few more years after he hung 'em up, especially considering how productive he was right through the end of his time in the game.

If relief-pitching, designated hitting, and hanging on well past your prime to the detriment of your team need to be understood in context, then so do the 1,988 games that Walker did play in and the totality of the value he added during those games, right down to the end of his career.

2. Coors Field/Home-road splits

Speaking of context, were Walker's awesome on-base numbers greatly aided by playing so many games at Coors Field? Yes, they were. Luckily, we have stats like wRC+ and WAR which account for these things that, as we have already discussed, work out in Walker's favor.

Pointing to his raw batting average or on-base percentage is misleading due to the offensive mecca in Colorado, but throwing up your hands and deciding those numbers are  worth completely ignoring is far more misleading, especially if you aren't willing to look at advanced metrics. Essentially disqualifying Walker from consideration because of his home ballpark without looking deeper into the facts is intellectually lazy at best and hypocritical at worst.

As research and understanding improve, the overwhelming evidence has been revealed that the Coors Field Hangover is a real thing. Matt Gross' meticulous findings show that every Rockies hitter faces a disadvantage on the road that no other team's players must navigate to anywhere near the same degree. Further investigation (found in the comments of that article) suggests that wRC+ actually underestimates Rockies players at about a 2.6 percent clip by not accounting for this phenomenon.

Peter Gammons found the same thing in simpler terms, additionally noting the unique physical challenges of playing at altitude:

At this point, do we undervalue Walker because of his inflated Denver numbers? And fail to appreciate how hard it is to play what essentially is two different games, half at an elevation that makes recovery so difficult?

Do we truly appreciate Helton and Tulowitzki?

My sense is that Larry Walker was a Hall of Fame player who, in the end, won't make it because he played at Coors Field; had he played in Baltimore he likely would have been a first ballot invitee to Cooperstown.

After all, Griffey Jr. posted a road slash line of .272/.355/.505 and got the highest percentage of votes in Hall of Fame history. Larry Walker hit .278/.370/.495 on the road while dealing with the Coors Field Hangover effect.

Gammons' comment on recovery also adds perspective to the first argument we discussed. Walker may have been better off playing somewhere other than Coors Field for his health, his road numbers, and his fame.

3. Was he famous?

Walker only played in five All-Star games in his career, which says nothing about his talent but does explain another reason he is being omitted from the Hall of Fame; not enough people knew how good he was relative to other eligible players. Perhaps voters didn't trust Coors Field, never-mind the drug-induced behemoths making a mockery of the record books.

It's fair to say that Walker never became a national icon in the game, though he is one in Colorado. It's also an odd kind of double jeopardy to say that because he was underrated during his career and was overshadowed by cheaters, Walker should continue to be underrated and overshadowed when it comes to Hall of Fame voting.

4. The Steroid Era

We can't completely trust Walker's raw numbers, but why are they given a less nuanced look than those of steroid users? To the best of our knowledge, Coors Field has always been legal (unless you ask certain broadcasters around the San Francisco Giants, right?). This is where the hypocrisy of the "home park" argument against Walker is revealed.

Joel Sherman, who was broadcasting on MLB Network before and during the Hall of Fame announcement yesterday, said that he strongly suspects Piazza of steroid use, but voted for him anyway. The panel placed Piazza in "the rumor category," as opposed to McGwire who admitted PED use and issued a full mea culpa. The greatest hitting catcher of all time is also separate from guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who have been named in reports and subject to legal proceedings.

Piazza'a induction combined with Bonds and Clemens inching closer — not to mention well outpacing Walker to begin with — makes concrete the notion that untrustworthy numbers are still admissible. We just have to understand them in context, like Bonds' pre-1998 career.

This is profoundly fascinating because Piazza, if we take his numbers at face value, was almost the exact same player as Walker. Seriously, go look at that chart again and it is impossible to conclude anything other than if you vote for Piazza and suspect him of using but you don't vote for Walker, you believe Coors Field is more of an unfair advantage than steroids.

"Once those guys get in, then the wall falls down," MLB Network's Ken Rosenthal said of all the suspected players, meaning that we will just have to bite the bullet and get used to cheaters being in the Hall of Fame.

"We know there are certain eras," continued Sherman, "We have to come to peace with this era."

