Larry Walker won the National League MVP award in 1997. In an offense-inflated era, playing in pre-humidor Coors Field, Walker was still such a great all-around player that BBWAA voters selected him for the honor on a Rockies team that finished in third place in the NL West.
Central to Walker’s case to be in the Hall of Fame is the fact that he performed every aspect of the game at an elite level. His incredible all-around talent was on display his entire career, but never more so than in 1997.
Walker was the walking embodiment of a five-tool player: the abilities to hit for power and average were obvious, the fielding glove and throwing arm were mostly obvious, and Walker paired enough speed with even more know-how to be an elite baserunner.
These skills came together and earned Walker the recognition he deserved after the 1997 season. That was partially the result of good health, as he played in a career-high 153 games that season. But it was mostly due to Walker consistently playing dominant two-way baseball.
Here’s where we talk about the absurd numbers, and boy howdy are they something to behold. Walker slashed .366/.452/.720 with 49 home runs and 130 RBI. That triple slash line is absurd regardless of where he played his home games, but if you need a park-adjusted chaser, you find an equally ridiculous 178 OPS+. He stole 33 bases and won a Gold Glove award. Put it all together and Walker was good for a 9.8 WAR season, leading all position players across the big leagues.
None of this is as much fun without a grainy highlight video, so let’s relive just a little bit of the glory with this clip of him hitting three home runs in a return to Montreal:
Walker’s defense was on par with his offense. His 12 outfield assists ranked fourth in all of baseball, never mind the impact his arm had on games in terms of holding runners who knew of his strong arm. He committed only two errors, good for a .992 fielding percentage. All told his work in the field was good for 10 runs on defense, according to Baseball Reference’s “Runs from Fielding” metric.
So why wasn’t Walker punished in the postseason award voting the way other Rockies hitters have been? Maybe his gaudy numbers didn’t stand out in quite the same way because of the era. For example, Walker’s 178 OPS+ was actually the third best mark in all of baseball that season, behind Mike Piazza (185 OPS+) and Frank Thomas (181 OPS+). Walker’s 49 home runs led the National League but ranked behind Mark McGwire (58) and Ken Griffey, Jr. (56) for the most in all of baseball.
Does it make sense that Walker wasn’t punished for something, Coors Field, in the moment that he’s been punished for later in Hall of Fame voting? Not exactly, because that’s probably not what happened. For one thing, Walker actually hit for more power on the road in 1997, hitting 29 home runs away from home versus 20 at Coors.
His home slash line (.384/.460/.709) was still crazy and showed the on-base advantages of that vast Colorado outfield when compared to his also-great road slash line (.346/.443/.733). The point is, he was equally great wherever he played and the voters rewarded him for that. Unfortunately that is something that has seemingly changed with a stricter Coors bias for awards voters in the seasons since (see Arenado, Nolan, 2017).
Larry Walker’s MVP season matters to his Hall of Fame case because it is part of a larger argument on his behalf. Jay Jaffe notes in his Cooperstown Casebook that Walker’s 44.6 peak WAR (his best seven seasons) would place him 11th among current right field enshrinees, ahead of 15 players with plaques in Cooperstown. 1997 was the best of those peak seasons and the one that truly embodied Walker as a worthy Hall of Famer.
We all know the visuals of Walker that season. The beautiful uppercut swing. The lasers from right field. The extra bases taken. The red bats. The glorious mullet. At least for that season, the best position player in baseball. It felt like it then, and it feels like it now: Larry Walker’s 1997 should be part of a career recognized in the Hall of Fame.