Larry Walker isn’t going to be voted into the Hall of Fame this year. In fact, he’s unlikely to be voted in over the next four rounds of votes, which will exhaust his eligibility before he begins to appear on Veteran’s Committee ballots sometime after 2020. The question this year isn’t whether or not Walker is deserving (he is). Instead, it’s about how he compares to another right fielder who will appear on the ballot for the first time this year, Vladimir Guerrero.
Guerrero is the most comparable right fielder to appear on the ballot alongside Walker during his six years of eligibility. Their career statistics stack up remarkably well. First, their rate stats mirror one another. Guerrero posted a career slash line of .318/.379/.553, while Walker posted a .313/.400/.565 line. Walker was better at drawing walks than Guerrero, which accounts for his better on base percentage. Walker and Guerrero have essentially the same adjusted batting line as well: Walker’s career OPS+ is 141, Guerrerro’s is 140. Guerrero had a touch more power, as he hit a home run about once every 20.9 plate appearances compared to Walker’s 20.1 rate.
Walker is behind Guerrero in counting stats, primarily due to playing a bit less. Guerrero cracked the 2,500 hit barrier and finished his career with 2,590, whereas Walker wrapped up his career with 2,160 hits. Guerrero knocked 449 home runs, and Walker hit 383. One of the most oft-cited reasons that Walker is left off of ballots is that he wasn’t durable enough; however, in Walker’s 17-year career, he played in just 159 fewer games and accrued 1,029 fewer plate appearances as Guerrero did in his 16-year career. That’s the equivalent of about a season and a half less playing time.
While rate stats put Walker and Guerrero on the same plane and counting stats give Guerrero the edge, Walker has the advantage when it comes to advanced metrics. In particular, Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, which uses Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) model to compare eligible players to enshrined Hall of Famers at the same position, likes Walker much more.
Walker’s 58.6 JAWS score places him just ahead of the 58.1 average score of the 19 Hall of Fame right fielders. Guerrero lags behind with a score of 50.2. This difference is found in Walker’s 72.6 rWAR, which is much more than Guerrero’s 59.3 rWAR. The difference in career OBP probably plays a small role in that big WAR difference, but the most substantial thing that separates Walker and Guerrero is defense. Both had cannons for arms, but Walker was more well rounded in right field. Walker was also an excellent base runner, so he was more well rounded in general.
Taken together, both players look like worthy additions to the Hall of Fame, but Walker does appear to have a better case. That’s not to say that Guerrero won’t get in before Walker. As always, context and voter capriciousness play a role in how things will shake out, and that’s what makes discussing the Hall of Fame so much fun.
Walker has had an up and down vote history that makes him a long shot to make it to the Hall of Fame before he falls off the BBWAA ballot. He had a strong debut in 2011, when he landed on 20.3 percent of ballots, the tenth highest that year. That year, Roberto Alomar made it in his second year of eligibility and Bert Blyleven received enough votes for induction in his fourteenth on that ballot.
Seven other players received more votes than Walker: Barry Larkin, who cracked the necessary 75 percent the following year; Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, who both have excellent shots to finally be inducted this year; Jack Morris and Alan Trammel, who have since fallen off the ballot; Lee Smith, who looks like he will fall off the ballot after this round; and Edgar Martínez, who remains in a similar limbo as Walker.
Walker had a strong debut, but context has since worked against him. He gained more votes during his next two years of eligibility, but not much. He received 22.9 percent in 2012 and dipped a bit to 21.6 percent in 2013. These years, notably, are when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, and other steroid era players debuted. The combination of a crowded ballot and voter sanctimony in the form of protest ballots led to stagnation not just for Walker, but for the Hall of Fame in general. Nobody made it in 2013, and the ballot of worthy players swelled.
The following year saw additional crowding from the steroid era, when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas debuted and each made it in on their first try. It was then that Walker’s vote was cut in half to 10.2 percent. To make things worse, prior to this vote, the Hall of Fame reduced ballot eligibility from 15 years to 10, severely limiting Walker’s likelihood of induction. He risked falling off of the ballot altogether in 2015, but he actually saw his vote total rise a touch to 11.8 percent. Part of that might have to do with changes to the voting electorate. The remaining voters appear to be less likely to penalize players for playing during the steroid era or, in Walker’s case, at altitude. (Fewer Antiquarian voters and more Critical voters benefits Walker.) In 2016, Walker’s vote rose again to 15.5 percent.
Since then, the ballot has thinned, and this year there aren’t any slam dunk first timers to suck up limited votes. (One rule that has gone unchanged is that voters cannot vote for more than 10 players.) For Walker, that might mean he’ll climb to about 20 percent of the vote, which is where he started six years ago.
Guerrero is entering the ballot in a different context. It doesn’t look like he’ll have to suffer through too much protest voting, which means a good debut could lead to upward momentum. Walker was robbed of that and instead was put on a roller coaster ride Guerrero is unlikely to experience.
In a perfect world, both of the two former Expos right fielders would enter the Hall of Fame, perhaps at the same time. We don’t live in that world. I do think that both will make it eventually, but Guerrero will be first and enter by vote, while Walker awaits the Veteran’s Committee. It’s not perfect, but nothing is.