Dozens of characteristics distinguish Hall of Famers from the rest of the major league population, from great players to those just good enough to make the majors. An under-appreciated one is that Hall of Famers get to be different. No LOOGY is in the Hall of Fame because that class of player is defined by assimilation into a mass of other, indistinguishable, players. The same goes for players who receive even more generic descriptions—your “power hitters” and “slick fielders” and “corner outfield guys.” Hall of Fame talents get to be defined by their own résumés of true distinction.
Comparing these bodies of work isn’t going to provide amazing insight. Instead, it just illuminates the Hall of Fame-ness of the players in question. This is article includes three deserving Hall of Famers—Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson, and Vladimir Guerrero—who act as foils for a fourth deserving Hall of Famer, Larry Walker.
It’s extremely easy to see why Winfield is in the Hall of Fame, but it’s hard to understand why he was voted in on his first try and Walker risks falling off the ballot soon. First, Winfield had a run of 12 consecutive All-Star seasons. That’s more than double Walker’s five appearances in the All-Star game, and it’s something every voter would take notice of. This suggests that Winfield had an incredible peak from his mid-20s to his mid-30s.
But three of Winfield’s All-Star seasons were more average than anything else—seasons in which his Baseball Reference WAR was 2.4 (1981), 2.5 (1983), and 1.8 (1987). His 1981 appearance was on the strength of a great first half, and his average WAR is a result of a second half slump. But in 1983, Winfield got a spot in the All-Star game after hitting .245/.314/.450. In that season, he only made it to 2.5 WAR because of an excellent second half. In 1987, Winfield’s worst All-Star season, he was decidedly average in both halves of the season.
It may be necessary for Hall of Fame voters to avoid using All-Star selections as short-hands for great seasons. The context that determines an appearance is small. An All-Star appearance is a half-season recognition that can come to pass due to weakness of the competition, or that can be unrealized due to a crowded field. In 2002, Walker hit .362/.453/.671 in the first half and did not make the All-Star team. He had a “worse” second half and finished the season with 6.1 WAR and a 151 OPS+. It was a season better than at least eight of Winfield’s 12 All-Star years.
Something else significant separates Winfield from Walker. Winfield had 950 more hits than Walker, and Winfield totaled more than 3,000 for his career. He hit that magic number, which all but guaranteed him easy entrance into the Hall of Fame. Winfield got there by playing five more seasons than Walker, as he retired after his age-43 season in 1995. Winfield got to 3,000 on the strength of longevity.
We can go on to talk about how each player won seven Gold Glove awards, but that Walker was the only one to win an MVP, as well as how Walker led his league in an offensive category 12 times, whereas Winfield did so three times. But that would just belabor the point that they both had Hall of Fame careers, they just went about them differently.
The two major things about Jackson’s career that separate and elevate him above walker are the number of home runs he hit and his postseason excellence. Jackson hit 563 home runs, far and away more than Walker’s 383. Jackson had more than 500 home runs at a time when that meant automatic selection to the Hall of Fame. When he retired, he had the seventh most home runs in baseball history. Jackson was also part of five World Series winning teams. He hit .357/.457/.755 with 10 home runs in 116 World Series plate appearances, earning him the “Mr. October” moniker. Jackson was voted in to the Hall of Fame on his first try in 1980.
Those are pretty substantial accomplishments that separate Jackson from Walker. The two players a lot alike otherwise though. Each player won an MVP once, though Jackson finished in the top 10 of the vote six other times, while Walker had three other top 10 finishes in addition to his win. Walker played in an era and ballpark with higher offensive numbers, so we can’t take Walker’s dramatically better triple slash (.313/.400/.565 compared to .262/.356/.490) line as evidence that Walker was a better hitter. But we can use metrics that adjust for hitting environment and ballpark, like OPS+, to get a better read.
Walker’s career 141 OPS+ was essentially identical to Jackson’s 139. No, Larry Walker wasn’t a better hitter than Reggie Jackson; similarly though, Reggie Jackson wasn’t a better hitter than Larry Walker.
Longevity, as well as missed playing time due to injury, is what really distinguishes Walker from Jackson—same as Winfield. Jackson had 3,338 more plate appearances than Walker in his career. Even with all those extra plate appearances, and even with adjusting for era and ballpark, Jackson and Walker come out about even when it comes to the all encompassing measure of value, WAR. Jackson’s 73.8 WAR is, like OPS+, essentially identical to Walker’s 72.6. That Walker did it in less playing time should be viewed as even more impressive, even if the losing time on the field kept him far away from the magic numbers.
Winfield and Jackson both cruised in to the Hall of Fame on their first ballot. Guerrero is well positioned to gain entry in his second try. But while Winfield and Jackson are distinct from Walker in that they passed standard thresholds during their 20+ year careers, Guerrero didn’t. In fact, Guerrero’s career looks an awful lot like Walker’s in almost every way.
Their slash lines mirror one another: .318/.379/.553 for Guerrero, .313/.400/.565 for Walker. Walker and Guerrero overlapped for nine seasons, so there’s no need to adjust for era. But like we did with Jackson, it is necessary to make an adjustment for home ballpark. And just like we saw with Jackson, Walker and Guerrero have identical OPS+ figures: 141 to 140.
What makes the Guerrero/Walker comparison even more useful than the others is that Guerrero didn’t hang on into his 40s like Winfield and Jackson. Guerrero had 9,059 plate appearances over 2,147 games and 16 individual seasons. Walker had 8,030 plate appearances over 1,988 games across 17 seasons of play. Measured by games, Guerrero had one more season than Walker; measured by plate appearances, it comes out to about a season and a half. That allowed Guerrero to register 430 more hits and 67 more home runs than Walker, though Guerrero broke neither the 3,000 hit nor the 500 home run mark.
What makes Guerrero’s wild leap ahead of Walker in the Hall of Fame voting even more confusing is that, like Walker, Guerrero has his own “elephant in the room.” For Walker, it’s missed time due to injury; for Guerrero, it’s 508 games at DH. That’s more than three seasons’ worth of play where Guerrero didn’t add any defensive value. Walker, on the other hand, didn’t just play defense, he played an exceptional right field. Walker finished his career with 97 Fielding Runs Above Average, whereas Guerrero wrapped up his career with 43.
Guerrero may have had a small edge over Walker on offense, but Walker had a bigger one over Guerrero when it came to defense. Ultimately, it’s extremely hard to see how one of these players is a Hall of Famer but not the other.
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It’s ironic that the aspect of Walker’s résumé that’s truly distinguishing is also the thing that’s keeping him out. He was a Hall of Fame talent with a Hall of Fame career who simply didn’t play as many games as other deserving players. He was a better overall hitter than Winfield. He produced the same overall value as Jackson, but he did it in about five fewer seasons. He had a career resoundingly similar to Guerrero, except he played more defense, and did so quite well.
Each player here had a distinguished career deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame. There’s just one difference.