Once they are putting players in who we know cheated, how can they justify continuing to hold Walker's home park against the right fielder? At that point, are they not actively punishing him for doing the right thing?

Troy Renck again:

If your child was in a class where 25 of the 45 kids cheated and your child didn't, would you believe in rewarding those who bent the rules? Your child gets a B; those 25 get A's, and you are OK with that?

When Mark McGwire admitted his use prior to returning to the big leagues as a coach, he admitted he was never going to get into the Hall of Fame because of his actions. And if everyone was doing it, thus a non-issue, where are all of the players speaking out on behalf of steroid users? Why aren't they voicing their opinion?

I believe it's because they know it was wrong.

The general consensus seems to be that McGwire's numbers are Hall-worthy, but not if they were steroid-induced. His "juiced" up WAR is still two points shy of Colorado's former outfield captain. It takes time and effort to understand Walker's case, but maybe the silver-lining to steroid users entering the Hall is after the wall falls down, as Rosenthal said, that nuanced understanding can be focused on another player who really deserves it.

Just because it was common doesn't mean everyone was doing it, though, and pretending like everyone was equally guilty makes villains of heroes. For the record, here is what Walker told Sports Illustrated in 2013 regarding his place in the era:

"Somebody said on the TV that we're all to blame for the fact that we saw PED use going on and nobody said anything. But you didn't see it. If there were teammates of mine doing it, they didn't sit in the middle of the clubhouse and shove a needle in their butt. Maybe they showed up to spring training bigger and stronger -- I witnessed that but at the time I never put two and two together. I'd just think, 'Holy God, you worked your butt off this winter.'

To say that we're all to blame because we didn't go rat one of our teammates? A, I don't recall seeing them doing it. It didn't happen that they would do it right in front of everybody. B, if you are getting called guilty for not saying something, well, otherwise you end up being a Jose Canseco, which a lot of players don't like because he ratted his peers, his teammates, his friends.

Ask anybody who looks at me -- if there was a needle going in my butt, it had pancake batter in it, not steroids. People will always say, "Oh, you played then." Even 20 years from now, it's going to be that way for all of us from that era."

To his credit, Sherman went on to rightfully admit that the hardest part about voting for users was leaving off players who probably didn't take drugs to enhance their performance, specifically citing Mike Mussina. Walker, the 10th best right fielder of all time according to JAWS and 11th according to WAR, belongs in that conversation as well.

And let us please dispense with the foolish notion that steroids didn't change the game just because some guys who took them still failed. The absurd home run totals from the 90s that vanished into thin air after testing was implemented tell the real story. McGwire had a far more nefarious and intense advantage from PEDs than Walker did from Coors Field and the park-adjusted stats that undersell him still suggest Walker, and his needle full of pancake batter, was the better player.

★ ★ ★

When you put it all together, the case against Walker suggests that he would have been better off playing just half of the game as a designated hitter, or playing in a pitchers park, or playing in a bigger market, or hanging on for a few extra seasons at a below average level, costing his team but accumulating a few more counting stats for himself, or, hell, maybe even playing while using steroids.

But none of it has anything to do with how good he was at baseball.

If we can't use his rate stats because of Coors Field, and we can't use advanced stats because math is icky, and we can't consider counting stats beyond arbitrary endpoints, and we can't recognize that he was a clean player besting the careers of dirty players -- staying elite in an otherwise-tainted era, and we can't count defense or base-running or the fact that he played more baseball than Piazza, Martinez, or Hoffman while having better splits than Griffey ... what is it going to take to get any member of the Colorado Rockies into the Hall of Fame? Superpowers?

In order to exclude Walker, you have to put him in a category entirely of his own, and then still do no research on that category.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement that Griffey Jr. had missed a unanimous election by three votes, the Internet began swirling with rumors that this was to keep such an honor for Derek Jeter in a few years. Jeter, like almost everyone we have discussed today, was worse than Walker in every way except hanging on for a few more years. The key lies in Walker's lack of fame. If he played in New York, enough voters would know everything laid out in this article and he would already be enshrined in Cooperstown.

We can point out statistics and logical inconsistencies all day, but the only way there will be change is if the masses rise up and demand the BBWAA electorate better educate themselves. And if they ever do, they will see that even though his case for the Hall of Fame is complicated, Larry Walker's credentials are as clear as blue Colorado skies.